This is How Best Buy is Bringing Experiential Retail Online

New tools such as Blue Shirt Chat digitize Best Buy's in-store experience, offering advice, support, and recommendations from real people.

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The pandemic has treated Best Buy a little differently than other retailers. Purchasing consumer electronics and appliances is traditionally a very experiential process. Shoppers will search out the opinions and advice of in-store employees and test things out before buying a new TV, computer, or fridge. There’s a reason Best Buy sales floors are so massive—customers want to see what a product looks like in person and experience it before buying.

The pandemic has quite obviously made this type of shopping harder to facilitate. A recent study found that just under three-quarters of global consumers (71%) are comfortable returning to physical stores, while a Deloitte report pointed out that just 53% of people went to brick-and-mortar stores to buy holiday gifts in 2020. 

In the case of Best Buy, surging e-commerce trends (along with the related lack of motivation to shop in-store) meant the massive retailer had to act quickly and develop new ways to deliver advice and support alongside its online catalog of products. By focusing on embedding the in-store experience within its digital platform, Best Buy responded to the pandemic with a handful of new features that will carry it forward as an e-commerce leader. 

“Our primary customer experience goal is to let people shop how and when they want,” says Thierry Hay-Sabourin, SVP of e-commerce, marketplace and technology at Best Buy Canada. “This year, we developed a very solid omnichannel shopping experience that doesn’t force people to choose one form of shopping over another.”

Need to Know

  • Early on in the pandemic, Best Buy launched Blue Shirt Chat, a tool that connects online shoppers directly to in-store associates for free. Customers can then ask questions about products, request advice on how different devices work together, and more.
  • A recent update to Blue Shirt Chat involves customers beginning their mobile device activation process online, then coming into a physical store to pick up the ready-to-go phone, saving 10-15 minutes of in-store waiting.
  • The new Best Buy Check-In tool lets shoppers check-in as they arrive at the store and skip the line to drop off an item to be repaired, pick up an online order, or finish activating a phone.
  • Best Buy also redesigned stores to focus on digital order fulfillment, building dedicated pick-up counters, and expanding warehouse space to enable ship-from-store. In 2019, Best Buy shipped 35% of Canadian online orders from brick-and-mortar stores, with plans to grow that number substantially.
  • Best Buy’s digital sales grew 174% last quarter.

Best Buy’s interactive digital retail

In order to bring the in-store experience online, Best Buy launched Blue Shirt Chat early on in the pandemic. Named after the retailer’s easy-to-find employees that typically walk around the sales floor, Blue Shirt Chat is a live chat tool accessible from nearly any product page on Best Buy’s website. If a customer wants to know how a TV will fit in with their gaming setup, or what kind of sound system might work for their living room, Blue Shirt Chat will connect them with an in-store employee to answer any questions. 

“We’re known for technology and enriching customers’ lives through tech,” says Hay-Sabourin. “What we do better than everyone else is bringing a strong tech selection and knowledge to the customer. But what makes us unique is that mixture of in-person advice and expertise through Blue Shirts and Geek Squad.”

Blue Shirt Chat in action. Check out the live chat window recommending a TV to buy.

The need for a tool like Blue Shirt chat became apparent very early on in the pandemic according to Hay-Sabourin, as both customers and Best Buy employees looked for more ways to connect to the products they were buying and selling, respectively. Employees, who are specially trained to understand which electronics pair well with one another and how to best determine product fit, were unable to share that expertise with customers. 

Blue Shirt Chat also allowed Best Buy to keep more employees engaged and working, as many agents are actual in-store employees whose previous duties involved roaming the floor and chatting with customers. 

“What makes us unique is that mixture of in-person advice and expertise through Blue Shirts and Geek Squad.”

Thierry Hay-Sabourin, SVP of e-commerce, marketplace and technology, Best Buy Canada

One of the biggest differentiators of Blue Shirt Chat is that it is free to everyone. Hay-Sabourin describes the three levels of chat interactions Best Buy has: general support, which can include facilitating price adjustments and returns; Geek Squad, which is a paid service for trouble-shooting and smart home setup; then Blue Shirt Chat, which exists solely to answer questions and offer advice without pushing sales.  

Best Buy has heavily relied on and invested in Geek Squad to drive sales over the last decade, so the introduction of Blue Shirt Chat was an interesting but welcome development only brought on by the pandemic. By having an almost “entry-level” version of live support and advice, it creates an accessible channel for employees to both connect with shoppers and continue constructing the image of Best Buy as an expert source for electronics.  

“Best Buy invested a lot in the knowledge that our Blue Shirts have,” says Hay-Sabourin. “When the stores were not accessible, we wanted to immediately continue to offer that high level of personalized advice.” 

