Tag Archives | Best Buy

Is There Any Way to Save Circuit City? I’m Not Optimistic–But I Hope So

Engadget is reporting a rumor that that the venerable Circuit City chain is planning to shut down 155 of its stores, which would amount to about a quarter of its locations. If true, this is sad news for the folks employed at those outlets, not to mention the ones who like to shop at them. But it wouldn’t be a shock. For a long time, Circuit City’s very existence has been defined by the fact that it competes with the juggernaut known as as Best Buy, and it’s never found a satisfactory strategy for defining itself in an appealing, distinct way. Mostly, it’s felt like a Best Buy with less floor space and a skimpier selection of stuff, and service that was at best no better than Best Buy’s. Which is a recipe for irrelevance, long term.

It’s easy to forget that there was a time when Circuit City was the nation’s leading national electronics chain, and Best Buy was an up-and-comer, not an 800-pound gorilla. Actually, it wasn’t that long ago: Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, published in 2001, lavishes praise on Circuit City’s success and mentions Best Buy only once, in passing. But there’s no business that’s more fickle than retailing, and electronics is especially brutal–just ask CompUSA, Good Guys, RadioShack, or any of the other chains that have either gone out of business or suffered serious challenges in recent years. (And while I was writing this, I learned that Tweeter, a mainstay of my New England youth, is being liquidated.)

I can’t say I’m optimistic about Circuit City’s chances–its stock has fallen so far that it’s flirting with being delisted from the NYSE–but I would be pleased to see it figure out a way to turn things around. If Circuit City ends up with only a handful of stores or disappears altogether, it’ll leave Best Buy as the only truly national, truly full-service electronics retailer. And I’d much rather it had at least one strong competitor to keep it on its toes and pressure it to keep prices low. (Best Buy’s healthiest rivals all seem to be indirect competitors: the regional chain Fry’s, the generalist Wal-Mart, and the Apple Store.)

I’m not sure what I’d do if I somehow found myself as the CEO of Circuit City–if there was an obvious route to success, the company would surely have tried it by now. But I’d hope that there was a place for an electronics chain that offered a noticably superior shopping experience than most–better products more invitingly displayed, with savvier salespeople and smoother checkout. In other words, a sort of Apple Store that sold everything besides Apple-related wares. Given that Circuit City made headlines last year for firing its most experienced salespeople and replacing them with newbies, this doesn’t seem to be its strategy. But I’d love to see it, or somebody, try…


Napster Sells Out…to Best Buy

I like to call today’s Napster “Napster,” since it has little in common with the legendary service that bore the same name other than music. It hasn’t been a hit. But now it’s getting another shot at success.
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It’s a Best Buy! Except at an Airport! Inside a Machine!

A couple of weeks ago, Best Buy announced that it was working with a company called Zoom Systems to install electronics vending machines inside airports. I blog to you this afternoon from the international terminal at San Francisco’s SFO, where I’m waiting for a plane–and where I just spent some time with one of these “Best Buy Express” kiosks.

Zoom Systems has been installing automated electronics kiosks in airports and other locations for years now. (There’s one in my local Macy’s.) So the Best Buy news is more about a marketing partnership than technological innovation of any sort. The machine is the standard Zoom Systems machine, with Best Buy signage and a touch screen that has some of the look and feel of BestBuy.com:

The kiosk I saw was almost always been gawked at by one or more curious travelers:

In fact, the throngs of spectators were thick enough that if you wanted to buy something, you might have had to wait, or elbow your way to the front of the line. In the ten minutes or so that I hung around and watched the scene, several people seemed to ready to buy, but didn’t–one family seemed within moments of buying a Nintendo DS Lite, then walked away. The one real customer I saw–he bought some headphones–seemed tickled. But he also seemed to have trouble with the touch screen: He kept pounding away at on-screen buttons, and they didn’t respond. And at the end of his transaction, the kiosk asked him to take a survey; if I’d been waiting to buy something, I’d have been ticked off. (Seems like anything that encourages people to move at a leisurely pace at an airport is a mistake.)

I suspect that I’m not alone in being instinctively suspicious about merchants of any sort in airports: I assume that the stuff they sell sports rip-off pricetags until proven otherwise. So I jotted down some prices at the kiosk, then compared them to BestBuy.com once I got to my gate. (Yes, I’m a nerd.) The bottom line:

–nearly everything cost the same at the airport and online, including iPods, the DS Lite, a Nikon Coolpix S550 camera, and an unlocked Sony Ericsson phone.

–The Pure Flip DV camera was $149.99 at the airport; that was the standard price online, but it was on sale for $129.99. Apparently, Best Buy sale prices don’t apply out here.

–a FujiFilm J10 camera was $129.99 at both Best Buy incarnations, except it was on sale for $116.99 online.

