Ahead of the launch of the UK's first Best Buy branch, Pocket-lint was invited down for a preview of the store to see what gadgets shoppers can expect. Key to the consumer experience are the sale-staff themselves, known as Blueshirts because of their tasteful blue polo shirt and khaki trouser uniforms.
Each trainee is sent to Blueshirt Academy for 9 weeks prior to hitting the floor and the idea is that by the time they meet the customers, they're fully versed in their respective shop-floor fields. As it goes, employees have likely shown a keen interest in consumer technology to have got the job in the first place.
Blueshirts take no commission from sales. Instead they're there to help customers make the right decision for their needs. The idea is that they can handle the heavy geeks, who want stats and specs, while also being able to stop first timers from becoming overwhelmed.
So. We thought we'd better put these Blueshirts to the test. We picked five questions, most of which have answers on the Best Buy website, and challenged a randomly selected member of staff in five departments to give us the correct information. This is what they said.
Disclaimer - None of the Blueshirts pictured in the photos of this article were those tested on the spot in our study.
Q1: What is Full HD and why is it called that?
A: "Full HD is high definition television and it's called Full HD because it gives the maximum quality of picture that any TV could have. It's also called 1080p and that refers to the amount of pixel lines that run down the screen. Older TVs used to have 576 lines of pixels, but as we get into the new age now, we can get HD Ready which is 720p pixels and Full HD with 1080 pixels which is the best you can get".
Grade: Pass. One could nit pick but, essentially, a customer would get the right information here.
Q2: I sit 1.8m away from my TV. If I want to buy one that's 1080p, what's the right panel size for me?
A: "Anything from 37 inches upwards but 37 inches would be bang on for you".
Grade: Fail. The correct answer, according to Best Buy, is 46 inches and upwards. If you'd gone for a 37-inch, the picture would still look good but you could have got something grander and it'd still have been worth while.
Q3: What does the image processor of a TV do?
A: "The Image processor is what gives you the clarity and the smoothness. That's what brings out all the details and brightness. That gives you your main picture quality on the screen".
Grade: Pass. More detail might have been nice but there are clear references towards the effects of refresh rates, contrast and colour here. A customer would get the idea.
Q4: Name as many sources of HD content as you can in the UK
A: "There's Blu-ray, Virgin Media, Sky HD, MKV files from the Internet and that's about it".
Grade: Pass. Just. Would have been good to hear Freesat HD, Freeview HD and video games as well.
Q5: How does 3D in TVs work?
A: "There are four different types of 3D, but the main ones you'll see advertised are called active and passive. Passive consists of vertical and horizontal lines on each side of the glasses. What that does is when you stick you finger in front of your face and you close one eye and then the other, you can see that your finger shifts. What that does is that it crosses both pictures over to make the picture stand out. Active is when the glasses do all the work. It shows 50 frames a second in one eye and 50 frames a second in the other and it goes that fast that the eyes can't tell and it merges them together and gives you another 3D image".
Grade: Pass. Details of polarisation of light would probably just baffle most people, so actually, this simplified version does the job nicely.
Pass. The TV Blueshirt has done a good job here and, despite the odd discrepancy, you'd probably walk out with the right set for you here. He also took the time to point out what he considered to be good value and high-end sets - all of which we'd agree with. Good job.
Home Cinema Audio
Q1: Should I buy an all-in-one home cinema system?
A: "Yes and no, it depends on what type of experience you're looking for. If you're looking for a home cinema set up in a smaller room, then, yes, the HTIB - Home Theatre in a Box - will do the job. But, if you're looking for a grand experience, then we have something for that too. There's a big quality difference. Generally, the HTIBs are made for people who don't have a good idea in terms of sound and just want a minimal solution. If you want a good quality system with good quality sound then you go for separates and customise it to your liking.
Q2: What are the advantages and disadvantages of wired vs wireless systems?
A: "With wired speakers, you generally get a good definition of sound. Wireless speakers generally work on the 2.4GHz spectrum - some use different frequencies - but the sound quality isn't as good. You lose a lot of frequency sending the signal to the receiver, so you lose some sound, but there are some manufacturers like Yamaha and Sony that have made some really good wireless systems".
Grade: Pass. Nice and clear with good level of detail.
Q3: When buying an AVR, what technology logos should I be looking out for?
A: "The new format is Blu-ray, so if you're looking for a receiver for sound, then you want to look out for Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD Master Audio. That will give you the full potential of getting high definition audio. Alonside that, you might want to look out for how many HDMIs it has, how many processing filters, if it has a night mode so that you can watch a film in evening that still gives you a cinema sound effect, but at a lower level so you won't disturb the neighbours".
