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Best Buy Plans to Beat eBay with "Augmented" Salespeople

Editor's Note: to see our infographic slideshow on Retail Shopping in 2015, click here.

Big retailers like Best Buy (BBY) want consumers shopping on their mobile phones while they're standing in the store, so that they can use the retailer's app to see coupons or make wish-lists. But if the phone is making the sale, what happens to the sales associates?

According to two of the executives in charge of Best Buy's "emerging platforms" unit, the 180,000-person employer is also planning on using mobile phones to help "augment" the knowledge of their blue-shirted sales associates. But they'll have to be good enough to beat eBay (EBAY), which plans to use smartphones as a Trojan horse into buyers' shopping runs.

Best Buy's vision of shopping
"We're trying to make it more like you're browsing the Web while you're in the store," says Ben Hedrington, Best Buy's director of connected digital solutions. Just like on the Web, the company wants customers to have the feeling of unlimited knowledge at their finger-tips -- but through the "blue shirts" instead of a Google search.

"We're going to augment the sales people with everything that Best Buy knows," says Hedrington. When a customer asks an associate a question about a TV, that employee will soon have access to all the other employees in the network using the employee's mobile device. "In that entire network of blue-shirts, someone is an expert in that thing the customer asks about," says Hedrington. "We want them always on the network."

Hedrington says that some stores are pilot testing the use of mobile devices in the hands of sales people for this purpose. "We think that the quality of the interactions will go through the roof."

With both the customer and the sales person using their mobile devices to "augment" the sales experience, other opportunities open up. "It would be interesting to decentralize the checkout process," says Hedrington, in a scenario where the associate's mobile device is also a point-of-sale, and the customer can pay with his or her phone. Hedrington says Best Buy is considering ways to do that without completely disrupting the retail experience people are used to. "We don't yet know the right amount [of decentralization] to do."

Ebay makes it all about price
But Best Buy will have a challenge. Ebay wants consumers using the eBay app while they shop in retail stores, instead of the store's own app. As of November 22, the company has revamped its iOS apps to include totally frictionless buying. With the eBay app, you can walk into a store, see something you like, scan the barcode and find it on eBay (or one of eBay's partner retailers) and click to buy. The item is subsequently shipped to your house, and you walk out of the store having spent nothing there. (This is the store-as-showroom phenomenon I wrote about here.)

Best Buy is hoping that it can insure itself against the eBay app by making its APIs and platform access available to developers. This allows partner apps (like Milo, the real-time inventory search tool) to put Best Buy inventory and pricing on any site or app, and execute Best Buy sales all the way through fulfillment (as you can do on the Best Buy app on Google (GOOG) TV).

Ebay says that 59% of consumers plan to make use of their mobile phone in holiday shopping this year, and with 13 million users, the eBay app is going to be a part of plenty of it. "[Ebay] is something that all physical retailers are struggling against," says Hedrington. "But our question is, what can we bring to market around service and support? How can we offer the full solution around the connected device?"

If they find the answer, they might set a paradigm that Wal-Mart (WMT), Target (TGT) and Sears (SHLD) will follow.