Worst Buy

What is it they say? Fool me twice, shame on me!
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Posted October 5, 2017

The annual VMSD/Peter Glen Retailer of the Year award, which Amazon won last month, made me think about Peter for the first time in a while.

Peter was a remarkable showman and an insightful observer. He loved good store design, and deplored sameness, imitation and lack of imagination. But one of his strongest themes was the essential, critical imperative of customer service, whether it was a retailer’s policy or the individual initiative of a salesperson on the floor. (He often expressed admiration for a specific Macy’s clerk in his local California store. I never knew if she were a real person or someone Peter made up to prove his point.)

What would Peter think about an online retailer winning an award from what has, for more than a century, been a bricks-and-mortar magazine? I think he’d approve, based on his values. Amazon has evolved to the point where it understands and respects customer service, in the dependability of its deliveries, the amount of information it provides on each piece of merchandise, the follow-up asking about your satisfaction, the product reviews, the sharing of opinions among its millions of consumers. Those early days, when the emerging e-tailer depended almost entirely on its low prices – and accurate, on-time delivery was a sometimes thing – have vanished.

Back when I was bestowing the Peter Glen award, Best Buy won it once. I suppose its intense in-store signage of complicated product information and its personal help and service policies for technical merchandise were exemplary. There was a reason why it was the last man standing as the other consumer electronics retailers all logged out.

But it’s a different world now, one often based on somewhat impersonal customer interaction, and the only way to demonstrate service is with exacting follow-through and attention to detail. Best Buy would not win the award today, certainly not if my vote meant anything anymore.

Last Christmas, I had a horrendous experience with Best Buy and vowed never to deal with them again. I was lied to. Calls were not returned. My interests were ignored, brushed aside, dismissed.

Best Buy? Never again! But you know what they say about saying “never.”

In July, here came Best Buy, flicking its tongue at me again. (Even the snake in the Garden of Eden had only one shot.) The TV deals they offered were hard to resist. I ended up choosing one of their “open box” specials, meaning it had already been purchased and returned – but it was certified by Geek Squad as being every bit as high-quality as a brand new one.

It came right on time. I put Saturday aside to set it up. (Season seven of “Game of Thrones” was starting the following evening.) I pulled everything out of the box, and there were, A, no manual or set-up instructions; and B, no screws to attach the stand to the bottom of the set.

Best Buy customer “service” told me that the manufacturer is famous for not including screws in its shipments – oh, well, caveat emptor in that case. Best Buy itself does not carry screws or other hardware, “but if you took the stand to a hardware store, I’m sure they’d be able to sell you the screws you need.” Or I could call the manufacturer’s 24/7 parts distributor in my area. So I called – and was told they weren’t open until Monday. What does “24/7” mean, exactly?

In this e-commerce kingdom, retail brands have to reintroduce themselves and re-identify their strengths. Best Buy had once worked hard to develop this reputation for consumer electronic excellence – great products, great stores, knowledge, service, sophistication.

Now, though, “excellence” was just an inconvenient word in the dictionary. As far as they were concerned, it was all up to me to resolve their mistake. No screws? Screw you!

So I hauled my TV back to the store to return it, arriving 10 or 15 minutes before the store was going to open. I saw one of the blue shirts approaching the front door for the start of his workday – you know, those blue shirts who are “here to help – committed to your satisfaction” – and asked him if he could retrieve a shopping basket from inside the store for me, so I could carry my TV from the car once the store opened.

“Hey, man, forget it!” he told me, that commitment to my satisfaction just radiating from his scowling eyes. “I’m not on the clock yet.”

What do you think, Peter?

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.