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Best Buy, a Cautionary Tale: Integrating Stores and the Web Is Harder Than It Looks

Best Buy (BBY) often touts its ability to integrate Web- and store-based commerce. The only problem, as I discovered recently, is that is doesn't seem to have the slightest clue of how to actually pull it off. In that, though, Best Buy probably isn't alone.

Most companies with chain stores established their physical operations before expanding to the Web. That, in turn, generally saddled them with incompatible retail-management systems that don't easily talk to one another. To do business transparently between virtual and brick-and-mortar operations, though, you need to make that communication seamless and capable of handling even unusual situations.

Nice laptop -- wish you had it in stock
On Labor Day weekend, our daughter wanted a new powerful laptop for a computer-graphics course she was about to start. We headed to the nearest Best Buy 40 minutes away and finally found one with plenty of memory and an Intel Core i5 processor at a great price.

Just one problem: the store didn't have any in stock. But the store informed us that we could place an order and Best Buy would ship it to us by Friday the 9th. We'd get an email letting us know of the arrival. Sounded great, and we went for it.

Hello? Anyone there?
Friday came and went; no email. No word on Saturday. Finally, on Sunday morning, an email arrived. The subject line? "Power up your new laptop with these awesome extras." Hey, no problem -- but it would be nice to get the laptop first, y'know?

Two minutes later, there was another email. This time, the subject was, "Surf the web almost anywhere on your new computer." Ah, Best Buy wanted me to purchase a "mobile broadband solution" so I could get on the Web while away from home.

Don't make people guess
Best Buy's marketing system apparently had no way of connecting to operations to see if a customer had actually received the product they'd ordered -- or even if it was close to arriving. Monday rolled around and I called the store.

Apparently, flooding had kept our laptop from shipping -- only Best Buy hadn't bothered to notify us of that fact. All the sales associate could see was that the store was trying to get products from other stores -- which, of course, were also seeing shortages due to the flooding.

The result: Each store was calling back and forth to figure out what was available. As I've previously witnessed when dealing with Best Buy in a crisis, the company's inventory system can't accurately report how many units of particular products sit at given stores.

But then, Best Buy also has a reputation for trying to keep accurate information out of its stores. There was, for instance, the story of the secret alternate website it showed in stores, which displayed fake higher prices for its products than you'd see on Best Buy's actual Web site. That way, if someone said, "The product was $X online," a salesperson at the store could look up the item and show a different price.

Please wait, someone will be with you eventually
Finally, a robocall came on Tuesday to let me know that a flooding problem had delayed delivery. This was Best Buy's first active step to let us know -- four days after the estimated delivery date had come and gone.

Wednesday evening, I called the store and was told that laptop still wasn't in. After talking with my daughter, we agreed to make other arrangements, so I called back to cancel the order.

A salesperson said that to cancel, I'd have to physically come in "for security" purposes. Apparently someone might have the credit card number and the order number and decide to cancel the order for fun.

When I noted that I lived a fair distance away and that I was getting frustrated, the salesperson said that the only way to cancel over the phone would be to call 800-BEST-BUY.

So I called. All the voice prompts seemed to be for a rewards card program. I kept trying different prompts and finally got to one person who then had to direct me to someone else. The upshot? "Sorry, sir, but if you ordered the product at the store, you have to go there to cancel it."

Ready or not, there we go
I kept pushing the point. After all, the store had said to call them. The customer service representative talked to a supervisor and came back with the same answer. About two minutes after hanging up the phone and planning to go in, an email came. It said, "Your purchase is now ready for pickup." The company wanted me to "please pick it up at your earliest convenience."

By that point, I was so annoyed that I went in the next day and cancelled the order without asking if the laptop was in stock. It no longer mattered.

[I contacted Best Buy before posting this item to get their response. After some back and forth, I was told that someone could speak with me yesterday ... only, no one from Best Buy showed. I emailed them. Two hours after the scheduled time, they wanted to talk. Except, I no longer could. Nor was I particularly interested in jumping through hoops. If I do end up speaking with someone from the company, I'll provide an update.]

The point is not just to complain about how bad corporate customer service can be. It's to note how complex business has become. A company has a complex supply chain. Business processes cross online, in-person, telephone, mobile, and even through social media sites. These days, customers expect that all the ways a company does business to be integrated.

Only they're not. It's not just the business systems, but the processes themselves that are kept separate. To satisfy consumers today, a company has to understand that any part of the sales, delivery, service, or return process can happen through a variety of complicated channels. Only by rethinking how they do business in a fundamental way can they actually meet their customers' expectations.

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