December 1, 2014 Last Updated 5:37 pm

A Cyber Monday story: how Best Buy prevents you from stealing the remote control

An attempt to buy a new receiver proves unsuccessful, as Best Buy once again shows how it is a failure at competitive retailing

My opinion of Best Buy has never been very positive. As a Mac user, Best Buy has always been the source of the most outrageous things said by a sales associate. But today I once again found myself inside a Best Buy, and once again I walked out empty handed.

For those unfamiliar with the chain (50% of TNM are from outside the U.S.), Best Buy operates over a thousand large retail stores, and another 400+ smaller Best Buy Mobile stores in the U.S.. It also has some stores in Canada and a few in Mexico. It once entered the European market, but my guess is that Europeans would not deal with the Best Buy model.

Denon-BBWhat is the Best Buy model? I’ve never been able to quite figure that one out. When I first walked into a Best Buy for the first time many years ago I was impressed by the size of the store, the amount of merchandise, but little else. I couldn’t quite figure out why it was called Best Buy as its prices seemed about the same as everyone else’s. But it clearly was doing something right as it drove out of business many of its competitors… or else times just changed and they are among the last of the big electronics stores left.

When Best Buy first started selling Macs, the Best Buy stories started hitting the web in force. My own experience was standing next to a couple who were looking to buy a Mac and listening to the sales person sell them out of the idea.

“Macs can’t run Office and few printers will work with a Mac,” the Best Buy staffer told the couple. “There is not much software written for the Mac, either.” I corrected the misinformation, but by that time the customers were pretty sure they were not going to buy a Mac, at least not at Best Buy.

Over the years I heard other whoppers from Best Buy staffers: Macs don’t have USB ports; or Macs can’t access the Internet (I found that one especially funny since the Mac the customers were looking at had Safari open); and Macs can’t use those external speakers that PCs use because there is no audio-out on a Mac.

Today I am in the market for a new receiver as my current one is on its last legs. I’ve been eyeing a Denon model that is a bit pricey, but is discounted a little on Amazon.com. Being Cyber Monday, I checked the price again on Amazon.com and found it reduced a further $50. Since I had to go out to buy a few office supplies, I thought I’d check out the same model at Best Buy (which is located next to the other store). Sure enough Best Buy is selling the same Denon for the identical price as Amazon.com.

I could have just bought the receiver on Amazon.com and gotten free shipping. But I wanted to check out the remote control – and besides, if I really was going to buy it today I might as well install it today, right?

REMOTE-smBut things were never going to go well, I knew it. I walked into the empty Best Buy store and immediately made my way to the area were the receivers are. There it was, with its marked down price. I grabbed the unit to look for the remote. Where was it? Just then the sales person came over and gruffly (yes, gruffly) asked if he could help me?

“Where is the remote,” I asked.

“Oh, we don’t keep those out, people steal them,” he said.

“Why don’t you keep them in a drawer or cabinet then?” I asked.

“Then the sales staff would steal them,” I was told.

Not good. I then asked if they had the unit in stock since I didn’t see any boxes nearby of the model. “Sure,” the Best Buy sales person said. Then he told me to follow him to the register so he could check the stock. No, it turns out, they didn’t have any in stock.

I’d like to thank Best Buy for saving me some money today. And I’m sure Jeff Bezos would like to thank Best Buy for, again, driving business to Amazon.com.

Many tech observers say that physical retail stores are doomed due to their online competitors (Best Buy sales have been down ten quarters in a row**).

But this generalization doesn’t feel right to me. If a retail store provides good, intelligent service and stocks quality merchandise, I would think that it would be still attract customers. But if, when service is cut, when stock is not maintained, then price is the only differentiator and online retailers will win every time. Modern retailers, in other words, are playing right into the hands of online retailers.

My guess is that Hubert Joly, Best Buy’s president and CEO, has never shopped at a Best Buy because he told the NYT in 2012 that the way his company would win “is around the advice, convenience, service.” I’ve always seen the company as failing at all three, and today was no exception.

** I’ve been corrected by a Best Buy representative who points out that their just released earnings report shows a 2% gain in sales.

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