(Note 030609: A thanks to Rob Pegoraro's Tweet today. You should also read my follow up to this post, "Best Buy Revisited: Buying a PC at retail isn't as bad as I first found". In this economy retail needs to shine. See more in my Apple Store experience post: http://tinyurl.com/c28vuf.)

I twittered over the weekend about my retail experiences at two different stores, a local Best Buy (aka a big box electronics store) and our local Apple Store.  I was prompted to visit after I read Matt Richtel's article in the Times, in which Geek Squad management said that their "agents have one thing over Apple and Microsoft engineers. We spend most of the day talking to people."

Do they really have something "over" Apple and Microsoft?  Casting aside all my preconceptions of such stores, I decided to check this out.

First stop: Best Buy...

I drove over to my local Best Buy, which for full disclosure I must admit is often a regular stop on my weekly agenda.  I don't go there necessarily for advice, as I find myself more often than not consulting on-line reviews and feedback when considering a new purchase.  I do go there for staples and items that may require a return (increasingly it's gifts).  I go there with my kids to check out the latest electronics, cameras and video games ('though Game Stop is usually what our kids identify with most these days).  On that late Friday after work, I twittered that I found the store quite full, with many folks stacked up in the computer department late in the day. 

I first noticed that the computer department had several long displays, each with six to seven computers lined up for inspection.  On average, more people were looking at laptops slash notebooks than desktop PCs.  (Not surprising as analysts such as IDC have noted that notebook sales are rising as desktop sales decline, with almost 2/3 of all notebooks sold to consumers.)

Geek Squad Customer ServiceWithin a few minutes, I ended up like many others there: a frustrated shopper at a big box store.  As I found my way back to the computer area, I glanced over at the combination Geek Squad slash customer service desk and didn't see a single Geek behind the desk.

I saw only only one sales person for a dozen customers in the department.

About twenty minutes into my visit, mulling about the laptops, netbooks and peripherals near the central sales counter, I was still waiting. I noticed two other salespeople finally walking by, but they were intent on finding keys to the store room to unlock an Asus netbook for a customer: I overheard that he'd been waiting for "a <expletive deleted> half an hour" with his friend.  I did spot another sales rep in a blue shirt talking to the on-site Clearwire rep about PCs. Well, they were actually talking about the performance of gaming sites on the Clearwire wireless service: I could hear them quite clearly.

Apple Stand at Best BuyLooking left of the generally Windows computers, I saw that there were no sales people in the Apple in-store display, and only one, lone customer looking at Macs.  For the duration of my visit, I saw perhaps two customers in the Apple area.  

And all the while, I still didn't see a single white-shirt, black-trouser Geek Squad staff anywhere in eyeshot.

Meanwhile, while finally seeing a rep appear behind the computer terminal looking up a spec or something for a customer, another customer behind me asks "is this the line to get some help?" 

I looked around and saw five people queued up behind me, and just as many around the notebooks fiddling with keys and admiring screens. Time in the store so far according to my tweet: 35 minutes.

Finally, after joking with the gentleman behind me in line about getting some assistance before the store closed (his joke, not mine) a sales rep and asks "Can I help you?"

Oh, yes, says me. "I'm looking to purchase a new notebook and I have a few questions about a couple of the models on the floor."

"Oh, sorry, I'm from Clearwire wireless here tonite. One of the other guys can help you with that."

With that, he walks away and motions to the blue shirt hastily tapping on the keyboard: he looks up from his computer terminal, apparently delivering his other customer into the hands of the Clearwire wireless rep notebook and strides over to see me.

Finally, a sales guy. I typed "this should be interesting..." on to Tiny Twitter about 40 minutes now into my visit.

Over the course of the next ten minutes or so, the rep answered most of my questions as we compared a few of different models with similar specs and features: a couple of Dell notebooks, a Toshiba and two HPs.  Coming into the store, I had all but decided on a particular Dell model that was on sale, but had questions on the design and features of the closest comparable HP and Toshiba (as we have all three brands represented at home, in addition to Apple, Gateway and my custom-built Shuttle).  The rep was able to answer most of my questions but had to refer to the specs printed on the note cards in front of each of the models for a few items... understandable as there were nearly two dozen (or more) models on the floor. 

