by Jerry Jackson and Kevin O’Brien
As a follow up to our wonderful mall shopping experience our undercover shopping team visited a pair of local big box stores (Best Buy and Circuit City) to see what these stores have to offer notebook shoppers. We compared both their online and retail stores in terms of product selection and display, sales and service, and in-store notebook repairs and upgrades.
We selected a pair of Best Buy and Circuit City stores in Mason, Ohio for our undercover shopping experience because both stores are literally located across the street from one another … making them prime targets for consumers looking for the best deal on notebooks. While we believe these stores to be representative of most Circuit City and Best Buy stores in the United States, it’s worth mentioning that store layouts, sales experiences, and service will vary from one store to the next.
Shoppers can immediately expect one thing upon entering the notebook computer area of the sales floor … service before you even walk up to the first laptop. Our undercover shopping team experienced incredibly fast response from the Circuit City sales team. Unfortuantely, this is somewhat of a necessity for the salespeople because Circuit City chose to install proprietary software on all the notebooks … preventing shoppers from playing with the machines or getting a feel for real-world performance. That said, the salespeople at the Circuit City were more than helpful, directing us to a laptop with dedicated graphics when we mentioned gaming.
Of course, the sales team in any "brick and mortar" store is going to be somewhat limited by the inventory on hand. Although we indicated that we were interested in a 14" or 15" notebook, one of the salesmen directed us to a 17" model when we said "gaming" … but this is likely because the only notebook in the store with dedicated graphics was the larger 17" laptop. To be fair, selection at the store we visited was limited at the time because the back-to-school rush had wiped them out.
We noticed an even larger selection of notebooks on the Circuit City website before our visits to the store, and the in-store sales staff mentioned the availability of several models online that were not in the store. On salesperson even offered to search other local Circuit City locations for a specific notebook that was not in stock at the store we visited.
Satisfied with the sales experience, we began testing in-store service. When we asked about getting rid of bloatware on our new notebook, the sales staff was quick to recommend a $30 in-store service from Circuit City’s "firedog" service department … which uninstalls all bloatware and provides you with a clean setup. For those customers needing a more in-depth cleaning of their notebook, Circuit City’s firedog service department offers a $130 "pc tune-up" which includes:
- Identifying and removing spyware
- Running a standard virus scan
- Clearing out Temporary files
- Clearing out Start-up files
- Configuring Windows updates
- Updating anti-spyware and anti-virus definitions and software
- PC optimization
The firedog service desk is a somewhat recent addition to Circuit City stores. The firedog service technicians offer in-store or at-home services ranging from standard pc service and repair, home theater installation and setup, and something they call "integrated services" which covers everything from setting up your new MP3 player to training you how to use your digital camera.
Unfortuantely, our service experience at the firedog desk was somewhat mixed. One of our undercover shoppers spent five minutes waiting for someone at the firedog service desk to help while four technicians in firedog uniforms stood behind the desk having a personal coversation that was unrelated to work. When technicians finally provided assistance we asked if they could install the 64-bit version of Windows Vista Ultimate on a new notebook. The technicians were completely unfamiliar with that version of the operating system and had to search for information on the Microsoft website while we spoke to them. To be fair, most consumers are focused on the 32-bit versions of Vista, but we were concerned by the fact we knew more about Windows Vista than the trained service technicians in the store.
Hardware installation and upgrades proved to be a much more positive experience. Hard drive and RAM upgrades are performed in-store for $30 (for RAM) and $40 (for hard drive) not including the cost of the hard drive or RAM. The technicians we spoke with indicated that most new hardware installations would be completed the same business day unless there is a need for additional services.
As nice as the selection of notebooks was at Circuit City, the laptop selection at Best Buy was amazing. The entire laptop section was brightly lit and open with plenty of room in the aisles. Although the Best Buy website featured an even larger selection of notebooks, most of the notebooks available online were available in the store. That said, there was limited laptop model information or specifications on display. Just like at Circuit City, software installed on the notebooks prevented shoppers from playing with the machines.
Despite the nice layout, our sales experience was a completely different story. Our undercover shoppers got absolutely no help from any of the sales team. There were plenty of reps walking around, but no one approached any of our shoppers the entire time in the notebook section. This was more than a little odd since the Best Buy sales people were quick to approach us when we visited other sections of the store like the phone or gaming console areas.
On another visit we went and found a salesperson and asked them for assistance in the notebook section. The sales team seemed to have a reasonable amount of knowledge about the notebooks on display, though they did get some of the specifications confused between similar models. What was more interesting was the fact that not all of the in-store prices matched the current deals found on the Best Buy website. Many of our readers may have heard reports that Best Buy was caught posting different prices online than prices posted in their stores … and that in-store sales reps use a Best Buy intranet site designed to mimic their official website but that lists higher prices than those listed on the store’s public website. This fact alone may be enough to recommend that shoppers should buy online rather than visit the "brick and mortar" store if you are looking for the lowest price.
As for in-store service, the Geek Squad service desk has become a common sight at Best Buy stores around the country. The familiar Geek Squad uniform of a short-sleeve white dress shirt, black pants, black tie, and pocket protector have likewise become so much a part of our national pop culture that a parody of the Geek Squad (called the Nerd Herd) can be seen each week on a new television series (Chuck). More to the point, consumers have a very clear expectation in their minds about the level of service and support they’ll get at the Geek Squad service desk.
We were therefore rather surprised to find the Geek Squad technicians acted as much like sales staff as the actual Best Buy sales team. We asked the Geek Squad an identical set of questions as we did at Circuit City, indicating that we wanted to upgrade to the 64-bit version of Vista, install a total of 4GB of RAM and upgrade the hard drive in our new notebook. The Geek Squad technicians were all very familiar with the 64-bit versions of Vista, even indicating that the Windows installation alone may take more than one day because of hardware compatibility issues with 64-bit drivers (correct). However, we were shocked to hear that the Windows installation alone would take more than one week! If that weren’t bad enough, we were told the installation of 64-bit Vista, RAM upgrade and hard drive upgrade might take two or more weeks. Do most consumers want to be without their computer for that long?
What shocked us even more was the fact that when we mentioned that we wanted to upgrade our newly purchased notebook for Photoshop use the Geek Squad recommended that we purchase a new desktop computer instead of upgrading the notebook. Even more surprising, they suggested that we forget about a Windows-based computer completely and purchase a new Apple iMac desktop computer from Best Buy.
That’s worth repeating. We went to the service desk indicating we wanted to upgrade our brand new HP notebook computer purchased from Best Buy and we were told to buy an Apple desktop. When did the Geek Squad service desk turn into the Apple Store?
Both of the major competing "big box" stores offer similar store layouts, sales knowledge and services that shoppers may find useful as the holiday buying season gets closer and closer. The ability to speak with actual human beings about your computer needs and get on-site assistance when you require computer repair or upgrades is something you just can’t get from an online shopping experience. That said, shoppers willing to do a little research on their own and willing to shop for the best prices online are likely to find much, much lower prices from online stores. In some cases additional models or lower prices can even be found on the Circuit City or Best Buy websites compared to the models and prices listed in the stores.
Bottom line, both Best Buy and Circuit City offer notebook buyers plenty in terms of sales and service … but you can probably do better going the "self service" route of shopping online.