So far, the value of Blue Shirt chat has been immense. It has allowed Best Buy to keep itself grounded within the experiential method of shopping it has specialized in for decades, offering timely advice and suggestions for people who are making substantial purchases. And according to Hay-Sabourin, the need for something like Blue Shirt Chat will just keep growing. 

“The number of connected devices is exploding. Technology is becoming more complex, and there are more options and more ecosystems to play with,” he says. “Customers need help choosing a solution that’s best for them more than ever.”

Expediting smartphone activation

Blue Shirt Chat’s popularity has also let Best Buy experiment with new ways of handling typical pre-pandemic shopping transactions. By moving routine questions and advice into the digital realm, Best Buy found it was also able to move some of the routine set up processes involved with its products online as well. 

Normally, buying a phone through a carrier takes a little while to set up. It involves registering a phone number, installing a SIM, porting over files, and other menial (at least for the consumer) administrative tasks. With Blue Shirt Chat, shoppers can find a phone they like online, then start the activation on their computer. Then all they have to do is show up with ID and complete the final steps of the activation in-store, saving at least 10-15 minutes of waiting around. 

“When stores were not accessible, we wanted to immediately continue offering that high level of personalized advice.” 

Thierry Hay-Sabourin

“We know phone activation takes time, and right now, people want to spend less time in-store,” says Hay-Sabourin. “So we developed this ability for customers to start their activation process online. It’s just another example where we bring the Blue Shirt into the digital space to help with the customer’s research and purchase process.”

This fairly simple idea—taking an in-store process and making it digital—is a key factor driving Best Buy’s digital transformation during the pandemic, and is likely going to stick around once stores re-open to full capacity. 

“It’s about tapping into the training and expertise of employees and making it available to the greater number,” says Hay-Sabourin. “Stitched together, the guiding principle is that we want to provide customers with options on their terms. We bring all of Best Buy and its products, advice, and support right to them.”

Reevaluating the brick-and-mortar experience

Aside from bringing the experiential factor of in-store shopping online, Best Buy has also been heavily investing in updates to its physical footprint to accommodate the digital experience. Like other big-box retailers, Best Buy has seen a major uptick in online sales, posting 174% growth last quarter. That kind of surge required a drastic rethink of how fulfillment was handled across the entire Best Buy brand. 

Best Buy began fulfilling online orders directly from their store in the mid-2010s, and by 2019, 35% of orders in Canada were fulfilled through Best Buy’s brick-and-mortar network. Best Buy Canada actually pioneered the ship-from-store model for the chain, eventually expanding that fulfillment method to stores in the US. Hay-Sabourin expects the total percentage of orders shipped from store to increase thanks to Best Buy’s investments in the omnichannel experience. 

A look inside a Best Buy warehouse.

“If you have this principle of letting customers shop how and when they want, then you start to unlock all the inventory you have for your customers in the quickest manner,” he explains. “Ship-from-store is a part of that puzzle. It allows us to get closer to the customer’s home and is a key strategic investment to connect those dots.”

Currently, 80% of Canadians live within 25 kilometers of a Best Buy, while nearly three-quarters of US citizens live within a 15-minute drive of a store. With that kind of reach, ship-from-store allows Best Buy to fulfill many shipments by the next day, and even better, have pick-up orders ready in less than 30 minutes.

But in order to make that happen, Hay-Sabourin explains that the Best Buy e-commerce team had to rethink how they organize stores and backrooms. New experiential stores (there’s about three dozen of them) focus on pick up by creating a separate experience for digital customers. 

“Customers don’t want to pick up an order and wait in the same lines as other customers,” says Hay-Sabourin. “They want to be in and out as fast as possible. So we carved out space for a specific online order counter, along with ship-from-store warehouse space. We invested to accommodate the shift in customers wanting to shop online.”

The retailer also developed a new reserve and pickup method called Best Buy Check-In. When a customer gets to the store, they can check-in through text or by scanning a QR code outside the store, then confirm that they are there to either pick up an order, activate a phone, drop something off for repair, or any other reason. They can also just simply chat with a store associate and ask questions if need be. 

Best Buy’s retail model always relied on keeping the customer in control. Whether it involved customers asking questions about products, trying out different devices live on the sales floor, or getting support from experts, Best Buy knew its omnichannel experience had to mimic what they had been doing in physical stores for decades. Now, with Blue Shirt Chat, Best Buy Check-In, and other features like virtual line management, the experiential side of Best Buy has embraced the digital retail ecosystem. 

“E-commerce is incredibly dynamic. It’s an exciting time to be investing in this space,” says Hay-Sabourin. “We’ve been thinking like this for a while. We drop that ‘e’ in front of e-commerce. We just call it total retail because we’re just one Best Buy. We’re focused on helping customers shop on their terms.”

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