Bringing Storefront Perks to Web Sales Still Needs Work

While many retailers are struggling to make multichannel operations work at all, Best Buy is taking a leadership position in making the retailer a single brand with multiple points of access.

But Best Buy is an almost perfect example of the difficulties in making all channels appear as one to the customer, as it excels in certain areas while sending mixed messages in others.

On the leadership side, consider one of the site's most innovative features. While many retailers are starting to allow customers to place orders on the Web but pick up the items in a physical store, Best Buy does it with a twist by incorporating humans in the middle of the database-to-database connection.

The strategy behind any buy-online-pickup-in-store effort is simple: It sidesteps the three largest complaints about Web shopping (shipping cost, shipping delay and the inability to see and touch the product before making the purchase) and the two largest complaints about brick-and-mortar shopping (standing in lines and wasting time looking for the desired product).

This is how Best Buy does it, according to Sam Taylor, Best Buy's senior vice president for online stores: A Best Buy Web visitor makes an online purchase and pays for it with a credit card. An offered ZIP code identifies the nearest stores and whether an inventory database check indicates that the exact desired product is in stock at that store.

After the transaction is completed, the customer is sent a standard confirmation e-mail, which provides the nearest store to the consumer's ZIP Code that has the item in stock according to the inventory database. The customer is told to stand by and not to try to pick up the product until a second confirmation e-mail arrives.

At that moment, a message flashes on one of several computer screens at that store and is accompanied by?depending on the location?a bell, an alarm or buzzing pagers. A worker is then sent out to the aisle or to the backroom to physically verify that the item the database thinks is in stock actually is in stock.

If the item is in stock, the system is informed and a confirmation e-mail is sent to the customer. The worker then takes the item to a special in-store pickup desk so the customer can get the merchandise without waiting in line.

If the item is not in stock, the customer is instructed to call the toll-free customer-service number again.

The time permitted from the initial customer purchase until that second e-mail confirmation? Taylor said the response?during Best Buy store business hours?is within 30 minutes. But the Web site only promises a two-hour response, and multiple Best Buy customer-service representatives stressed that response times are about two hours.

A few random?and highly unscientific?tests by in different geographies essentially substantiated that Taylor's 30-minute target is being met. Best Buy officials said recent improvements to the system account both for the speed and for the fact that customer service seemed to be unaware of it.

Another of customers' key issues with online purchases is the inability to see a product before making a final decision. After all, an item might look a lot bigger?or smaller?in person than it does in a Web image and description.

Best Buy is allowing customers to inspect the purchase when they arrive at the Web purchase pickup desk and to instantly turn it down?for a full cash credit. "If they change their mind, they change their mind," Taylor said.

That's another area of confusion. In fact, a customer calling Best Buy's customer-service department would be told that a rejected purchase can be returned only by waiting on hold with customer service. On Friday morning, a customer-service rep told an reporter that store personnel cannot cancel an online order "because we cannot access their system and they cannot access ours," and that not even a visit to the Web site would do the trick. No, she said, it must be done on the phone.

Another rep agreed, but added that the best approach would be to complete the purchase at the store and then take the product to another line in the store and return it in the standard way.

Best Buy spokesman Jay Musolf said the customer-service representatives had out-of-date information. "Our systems have been upgraded and it's been recent. Some representatives may not be fully aware yet," Musolf said, adding that he believes customers can indeed cancel a purchase.

But after Musolf's comments, contacted two Best Buy stores and spoke with personnel who staff the Web purchase pickup desk, and they told a somewhat different story.

One staffer?who asked that her name not be used?said, "If someone at corporate thinks it can be canceled here, let them come over and show me the key to hit. My screen only has the option to process or to return after it's been processed. It's not giving me a cancel option."

She said the systems cannot help and that she would simply phone customer service and do the cancellation that way. It saves the customer the bother, but it's not indicative of an integrated online/offline system.

Another Best Buy store agreed with the first rep?that they cannot cancel a purchase made online?but he suggested a different workaround. If the customer simply leaves the products and walks out, the product purchase will cancel on its own after several days.

But wouldn't that foul up the inventory system and have that rejected item display as "sold" for a week when it's actually available for purchase? Yes, he said, but they could do a system workaround to trick the inventory system into understanding that the item is indeed available.

When Taylor spoke of multichannel, he was referring to four distinct channels: the stores, the Web, the phone and in-home services (such as Best Buy's partnership with the Geek Squad.)

Arguing that the system integrations are essential, he said multichannel customers are the most profitable and loyal customers. Others have said one reason for the profitability is that customers often will make additional in-store purchases when they arrive to pick up their online-selected merchandise.

But not all Best Buy programs support that idea. Best Buy's frequent-buyer program is called Reward Zone, and it excludes from consideration any online purchase, suggesting that the company is not quite channel-agnostic yet.

Best Buy's Musolf conceded that the program excludes online purchases and said that would be changed soon, but wouldn't specify a time frame. "That is coming," he said.