By now we’re all familiar with the retail buzzword “showrooming”, wherein consumers check out the latest and greatest products in retail, but then go online to find the best deals.  Brick and mortar stores have been trying various tactics to combat the trend, such as store-specific SKUs or price-matching deals.  Traditional retailers can view showrooming as a threat, or they can use it as an opportunity to expand their services and offer a better experience than their customers can find online.  There is no doubt that retail stores have the advantage when it comes to offering in-person customer service and instant gratification.  The question becomes whether or not they can leverage this opportunity to differentiate themselves quickly enough to avoid losing even more customers to online shopping.

While shopping for a new TV recently, I paid particular attention to how well the store was doing on things like displaying merchandise, offering attentive customer service and knowledgeable sales representatives, providing ease of purchase, and arranging convenient delivery.  These are all areas in which a retail store can excel but an online retailer cannot do as easily.

I picked Best Buy because they carried the two TV models I wanted to look at, they were offering great promotions on those TVs, and they have been in the news lately for their comments about showrooming.  (See also:  Best Buy CEO Calls Showrooming Troubles ‘A Myth’, Best Buy to Display Competitor Pricing In Stores to Combat Showrooming, Best Buy Expands In-Store Training to Counter Showrooming.)

So how did they do?  Well…if this is how Best Buy is differentiating itself, I’m not holding out much hope for the future of the chain or other brick & mortar retail stores who can’t get it together.  Keep reading for my tale of retail letdowns.

I’m an analyst by trade so it’s my job to pay attention to product specs, new technologies, weekly ads, and so on.  I went into the store armed with knowledge, with my eye on two different models, prepared to talk about the nitty gritty with a knowledgeable salesperson.

When I arrived, I was not greeted by anyone.  In fact, I didn’t see a single staff member in the TV section.  It gave me time to browse, but after a while it got annoying.  Finally a blue shirt approached me, trying to sell me Cox cable service, but wasn’t able to answer my questions about TVs.  There I was, trying to spend my money, and I couldn’t get anyone to take it.  Attentive customer service?  Not here!

A man in a dress shirt and tie walked past and asked if I needed help.  His name tag identified him as a member of the Magnolia Store staff, but he was perfectly pleasant and willing to help me out on the main floor.  I told him the model TV I was interested in, and he directed me to the wall where it was displayed…behind a huge motorized scaffold.  I couldn’t even get close enough to see the specs tag so I’m glad that before I headed out to the store I did my research…online.  There are two of these scaffolds permanently rolling around the TV section of the store.  Not exactly an attractive way to display your $2,000 TVs, Best Buy.

The Magnolia representative definitely knew his TVs so I was relieved that he was helping me and I wasn’t stuck with the blue-shirt girl who materialized to help the poor couple nearby.  She sounded like she was reciting a primer on TVs, without any understanding of what she was saying.  If this was Best Buy’s attempt to provide a knowledgeable sales staff, it wasn’t very impressive.

After a few moments, my Magnolia rep started trying to upsell me to a similar, but slightly more expensive TV in the Magnolia store.  As it happened, this was the other TV model I had in mind so I happily followed him.  In the end though, it came down to price so I went with the less expensive TV from the main floor.  The Magnolia rep was happy to help me complete my purchase within the Magnolia store.  My hope for attentive customer service and ease of purchase was temporarily restored.

But then… when it came time to arrange the free shipping that Best Buy promises for TV purchases 46” and above, he balked.  “We don’t do that in here,” he said, referring to the Magnolia Store as a separate entity, “We can offer local delivery for $100.”  It was only after I explained that I was purchasing my TV from Best Buy in part because of this policy and that I would be happy to take my purchase out to the main floor that he offered to drop the TV off in his own truck after he got off his shift that night. That’s right: Best Buy’s customer service is so outstanding that its employees are willing to use their own vehicles and their own time to cart your purchases around town after hours.

Against my better judgment, I agreed to his proposal.  After all, the manager of the Magnolia Store was standing right there and he thought it was perfectly reasonable.  “Maybe that’s how they do it here,” I thought.  Besides, this way I would have the TV that night instead of waiting several days for the store to arrange a delivery.  I went home and cancelled my evening plans so I would be there when my TV arrived, “sometime after 9:00”.  At around 9:30, my Magnolia rep called and said that he was too busy to drop off the TV but that he would make arrangements to have it delivered.  I assumed that it would be delivered by Best Buy’s own delivery staff, thanked him, and waited for the delivery call.

I had to wait a week for my TV delivery.  I was eventually contacted by a representative from a third-party shipping company who informed me that they only made deliveries during four-hour windows in the morning or the afternoon, and that they would not deliver on evenings or weekends.  Essentially, I had to leave work in the middle of a meeting to run home and get my TV delivered by some random shipping company who had no incentive to make sure I was a satisfied customer.  The Magnolia rep never called to check on the delivery, or to make sure everything was handled smoothly.  By now, any notion I had of an improved customer service experience from Best Buy had already flown out the window.

The next time I was at Best Buy, I stopped an employee and asked about their free TV delivery.  He assured me that it was always handled by Best Buy’s own professional delivery team operating out of a warehouse in Irvine.  They drive Best Buy trucks, know how to handle sensitive electronic equipment, and can arrange delivery during the evening within 2-3 days of purchase.  My TV was dropped off by a random shipping company with a dolly a full week after I paid for it in the store.

Bottom line: did I get my TV?  Yes.

Was I happy with my shopping experience?  Not at all.  Retailers need to create a great shopping experience in order to encourage return customers and to increase selling potential by getting customers in the door in the first place.  So how did Best Buy measure up when it came to differentiating themselves?

Displaying Merchandise: FAIR – Two large scaffolds were positioned in front of the TV displays, but the rest of the TV area looked fine.

Attentive Customer Service: POOR – Could not find a single employee to help me, but someone did approach and try to sell me cable service.

Knowledgeable Sales Representatives: POOR – I overheard a member of the sales staff helping another customer and was not impressed with her level of product knowledge or her ability to answer questions.  The Magnolia representative helping me was clearly better trained.

Providing Ease of Purchase: FAIR to GOOD – The Magnolia rep was happy to help me complete my purchase.  I have not had the same luck finding help at Best Buy’s TV checkout counter on subsequent trips.

Arranging Convenient Delivery: POOR – I had to threaten to cancel the sale before I was given free delivery.  Delivery was not arranged in a timely manner, nor was it at my convenience.  Delivery was not provided by Best Buy employees, but by a third-party shipping company with no particular expertise in shipping large electronics.

I felt that Best Buy had many opportunities to convince me to remain a customer with this one transaction, but I will think twice before making a purchase with them again.  Multiply my experience by the thousands of people shopping there every day, and you can see why so many people engage in showrooming.  Perhaps combatting this problem lies not in hidden SKUs or price-matching, but in giving customers a reason to stay in the first place.