As I finally decided on the model to purchase, I expected that the rep was preparing to kick into the standard shtick on extended warranties... but no: he surprised me with the first thing out of his mouth:

"The models you've looked at really don't have any anti-virus or security software on them, they're really pretty empty.  For $129, we will add complete anti-virus and security software, and install it for you.  We'll also clean out and remove all the junk on the computer and fix the registry."

Huh?  What's that?  Clean out the junk?  Fix the registry?  These were new computers.  What is in need of fixing?  I made a note of what he said in my notebook that I had tucked under my arm, to be sure I captured it in the entirety.  I wrote this down among the notes and specs I had brought with me on the various computers on my short list, compiled from various web sites.  The rep continued:

"You see, the computer comes with a bunch of junk and software that just clogs up the machine, and really slows them down. And the computers only come with some limited time offers for security protection. So the Geek Squad has a deal where we take of all that for you, and it doesn't take very long."

"Really?" I asked, scribbling his words into my notebook.  "Well, I don't think that I need the security software, as I already have packages at home for AV and security."

"Oh.  Well, we also offer 'crapware removal' and optimization of the registry from the Geek Squad for just $30. They're pretty fast and can take care of it while you wait. 

<pause>

"I think that I even have a couple of units of the computer you're purchasing already cleaned if you're interested."   

"Uh, I don't think so," I said.  I was concerned about the 'crapware removal' and optimization of the registry offered by the Geek Squad.  The fact that the sales rep even offered me a preconfigured and "pre-cleaned" units already in stock was an interesting offer.  As I said, I declined: being a self-acknowledged geek, I'm not thrilled with the idea that a tech had already opened the computer packaging and monkeyed about with the contents of the drive and the registry.  Mind you, $30 is less than the $50 fee Sony proposed for their "Fresh Start" programme.  As Ken Fisher of Ars wrote back in March...

"We learned at 2007's International CES, straight from Michael Dell himself, that "crapware" generates significant revenue for the PC industry, accounting for some $60 of revenue per machine at Dell. In an industry with razor-thin margins, it's not hard to see why crapware is popular with OEMs like Dell and Sony."

As such, I wonder if Dell is thrilled with Best Buy's action, or perhaps other OEMs: I noticed in the locked cabinets bordering the computer area that units from all manufacturers -- Sony, HP, Gateway -- on the floor had been similarly "de-Geeked" of OEM installed software, their registries mucked with, awaiting purchase.  Given reviews I've seen in many of the popular trade magazines on the ever increasing amount of "bloatware" and "trialware" I can imagine that some customers take advantage of the service.  To prove this hypothesis, I found that upon a follow up visit to Best Buy a couple of days later, all of the units of the make and model I purchased that had been "pre-Geeked" had been sold.

"OK, how about an extended warranty... we have a..."

I quickly (but nicely) cut him off, explaining that I was fine with the standard one year warranty from the manufacturer, happy in the knowledge that my credit card company will double the warranty to two years for free.

After a little over an hour (one hour and 13 minutes, to be exact), I'm in the car with my new notebook, still sealed in the carton and imaginably laden with all the software the OEM had intended, and the limited security software the sales rep had warned me about.

Let me reiterate that: I spent over an hour to get maybe five to ten minutes of time with someone who knew what they were talking about, resulting in a sale. 

As I left the store, I looked over at the Geek Squad area and saw a line of two or three people waiting to speak with the lone Geek manning the station.  I also noted three similarly clothed Geeks at the entrance to the back service area, talking and laughing with a couple of blue shirted Best Buy floor manager types. 

Perhaps that's what the Geeks mean when they say that they "spend most of the day talking to people."  They're referring to the deep discussions they have with other staff behind the counter.

On to Apple...

Now, on to run an errand at the mall with my son, Max, in an effort to trade in some old video games for new ones... and a stop at the Apple Store.  I've posted items about a visit last year to my local Apple Store and a brief post here.

