With all this hoo-har about Best Buy opening in the UK on 30 April, there'll be plenty of people out there going, "What the f&%* is Best Buy, anyway, and why should I care?" and that'd be a fair point. So for those who've never stepped through the gates of America's favourite consumer tech stores and met its smiling team of blue-shirted, khaki-trousered sales staff, then this is what you need to know.
What they sell
Just about everything we write about on Pocket-lint, is the short answer to that. The in-store departments you'll find are Home Theatre, Movies and Music, Gaming, MP3/MP4, Optical Imaging, Computing, Mobile, Green Tech and Appliances as well as service areas such as the Geek Squad powered repairs and advice area.
Within all that there's cameras, camcorders, TVs, Blu-ray players, home cinema audio all-in-ones and separates, cables, media players, headphones, printers, laptops, desktops, peripherals, games consoles, gaming PCs, games, DVDs, Blu-rays, PVRs, set top boxes, TV subscriptions, Apple products, CDs, storage media, mobile phones on contract and SIM-free, vacuum cleaners, dish washers, washing machines, fridges, freezers, fridge freezers, microwaves, electric bikes and even an electric car. Plus, just about every kind of accessory under the sun. Just think PC World plus more. If you can think of it, they pretty much seem to stock it.
How they sell it
The customer experience is a massive part of what Best Buy's all about and most of that is centred around the infamous Blueshirts - sales staff who are on hand to help. Each of the them has spent at least 9 weeks in product education and training and the idea is that they're all gadget enthusiasts in the first place. We tested the extent of this knowledge with a series of on the spot questions, but more on that later.
Once through training, the staff are handed their blue Best Buy polo shirts which they must wear tucked into their khaki trousers sat on top of smart shoes, while they patrol the aisles ready to ask shoppers if they need any assistance. You'll even have one at the entrance with two roles - both to welcome you into the store and hand you a flier with the weekly offers for the bargain hunters out there.
The Blueshirts are not on commission, so there's supposed to be no pressure on you to buy and they're trained to be impartial as well, so there's no emphasis on selling any particular brands. Best Buy was the target of a practical joke by New York group Improv Everywhere whose members infiltrated a store in NYC all dressed in the same get up.
The anywhere, any time, come over and fix up your gadget force that is Geek Squad has been in the UK for a while now and, seeing as the company is actually part of Best Buy, it's no surprise to see them in store in their white shirts and black ties on hand to give after-sales tech support. You can book sessions with them and get hold of them over the phone as well.
One of the services you can get from the Blueshirts and the Geek Squad staff, beyond purchasing advice, is help and tutorials on how to use gadgets. You can book sessions with them online for when you go to the store and they'll show you how to use any bit of kit you like, whether you bought it from them or not, as well as something off the shelf too. Handy if you fancy picking up some free gadget tips, but don't blame us if you end up walking out with a purchase or two. The 1-2-1s are around 15 minutes but you can get full hour tutorials if you'd like an intro to a whole new area of technology.
Walk out working
This is another of the Best Buy services designed to set you up so that you can use your new toy by the time you walk out the door. This includes talking you through the first time you boot up your new computer, syncing it with your old one, copying files from one memory card to another, if you're switching mobile phones, as well as guiding you through how to get started with your new DSLR - anything you like really.
Rather like John Lewis, Best Buy has a price matching policy. If you can find the same product elsewhere at a better price, then Best Buy will match it plus take off an extra 10% of the difference between the two prices as well. If you happen to have already purchased your item and spot the same thing cheaper elsewhere, then you can come back to the store within 30 days and get a refund on the difference as well.
Now, that sounds all very well and good but the devil is in the detail here. The offer is only applicable to competing stores within a 15 mile radius and, seeing as the only Best Buys in the UK are coming to big box out of town retail parks, there's not going to be much to price match against within range apart from PC World, Currys and lots of motorway. So, when you break it down, the scheme is all about taking on the two local DSG International shops and trying to drive them off the block. So, not a hell of a lot to gain for the consumer here, just satisfaction that you're not being ripped off.
The Dark Side
Despite all the accolades that Best Buy has gathered, there are, of course, plenty of tales of customer woe to go with it. Have a dig around online and it won't be long until you find some comment streams full of people's distaste for the stack 'em high sell 'em cheap establishment. Of course, most of this is going to be pretty normal stuff for any large scale multinational but there are a couple of things to watch out for.
15% restock policy
Be very careful if you're thinking of returning your products to Best Buy, if the manual, accessories or even the box or packaging is damaged in any way, then the store reserves the right to exercise their 15% restocking fee which they will not shrink from doing. If the bought item is not returned in a condition that they can resell instantly, then they take off 15% of your refund to pay for repackaging and re-shelving the item. Does it cost 15% to get a new manual or box? Probably not, but the idea is to put people off trying to pull a fast one or really taking the mickey by bringing products back after deciding that they don't want them any more. You're also only given 14 days to do so in many cases.
You can't get any refunds at all on opened headphones, electric shavers and toothbrushes for reasons of hygiene nor on opened computer software, movies, music, video games and even memory cards and USB sticks too. It's all fairly harsh but discretion seems to be the key, so make nice with the person at the checkout and keep your fingers crossed.
Too much attention
If you like to wander around shops in your own world, then be prepared for some patience with Best Buy. The flip side of the customer focus is that you're going to get set upon by at least one Blueshirt but, if you're unlucky and it's a quiet day, it could become several. It's hard to tell quite the level of the American ethos of customer service that will be impressed upon shoppers, but make sure you go armed with a polite, short and definite response indicating that you're fine, thank you.
There was no evidence of this at the preview and it's unclear if it's a policy that Best Buy will be bringing to the UK, but getting staff to check and see if customers' receipts match up with the goods they're attempting to leave the shop with has been commonplace in the US for while now.
This can be a bit of a pain on busy days when suddenly you find yourself in a second queue and you're in a bit of a hurry. There's also the indignation of feeling like you're being accused of theft. But, as much as it'll mean you won't get away with it if the person at the till undersells you your TV, it also means that they won't charge you twice for items or forget to put them in the box altogether.
There's an excellent exchange on the rights and wrongs of this between an irate customer who tried to skip the receipt check queue and the unofficial response he eventually got from a Best Buy employee. Well worth a read.
Should I shop there?
Yes, you should and that goes for anyone reading this. Your mum and dad should shop there too. The real idea of Best Buy is to provide a place that's comfortable for both tech geeks and those whose family are encouraging them to get with the times and buy their first computer/mobile phone/digital camera as well.
If the Blueshirt you deal with is worth their salt, they'll be able to adapt to the customer and supply both heavy stats and tech talk as well as just some easy introductions as to what each product is all about. Not being on commission should take some of the fear of being upsold away from proceedings, but it would be impossible to remove it completely.
The only real issue is that, at the moment, there's only five stores planned and, although at easily accessible locations, they're not that convenient to get to. Once you've factored in time and cost of getting there and back, you might be better off down at Dixons. Things will get interesting once Best Buy launches online in the autumn though, especially if it also manages to get a foot in on the high street and buy up some of the competition as well. Until the invasion proper begins though, Best Buy is still well worth poking your nose into, if only to bathe in the glory of rows and rows of gadgets.