Grade: Pass. Again, good stuff.
Q4: What are surge protectors?
A: "They protect the equipment that you're plugging into. If there's lightening storms or surge from the grid or sometimes a transformer that's not working properly, it can send too much power to your equipment and ruin it if it's either on or in standby. Surge protectors stop that happening."
Q5: What are five good makes of home cinema kit if I have money to spend?
A: "Well, for receivers, there's Yamaha, Onkyo, Harman Kardon, Denon, Pioneer; those are the top ones and in terms of speakers, KEF are near enough the top brand, Q Acoustics are very good too. Plus there's also Yamaha and Pioneer, but KEF are the best at the moment for good high quality HD sound".
Pass. Flying colours. It turns out this Blueshirt was an absolute home cinema nut with an attic space that's been converted into a screening room. Enough said.
Q1: What are three killer features to look out for when choosing a DSLR body?
A: "Stuff like HD video modes, also looking at taking full control of camera unlike a compact camera where you'll be limited to what you can do. With a DSLR there's a bigger range of possibilities plus you can interchange lenses. There's a zoom lens, macro lens, they're just really, really good for anyone who wants to get into that sort of thing.
Grade: Fail. We were looking for full frame frame sensors, shooting speeds and viewfinder ranges as per the Best Buy site, but actually any features to distinguish a low-end DSLR body from a high-end one would have done. The Blueshirt started off okay with HD video modes but, really, pretty much all new DSLRs have that anyway. Ultimately, the question wasn't really answered even after looking to nudge them back on track.
Q2: What is a Micro Four Thirds camera and why might I want one?
A: "They're like a bridge between compacts and DSLR. You can use them as simple point and shoots but you can go into more depth. You can use aperture priority and shutter speed priority, so it's well worth investing in one if you're beginning to learn about your camera a little bit more".
Grade: Fail. Although the person demonstrated knowledge of what a Micro Four Thirds camera was, the answer was littered with inaccuracy, lack of detail and neither someone tech savy nor a beginner would have got good information here.
Q3: If I see a camcorder with AVCHD written on it, what would that mean?
A: Didn't know.
Grade: Fail. The Blueshirt admitted that they were still getting used to camcorders and offered to send me to someone who could help but ultimately was clueless on this one.
Q4: What features might I look out for when buying a camcorder
A: The was no real answer to begin with. Then we were told about the difference between optical and digital zoom and then the Blueshirt talked about a Panasonic camera that they liked and how viewfinders were more expensive. After some nudging, image stabilisation was also mentioned
Grade: Fail. Just not enough information here and keeping the answer to the question on track was very heavy going.
Q5: What are five features to look out for in a compact camera?
A: "You've got your new Canon PowerShots which have intelligent auto on them. So you can point it right up close to something and it will automatically change it to macro mode, that sort of thing. Also, on the Canons, there's things like fish eye effects and that sort of thing. They're quite interesting. You'd look at optical zoom as well. Accessories are quite important. And you'd look at equipment. Make sure you get the right bag some of the bits and pieces are fantastic. We've got some nice accessories over there".
Grade: Pass. Just. And that's being generous. IA was a good shout and the zoom explanation is always welcome but there was no mention of things like ISO or wide angle lenses, uploads to social networks, HD video capture or anything. The point towards accessories was also horribly misleading and rather made us feel like we were being upsold.
Fail. To be fair to this person, you could tell they had a knowledge of cameras but none of the useful stuff came out and what did was unhelpful. Customers would not walk away with a good purchase from this Blueshirt, if they made one at all. When we returned to the optical imaging section some time later, we came across another member of staff manning the aisle's whose knowledge was excellent.
Unfortunately for the computer team, there was not so much literature on the Best Buy website to pick questions from, so we made some up of our own. They weren't very nice.
Q1: What's an SSD and what's the advantage of it?
A: "An SSD is solid state memory. If you broke your laptop, you could recover your stuff afterwards, so it's the safer option but the advantage of an HDD is the bigger capacity. So it depends which is more important to you. If you go for SSD you'll have to pay quite a lot more money.
Grade: Pass. Succinct and clear if lacking technical detail. A little more of the advantages might have been welcome.
Q2: What are the best CPUs around at the moment
A: "You can have one with a built-in screen or one with a tower, but it depends which one is going to suit you better".
Grade: Fail. Clearly misunderstood the question here.