As his family is all Apple Macintosh (my brother-in-law is a creative type VP at a design firm), we recently purchased a new black MacBook for our nephew.  I was interested in comparing the differences between the model we selected and the current crop of Apples (or would that be 'harvest'?).  Max at the Apple Store

In addition, our Zune-toting son, Max, still craves the ultra slim and tiny iPod Nano, and enjoys the iPhone (tho' far too young for a mobile): techno lust knows no age boundaries.

At the Apple Store, we find a good ratio of salespeople to customers, I count 8 - no 9 - people on the floor, with one busy guy at the Genius Bar. I was greeted by a couple of people and one came over to me and asked if I had any questions.

Apple Store employee Edgar answered all of my questions on the differences between the white and the black MacBooks, and even steered me to a less expensive model than I had originally considered. He outlined that the savings I found could be better spent on more memory given that our nephew was into animation and film making in high school.  During the discussion he seemed genuinely interested in my questions, offered good, thoughtful answers, and wasn't there for the hard sell.

In all, we spent just a little more than 20 minutes in the store, with at least (if not more) half of that time spent among the tables of white plastic as Max oogled over the iPhones and iPod nanos. He obviously enjoyed that no one shoo'ed him away from playing with the hardware, pawing at the touch screens and bounding from one table to the next, happily asking questions and getting answers. Similarly, I saw a large number of parents in the Apple Store in tow with kids who happily played with the Macs and music players, all with the assistance of a helpful rep. No pressure, no push and even though the store was full, no wait.

I did see a few people behind the counter at the back, ringing up sales and handing out bags of merchandise, another lone Genius at the Bar doling out advice to a growing line of people in the store (many with hardware in hand). There didn't seem to be much time for chit chat amongst the staff: they all appeared to be engaged, answering customer questions.

I believe that the customer experience is well summed up in an article from the Times last year, "Inside Apple Stores, a Certain Aura Enchants the Faithful" by Katie Hafner

"Whenever we ask consumers to cite a great retail experience, the Apple store is the first store they mention," said Jane Buckingham, president of the Intelligence Group, a market research firm in Los Angeles. "Basically, everything about it works. The people who work there are cool and knowledgeable. They have the answers you want, and can sell you what you need. Customers appreciate that. Even the fact that they’ll e-mail you a receipt makes you feel like you’'re in a store just a little bit further ahead of everyone else."

There are a few 'it' retailers for various things, retailers that I will visit even if it entails a long drive out of my way, but not too many choices for computers these days. (As noted, ComputerWare set the bar for many computer retailers in Silicon Valley, as did Kepler's for books).  As I've noted on this blog previously, I've used and owned many different computers over my career, for the most part dominated by Macs and PCs since the mid 1980's, including several NeXT Cubes and slabs (and one poor attempt at setting up and using a Linux system).  The best customer experiences I recall have been in Macintosh hardware and software stores.  It's no wonder that (as Fortune noted) Apple Store sales per square foot in New York are more than four times Best Buy.

[Update 090809: Full disclosure: As of today, we have several different brands of Windows computers in our home, including Dell, HP, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, recently retired Gateway and Shuttle PCs, and a newly installed, home built moneaul media centre. Being an equal opportunity computer user, I also have a couple of Apple Macintosh PCs, given I have been using the brand since the first Mac 128K, and before that with the Apple II (and before that too numerous to mention). Somewhere in storage is my original C64! At work, I use a variety of PCs, my main models being from Asus, Dell and Toshiba (not to mention different smartphones). One day soon I'll write a post describing what we use the various PCs for; until then, thank heaven for mesh computing and my Windows Home Server to manage it all!]

Is there a retail store with the service of ComputerWare today for personal computers, one that isn't marked by a side view of a popular Washington state fruit?  I'm not sure.

Tags: Apple, Microsoft, Vista, Windows, Best Buy, retail, whack, Customer Service.

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[edited 090308: fixed link in first paragraph]