Best Buy

4 May 2012

Social Tools at Best Buy: A Cautionary Tale

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who Likes Tools (The Non-Human Kind)…

My father ran a plant nursery up in Oregon, and for years he enjoyed a steady business with few disruptions beyond the weather. Then one day Walmart lumbered into town, and like a scene from a Godzilla flick, they began crushing everything, including mom-and-pop shops that had served the community for decades.

Some store owners heard the best way to beat the low-price leader was customer service:

“It’s all about relationships.”
“Customer service is the new marketing.”
“Don’t be product-centric, be customer-centric.”

Of course, none of that worked, as my father experienced first-hand. People came in for his expert advice, which he patiently and generously doled out, and he walked them around the nursery and pointed out the perfect plants for their yards. The people listened and took notes and thanked him profusely — then drove to Walmart and bought the same product for a lower retail price than what he paid it for wholesale.

Sure, customers want great service, but some like low prices even more.

My father’s solution: stop selling anything Walmart carried. He refocused his entire inventory on obscure plants and niche products too localized and specific for a mass-market chain. Yes, he went product-centric, and his sales dipped, but his business survived until he retired.

Well, the big boxes are now getting a taste of their own medicine from a more formidable behemoth: Amazon. And Walmart isn’t the only one threatened by the ecommerce giant.

Enter Best Buy…

For years Best Buy enjoyed a steady business with few disruptions, and their big-box buying power enabled them to crush small retailers. Then came Amazon, which could sell electronics for even less because, as an online-only retailer, they didn’t have expensive retail spaces, clerks, and (for a while) sales tax burdens that Best Buy incurred.

So Best Buy heard what the business gurus advocated:

“It’s all about relationships.”
“Customer service is the new marketing.”
“Don’t be product-centric, be customer centric.”

Indeed, Best Buy’s CMO Barry Judge fancied himself a guru, blogging about the new marketing and its focus on customer “dreams.” He even made a video:

Overnight, Best Buy became a celebrated social-media pioneer. Self-proclaimed gurus, visionaries, thought leaders, and other snake-oil peddlers cited Best Buy as a “best practice” and a “case study” on social-media marketing. Best Buy encouraged their employees to tweet and converse with customers to learn about their dreams and foster relationships.

Well, you can predict what happened next, right? All those customers listened and took notes and thanked Best Buy profusely — then used their mobile phones NOT to get Best Buy deals (as seen in the video), but to check prices on Amazon, where they ultimately made their purchase.

Cue “Another One Bites The Dust”…

Today Best Buy is downsizing, going to smaller stores with limited stock, and shutting down other stores altogether. The smaller stores will serve more as showcases than retail outlets. And Barry Judge? Oh, he resigned. His blog, which covered the marketing of the future, now looks like this: Learn all about the power of social media here.

Now, I like a lot of what Barry Judge said in his video. Some of those tactics could work — for the right company and the right customer. Like, say, in elective surgery, where the combo of a customized solution and total transparency and close customer relationships does have value, and where price isn’t all that matters.

But those social tools and tactics don’t work in big-box retail, because we consumers know that we don’t shop at big boxes for help or insights or relationships. We big-box shoppers don’t want a minimum-wage clerk or commission-based sales rep to actualize our “dreams.” We shop at a big box because we want massive selection and we want it at the lowest possible price and we want it now. That’s the only reason we tolerate these massive blots on the landscape. “Yo, Box, we’ll let you drop your freakin’ warehouse in the middle of our parkland and neighborhoods, but you better give us variety and mega-discounts — or else why bother?”

We don’t have feelings for big boxes. We don’t have loyalty to them. If we willingly let mom-and-pop fend for themselves and fade to black, why should we care about a mega-corporation?

“Social” Is Not A Strategy, It’s A Tool

If your fundamental business model doesn’t match your market, then no amount of tweeting and Facebooking, blogging and pinning, will help. Indeed, going social could hurt you if you’re wasting time and money mucking around in it instead of investing in what might actually work — like selling products that completely differ from what your competitor carries. (And, yes, that means paying attention to your competitors, not just your customers.)

So please do learn about social media. But also learn about other marketing options. And by all means learn about your customers AND your competitors AND your community AND your own company strengths and weaknesses. Then select tools because they’re right for the situation, not because some guru’s video tells you they’re the future.

After all, many of those people who were predicting the future are now history.

Update 5/16/12: Apparently, Best Buy wasn’t very good at this “transparency” thing either.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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Larry Kaplan
Larry Kaplan
12 years ago

Amen! Great insights—it’s all about what you substantitvely are; the technique is only about style.

Serge Milman | OptiRate
Serge Milman | OptiRate
12 years ago

Thanks for being explicit that PRICING is an essential component of product marketing, especially in commoditized sectors such as Consumer Goods Retailing, and Retail Banking. I can only hope that Community Bank and Credit Union business & marketing executives are paying attention!

No doubt relationships matter, but the Best Buy and a mountain of other empirical evidence illustrates that consumers are not stupid and generally dislike overpaying.

Social Media is an important channel for marketers, particularly in the Retail Banking sector. Yet, as you point out – social media is not a strategy… just as email marketing is not a strategy. Sadly, my experience suggests that too many Community Banks and Credit Unions have no strategy, other than to pray and hope. As a result, they tend to follow yesterday’s tactics, many of which have proven to be highly ineffective.

Liz Mannette
Liz Mannette
12 years ago

this is a very insightful article. Everyone talks about social media. But how you use it is so important.

thanks for sharing


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