Q3: What is eSATA?
A: After not knowing to begin with and calling over a friend for help there was a little confusion and then..."It's a cable to transmit information a lot quicker than old IDE cable. We used to have USB and RJ45 but eSATA is just a faster version but not everything is compatible with it yet".
Grade: Pass. There's a clear issue with mixing SATA with eSATA initially but it comes out in the wash eventually. If you pointed to the hole on the side of a laptop, you'd get the right answer here.
Q4: What is Nvidia Optimus?
A: Neither knew
Grade: Fail - Not a nice question seeing as hardly any laptops have it right now but it was good to see that they knew about Nvidia at least.
Q5: What is GPGPU?
A: They proceeded to explain what a GPU was.
Grade: Fail. Again, horrible question but at least they did talk us through the heavy crunching power of graphics processors which is really at the heart of the computation technique.
Pass. Given that a couple of the questions were a little unfair, we'll let it go this time. Application of the knowledge wasn't as good with this Blueshirt as in other areas of the store, but you didn't feel like a customer looking to make their first purchase would be steered in the wrong direction. Despite the confusion in the CPU question, we'd have been hard pressed to think that this person couldn't reel off all the AMDs and Intels currently doing the rounds.
Q1: What's the difference between capacitive and resistive touchscreens?
A: "With resistive touchscreens you have to use a stylus because it's pressure sensitive and you have to push on the touchscreen, and capacitive you can just use your finger on it because it actually has a little electric charging running through it and as soon as you push on the screen, the charge goes through your finger and processor knows where your finger is.
If a customer goes away to snowy places, then I'd advise them to go for resistive as you have to push on the screen and capacitive won't work if you're wearing gloves. If you're just using them in a normal place, then capacitive, as it works a lot better".
Grade: Pass. Good advice.
Q2: If I was a customer toying between Android and iPhone, what questions would you ask me to work out which was the right one for me?
A: "Do you want to multitask? What brand of phone do you normally use? What sort of interfaces do you like? The iPhone offers a wall of icons as soon as you open it. There's no wallpaper that you can play with, and I'd ask a customer if they like to customise their phone as you can't customise the iPhone interface".
Grade: Pass. A few simple questions outside of the phones such as whether we used a Mac or whether we use a lot of Google services might have been nice but there's some valid questions here.
Q3: I'm a big fan of social networking but I don't want to spend a lot of money on a top-end smartphone. Which is good handset for me?
A: "I'd find out what social networks you use. Do you use Facebook just to update your status or would you be uploading photos? I'd probably recommend a smartphone as we've got some Samsungs that you can change status from, but not really upload photos. So, if you're doing that, then I'd go for the HTC Desire or the iPhone but here's a couple of Nokias that do it too, the HD2 that has an 8.1-megapixel camera and can upload straight from that as well".
Grade: Pass. Just. Missed the point on the price and the HD2 does not have an 8.1-megapixel camera, but understood some good differences between what phones can offer. Although there might have been a bit of a process once a real price came into it and there would have been a bit of a fine tuning dance on specs, eventually we felt like we would have walked out with a suitable handset.
Q4: What is tethering?
A: "It's where you use your USB cable from your laptop and you use your phone as a USB modem. On the iPhone you have to pay extra on your tariff and it acts like mobile broadband access".
Q5: If I'm after a phone to give me the truest and most complete internet browsing experience that isn't adapted in any way, which might you recommend to me?
A: Blueshirt proceeds to list all phones that have a browser.
Grade: Fail. Perhaps the question could have been better phrased but the idea was to bring up the issue of phones that won't support Flash.
Pass. We didn't always get the best or quickest route to the information with this Blueshirt but we definitely got there eventually. Probably the best thing about them was their passion for the phones. There was plenty of excitement over certain models and, ultimately, they knew which phones were inherently good and would offer the best user experience.
It was obvious that some of the Blueshirts were better than others and, although you might want to pick and choose your help carefully, there was only one of them questioned that, in our testing, was sub-standard.
You couldn't help but feel that the better Blueshirts - the home cinema and the second camera specialists - probably had all the right knowledge before they took the job anyway.
Blueshirt Academy seems to get the staff to a certain point, offering enough crash course knowledge to ensure that at least 50% of the customers would get a better level of service than you might at other electrical stores. For top-end advice, though, you might do better enlisting the help of more than one sales assistant until you find the one that works best for you.
So, is the level of service at Best Buy UK better than its competitors? Yes, probably, but there's still plenty of room for improvement.