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Monday, January 30, 2006

Where's the best buy?

Seeing Frank's discussion today on Best Buy's sales tactics that lure people away from buying records at indie stores reminds of me of my own personal experience on the matter. As someone who worked for Best Buy off and on for three years and has friends that own a small indie store in Carrollton, I thought I'd chime in on the discussion.

In the early '90s, the options I had with buying CDs were incredibly limited. I was living in Kingwood, a suburb 30 miles north of Houston, and the closest record stores were Sound Warehouse, Camelot and Sam Goody in the mall, and a tiny indie store called Sound Disc. I forget how much CDs were at these places, but I believe they were usually $15. In these pre-Internet days, this was variety.

Sometime at the end of middle school and the beginning of high school, I heard about this place called Best Buy that sold CDs at cheap prices. This sounded very tempting and I ventured out to see this place. Turns out, Best Buy was super advanced compared to any other big record store I'd ever been to. Plus, the CDs were indeed very cheap as the average CD cost between $9.99-$11.99.

Since the closest Best Buy was about 25 minutes away from where I lived, I only went a few scattered times and settled for Sound Warehouse almost all the other times. Well, I was in for a break in '94 when a Best Buy opened up down the street from where Sound Warehouse used to be. Best Buy still kept up their allure with having cheap CDs while all the other music retailers were asking for $13.99-$17.99 a CD.

While the Camelot and Sam Goody stuck around in the mall, Sound Warehouse slowly petered out and became Blockbuster Music once it was bought out by Blockbuster Video. The only thing going for Blockbuster Music was that you could listen to any CD in the store to see if you liked it or not. Since their prices were still much higher than Best Buy's, my friends and I would often go down the highway and pick up the CD for less at Best Buy.

As I was finishing up high school and planning to attend community college in the late-'90s, I decided I wanted to get a job at Best Buy. I knew their music selection very well and I also knew the VHS and video game selection pretty well. I was hired and I was so thrilled to get a job in their media department. The job was easy and fun: stock CDs, videos, video games and software and help customers. However, I would come to realize that there are really big downsides to working in retail.

It's very well-known that retail places are overloaded around the holidays. In my time at Best Buy, I worked two Black Fridays and two Day After Christmases. I had never seen chaos like this before and I hope to never be a part of such ever again. Feeling outnumbered like the humans in Dawn of the Dead, people were everywhere looking for all sorts of items that you didn't have in stock. They wanted answers and usually your answers weren't good enough for them. The carnage didn't end until the doors closed for the night.

During the non-holidays, day-to-day life on the job wasn't too bad. Of course my feet were dead at the end of the day, but I felt I was learning a lot of good things by working in retail. I understood firsthand what customer service was like and how to deal with it. Plus, I got a very nice employee discount on any item in the store. I made some good money during my time at Best Buy but towards the end of my time there, I was rather annoyed by sales tactics that were lurking into the one area that didn't need them: media.

Every single day and night, all departments met up and discussed either the day ahead of us or the day past us. Usually, numbers were run down and there was always a determination to sell more than just one item per customer. There was no commission, but there was definitely intent to add to the bottom line with the selling of service plans and accessories. Media was not pressured to sell extra things but by the end of my time there, there was heavy pressure by the supervisors and managers to do so.

I resisted this kind of pressure. Why? Other than video game systems (where extras like batteries, joysticks and service plans were very helpful), trying to sell accessories was a waste of time. Seeing someone buying a CD and suggesting he/she buy a CD wallet or tower was often met with the response of "I already have one." I didn't like bugging people in this regard. I didn't like the thought of pressuring someone to lay down more hard-earned cash just to affect our bottom line. I never thought it was fair for the customer and I hated the kinds of tactics that our managers suggested we take in doing so. I always felt my role was to be there and help anyone that wanted help; not treat people the same way you would treat a person buying a computer.

Thankfully, I never got into trouble for avoiding this stuff. I did what I always did: stock product, answer the phone and help anybody the best that I could.

The reason why I bring all this backstory up is this: I don't blame people for bypassing an indie record store to get a $7.99 CD at Best Buy. However, not all CDs at Best Buy are $7.99. Most are $11.99-$15.99 and they have been for a long time. The $7.99 CD is a hook to bring you in and it's definitely obvious now with their floorplans that CDs are not a priority for them. After wading through rows upon rows of DVDs and video games, you can find CDs in the back. The overall selection has become smaller, but they still carry a wider variety of artists (indie and major).

I still shop at Best Buy for their prices on new CDs and DVDs. They often have the best deals in town for an item's opening week. I won't lie; it's cool to get a CD on sale and save a few bucks. However, Best Buy and other retailers like them don't offer the kind of atmosphere that a used/indie store does. They never have and they never will.

Every few weeks, I drop by one or two of the handful of used/indie record stores in town. I love searching for stuff at half price. Plus, the people working there are usually cool. Most of the time they're people who feel music has a deeper meaning than just added numbers on a bottom line. They don't try to compete with the kinds of offers that Best Buy advertises. They have the strength of selection, cheaper all-around prices and a relaxed vibe to them.

Best Buy may have made it to the top of the hill with being the "best" in town, but don't count out indie stores just yet. Buying music on CD is still popular even though the overall sales keep going down. I always go where the best deal is and it doesn't always mean that "best" is in the name of the store.

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