Best Buy Express Kiosk Acting Very Differently Than It Was Supposed To

Best Buy will "reexamine our processes around the Express kiosks" after an embarrassing column from a Time Magazine writer, who just happened to try one of the machines at a Hilton in Chicago.

The tested Best Buy Express kiosk—which is owned and handled by a vendor that also creates them for Macy's and Apple—referred the customer to "a store representative" even though there obviously were none, offered an electronic receipt but then forced a written one and, most critically, offered significantly stricter rules for product return. All this despite a rule that the kiosks are supposed to have the same policies as Best Buy stores.

This situation also renews questions about how much—or how little—control retailers should have over kiosks that loudly proclaim their brands. (Beyond Best Buy and Macy's, Wal-Mart is also toying with kiosks, although it seems to be with a different vendor.) The idea with Zoom Systems (owner of the Best Buy Express kiosks) and Best Buy was that Zoom's people would handle everything and that Best Buy would give up its logo and get a large cut of revenue. But who was making sure that Best Buy's policies and procedures were being managed properly? (In this case, the answer, apparently, is Time Magazine. Not quite the answer Best Buy should want.)

Here's what happened. Time Editor-at-Large Harry McCracken visited that Best Buy Express kiosk at the hotel in the O'Hare Airport with a plan to buy an extended battery for his iPhone (a Mophie Juice Pack Air, to be precise). Right after he swiped his credit card, the problems began.

After the swipe, the screen displayed "If you need assistance, please see a Store Representative." A curious thought to offer in the middle of the airport hotel. He then tried typing in his E-mail address but made a typo. The kiosk was not in a forgiving mood.

"When I touched the screen at the point where I needed to make a correction, I got a cursor, but when I typed the right character, it showed up at the end, not where the cursor appeared," McCracken wrote. "And then, right as I was finishing with entering my E-mail address, the machine abruptly declared that it hadn't heard from me in awhile—wrong!—and that it was going to give me a paper receipt instead, without so much as a 'Do you need more time?'"

When he received the product, McCracken discovered that it was materially different than the product he had expected—apparently, Mophie has two different versions of the product using the same, or a very similar, name.

According to the screen display and the receipt McCracken was given (some of these details came from a phone conversation with McCracken and go beyond what his initial column said), the Best Buy Express machine had a very different return policy than Best Buy stores.That was news to David Popler, the Senior VP/Sales at Zoom (who handles media inquiries), who said he thought the kiosks always had the same return policies as the stores. Apparently, no one told that to the kiosk at this airport Hilton in Chicago.

"But Best Buy Express machines have a pretty hard-nosed return policy: you can return a gadget only if it's unopened or defective, and then only by calling a toll-free number and waiting for a prepaid shipping label," McCracken wrote. "Buyer's remorse isn't an adequate excuse. And as my receipt put it, 'Items purchased through Best Buy Express™ MAY NOT be returned to Best Buy stores or through'"

When we asked Popler about the experience at that kiosk, he was very helpful, but had been instructed by his customer (Best Buy) to have me talk with them. He didn't know, though, who at Best Buy I was supposed to speak with. After reaching out to several Best Buy people, I heard from Best Buy spokesperson Jeremy Baier.

Baier promised a statement detailing what had happened with the kiosk. The statement sent, though, didn't go into specifics. "We're taking the time to reexamine our processes around the Express kiosks, but have nothing further at this time to share with you," he wrote.

We seem to have three issues here. First, Best Buy has to decide if these kiosks are to be treated as another Best Buy channel, alongside mobile, E-Commerce and in-store. If so, then the chain needs to maintain identical policies. Yes, that means items can be returned to a Best Buy store and the return rules can't be any different than if an item had been purchased at a physical store.

By the way, a standalone machine in the middle of a hotel needs to have more generous return rules. These aren't candy bars. When the products are expensive electronics, there's a lot of customer fear to overcome.

Second, somebody—Zoom, Best Buy or some third party—needs to check that the machines are indeed playing by the agreed-upon rules. And third, typos are a fact of life. If the programming assumed no one would make a typo and have to correct it (E-mail systems are really picky), someone skimped too much on real-world testing.