–A pair of portable Sony speakers were $29.99 at SFO, and $34.99 online. Even a sale price on the site–$33.24–wasn’t as cheap as the airport price. Take a trip, save a few bucks!

I hereby declare my suspicions mostly invalid in this case–for the most part, Best Buy Express prices are Best Buy prices.

A few other notes:

–I’m confused by the idea of buying an iPod at the airport, since it’ll be empty. Do people pick up one for a trip, then realize that it’s useless until they can fill it with music? Wouldn’t it be neat if you could buy a pre-filled iPod for such occassions?

–Anyone who’s ever bought a bag of pretzels or a soft drink from a vending machine has seen instances when a balky product gets wedged in the machine and doesn’t tumble into the dispenser. The Best Buy Express kiosk tries to assuage any fears with a note saying that if your product isn’t properly dispensed, you won’t be charged;

The touch screen provides some buying advice, including something called “Digital Cameras 101.” If you need something by that title, you shouldn’t be buying a camera as you’re about to hop on a plane. And I wouldn’t want to be in line to buy something while another customer in front of me learned the basics of digital photography;

–Right next to the Best Buy Express here, there’s something called Sony Access–an identical Zoom Systems machine that sells only Sony stuff. It was out of order, but people were gawking at it, too;

–This terminal had a third Zoom Systems kiosk that sold mostly snacks–Wheat Thins, Pringles, and Starburst Fruit Chews. Wonder if Zoom has approached 7-Eleven to open 7-Eleven Expresses?

Would I use a Best Buy Express? Maybe. If I did, I’d probably be like that guy who bought the headphones, and pick up something cheap and small I’d forgotten to pack. How about you?


“Best BuyPhone” Does Sound Kinda Catchy

Hey, I have news this morning about the T-List itself! It’s now available in RSS feed form for your daily (well, Monday through Friday) reading pleasure. Thanks to T-Reader Brad Mays for the suggestion.
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iPhones at Best Buy? Cool! Probably!

[Update on the post below: MacNN says it’s confirmed that Best Buy will start selling the iPhone in early September.)

AppleInsider is reporting that Best Buy may be about to announce that it will begin selling iPhones. I have no idea whether that’s true, but it’s certainly plausible enough: It’s safe to assume that the phone will eventually be available at venues other than Apple Stores and AT&T shops, and Best Buy is both the nation’s 800-pound gorilla of electronics retailing and one of the few places other than Apple Stores to stock a relatively generous selection of Apple products.

If the rumor pans out, it’s good news on a number of fronts. More choices when it comes to buying stuff are always better than fewer (even if the increased competition doesn’t result in the iPhone being available for less than $199, which I suspect it won’t). The more iPhones that are sold, the likely it is that software develpers and accessory manufacturers will jump on the bandwagon; that would be a boon to everyone who’s bought an iPhone anywhere.

And if the iPhone ends up sitting on a counter alongside other phones from multiple manufacturers and carriers, I think it’ll prompt Apple’s competitors to move even more quickly than they have been to try and match or exceed everything that’s good about the iPhone–its industrial design, its screen and interface, its media features, and, most of all, the fact that it’s a full-bodied software platform. For that reason, I hope that the iPhone lives in Best Buy’s phone section, rather than off with other Apple products.

(When CompUSA was a national chain with an “Apple shop” tucked in the corner of the showroom floor, Macs and other Apple products were segregated from more mass-market rivals. It’s quite possible that Apple insisted on this approach, but every CompUSA Apple shop I ever saw was a ghost town; I would have much rather have seen MacBooks and iMacs alongside machines from HP, Gateway, and Sony, where people who didn’t think they wanted a Mac might have discovered them.)

With the iPhone 3G’s current Apple-and-AT&T-only retail availability, the phone gets tender loving care unlike that of just about any consumer product I can think of. The Apple Store folks are able to devote huge resources to marketing and explaining the thing, which is obviously part of why it remains a phenomenon a month after it went on sale. (Just this last weekend, I saw a line of buyers snaking out of the Apple Store in the Fashion Show Mall on the Las Vegas Strip.) And while it’s far from the only phone at AT&T stores, it’s clearly the only superstar there, and receives a lot of TLC: When I walk into an AT&T shop, I’ve sometimes had a greeter suggest I look at iPhones the moment I cross the threshold.

My impulse was to be worried that Best Buy, or just about anyone other than Apple and AT&T, might struggle with the iPhone simply because mass-market retailers are usually so very bad at giving their customers actual authoritative advice about the products they hawk. That’s been an issue with other Apple products in the past, and was presumably a major reason why Apple made the surprising (and amazingly successful) decision to open its own stores. And while Best Buy apparently staffs at least some of its stores with dedicated Apple experts, the ones I’ve happened to visit have had Apple sections that looked like smaller, tidier versions of the ghost towns I remember from CompUSA.

