Sunday, October 06, 2013

We got your cell phone right here

My cell phone died and I was overdue for a new one on my service contract.

A salesperson in my service provider's store in Cambridge, Mass., where I work, kindly told me that he saw the phone I was looking at in his store at Best Buy for $100 less than the service provider was asking.

When I got to the screen on Best Buy's website to see where I could pick up the phone, it read "unavailable." I tried other ZIP codes in Massachusetts and got the same result. I tried my sister's ZIP code in Minnesota. Same. Best friend in Burbank? Zip. No availability anywhere I tried.

I called Best Buy's customer service number. A pleasant-enough customer care representative also checked online and got the same disappointing results. He promised to notify "corporate" of the mistake so they could take the offering down.

It turns out, however, Best Buy wasn't out of the phone.

"We do have one phone in our Cambridge store," Jeff Shelman, a senior manager in Best Buy's corporate public relations office said. But Best Buy's policy, he said, is that if only one item is left in stock at the store, it doesn't show up on the company's website. "We want to guard against the customer getting to the store and being disappointed."

Had I typed in the ZIP code for New York City, Shelman said, I would have found that a store just north of Houston Street had two phones in stock.

In an effort to potentially avoid disappointing a customer, Best Buy ended up not only disappointing a customer, but also losing a sale.

If Best Buy truly wanted to act in the best interest of its customers, it would indicate somewhere that even if its website shows no products in stock the customer might want to also check the store in person. Certainly Best Buy should empower its customer care reps to be able to check inventory and make this reasonable suggestion.

"When a product is nearing the end of its life," Shelman said explaining the attractive sales price, "we try to eliminate inventory. There's not an infinite number of these products."

In fact, he said, the product I wanted had been put on sale 57 days before I tried to order it. Had I tried to buy it then, I wouldn't likely have faced the same shortages. I pointed out that I didn't need a phone back then.

Shelman said that a new ship-from-store pilot program that Best Buy is rolling out in 50 of its 1,000 big box stores might prevent such encounters as mine in the future. Under the program, I would have been alerted that the store in New York City had phones in stock and one could be shipped to me from there. In other words, I wouldn't have had to guess what ZIP code to plug in. Presumably, this would also better equip the customer care people to better assist customers.

The program seems a good start. Better still would be to let customers know when you have a policy designed to try to quell their potential disappointment so they can decide for themselves how to act. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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William Jacobson said...


A retailer has the responsibility to honor the offers it makes but there isn't enough information here to determine if Best Buy failed to do that...

Let's clarify. Contrary to the question posed in your email blast, Best Buy had not advertised this product (in an ad) but merely listed it on their website. Just because a product is listed on their website does not mean that it is available at all stores, thus the ability to check store inventory. If the product had not been available at the stores, you could have easily ordered the product from the website. You didn't do that so we don't know whether Best Buy would have honored the deal or not. I suspect they would have.

The question you are actually posing is does a retail store have a responsibility to help you find the last end-of-life products remaining at their brick and mortar stores if you choose not to order from the website. While it may serve their interests to do so, Best Buy has no such responsibility here.

End of Life products are often low margin to loss margin sales and thus do not justify the additional advertising and inventory costs needed to make them more readily available. Keeping end of life products at a minimum helps the store free inventory dollars to keep the current products in stock. You are correct. This situation cost Best Buy a sale, but it likely did not lose them a profitable sale.

The issue you note on the inventory system not reporting single unit inventory (publicly to customers) is purely a customer service issue. A customer who sees a product unavailable on their computer screen may well be disappointed but customers who are told that a product is in stock only to drive in and find that the product is unavailable (as demo, open box, customer return etc.) are often livid. How would you temper this situation?

Regardless, these loss of sale issues are not ethical questions so much as business operation issues.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Phil Clutts said...

Excellent, informed commentary, Mr. Jacobson.