But as I think about it, I’m not sure if the iPhone needs that much explaining. It’s more of an iPod than a Mac–a product that’s extraordinarily well-known, with benefits that are pretty easy to get without much explanation. The $199 price is competitive, too–there shouldn’t be any equivalent to scenarios in which someone looks at a $1100 MacBook and a $600 HP notebook and can’t grasp why the MacBook might be worth the dough.

So I’m hoping that Best Buy is indeed about to roll out the iPhone. But here’s what would please me even more: Amazon.com selling the iPhone. I can’t believe that the requirement that the phone be activated will keep it off the Web forever, and I don’t think anyone (aside from Apple) would do a better job of selling it on the Web.

On the other hand, this post at Ars Technica’s Infinite Loop mentions the possibility of RadioShack selling iPhones. I find that kind of horrifying, although I can’t quite articulate just why. Maybe it’s because I’ve so rarely encountered a RadioShack clerk whose customer-service skills go much beyond telling me where the AAA batteries are. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve been into computers for so long that when I think of Apple and RadioShack, I think of the wars between Apple II and TRS-80 owners, of which I remain a bloodied, battered veteran who’s prone to the occasional painful flashback…

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The App-Happy World of iPhone Users

The iTunes App Store is off to a good start. Wonder how many of the 60 million apps downloaded to date are in active use? And how quickly, if at all, the downloading frenzy will start to tail off?
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The Start of the End of Shrinkwrapped Software?

Microsoft’s venerable Money personal finance application is going away–from retail stores, at least. Over at ZDNet’s All About Microsoft, Mary Jo Foley reports on the fate of the application, which used to get a yearly update. There will be no 2009 version this Fall–Microsoft says it just doesn’t need a new version that often–and the program will be sold only via electronic distribution from now on.

There’s no way to interpret this as good news for Money (which looks like it’s officially known as Money Plus these days). If it were fabulously successful as a program that received annual updates and was sold in a box, Microsoft would just go on selling it that way for as long as it could. But I think that what’s happening to Money will happen to an awful lot of applications over the next few years–and that it will be a good thing for software consumers and software companies.

Even if desktop applications themselves stick around, selling them at retail stores is an awfully inefficient way to get them into the hands of customers. Anyone with a broadband connection can snag a current copy of nearly any major application reasonably quickly by downloading it–and in most cases can start with a free trial version and then pay only after confirming that the app is worth the dough. It’s a lot more efficient, and nobody has to kill any trees or put gas in any delivery trucks. And the software publisher doesn’t have to cut a retail store or distributor in on its profits.

In the old days, boxes of software filled aisle after aisle at stores such as CompUSA. These days, CompUSA is no longer a national chain, and the software sections in Best Buy and Circuit City are small, archaic, and not particularly crowded with shoppers. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I bought an application in boxed form anywhere…

As for Money not receiving a 2009 update, that seems a little odd–especially since Microsoft is releasing that news in August, presumably long after development work for Money 20009 would have begun. But the frequent updates for Money and arch-rival Intuit Quicken haven’t necessarily been good things for consumers. Both applications have been around for so long that they’ve had all the key features for eons; both have added features that haven’t been a big whoop–or, in some cases, which some customers have actively disliked. And Microsoft and Intuit have both tried to nudge consumers to upgrade by disabling the online banking features in older versions, a strategy which–no surprise!–tends to drive people bonkers.

When you think about it, annual upgrades are both too frequent and not frequent enough. The need to release a Money 2005 and Money 2006 and Money 2007 and Money 2008 forced Microsoft to introduce new features whether it had anything especially compelling to offer or not. But when Microsoft did have something new and worthwhile to offer, it had to wait for the annual upgrade to add it.

One of the many virtues of online applications is that they can add features in a more logical fashion: frequently and instantly when there’s new stuff worth adding, and not at all when there isn’t. That’s Google’s strategy with its services, and it seems to work for everyone involved.

My guess is that the end of retail distribution and annual updates for Money means that the program is headed into limbo, and may never receive another significant upgrade. If I used it–and Money has millions of customers, even if it never succeeded in crushing Quicken–I’d keep that in mind and would at least consider moving to Quicken, which will surely be around for a long time in its current form.

But if Microsoft did keep Money around as a download-only application, updating it only when it could make clear improvements, that would be kind of cool. It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for current Money users, and it might be a sign of things to come for application distribution in general.

That’s assuming that it doesn’t want to make Money into a Web-based application, though–and it won’t be long before the days are numbered for almost any desktop application that doesn’t have some sort of online version.If you’re reading this, you’re part of the last generation for whom software was primarily something that was stored on a local drive rather than on the Internet.

And here’s a prediction I feel utterly comfortable making: The day just isn’t all that far off when BestBuy will quietly decide to stop selling computer software, period. If it has anything more than a small, perfunctory shelf of the stuff in 2012, I’d be startled…