Best Buy's robot reinforces the chain's perceived weakness

There's no doubt that this robot will prove to be an attention-generating novelty in Manhattan, but will it ultimately prove counterproductive for Best Buy?

Best Buy
Flickr/Nicholas Eckhart

A Best Buy experiment in New York City is using a giant (350-foot-tall) robot to grab DVDs, CDs, video games, headphones and chargers for customers. There's no doubt that this will prove to be an attention-generating novelty in Manhattan, but will it ultimately prove counterproductive for Best Buy?

In their battle with e-tailers — especially Amazon — retailers need to push customer service and associate interactions. The more impersonal the interactions, the more ground that is ceded to e-tailers. To be fair, there are two ways of spinning this. Best Buy has pushed the "freeing up" argument, where the robot is freeing up associates to spend more time on personal interactions.

By the way, the classic example of the "freeing up" argument has been retail self-checkout. Have you noticed stores that have embraced self-checkout offering far more personal services? Yeah, me neither. The question is whether Best Buy's freeing up effort will deliver benefits that are any more tangible.

There's nothing new about a major chain toying with robots in front-of-the-house operations — consider Tesco's efforts in June — but the extent to which this plays right into the hands of Amazon is impressive.

What makes this even more problematic is that Best Buy, along with Barnes & Noble, is among the chains that have been hit the hardest by Amazon. Best Buy got attacked with a double online whammy. In something that was beyond its control, it happened to be in the consumer electronics space and couldn't craft a decent reason why shoppers shouldn't get those electronics online for less.

What it should have said is that its associates are true technology experts and that they give non-biased, well-informed guidance to shoppers who don't understand electronics nuisances. That brings us to Whammy #2. The perception was that its associates were just horrible, that they didn't understand the technology and pushed shoppers to the highest-margin option. For the most part, that's something that Amazon has not done, even though it has always had the programming talent to make it happen.

Fast-forward to today. Best Buy needs to give shoppers a reason to come into its stores again, and it opts for a mammoth R2D2. It could have been worse. It could have opted for an artificial intelligence robot dabbling in self-awareness.

The robot reinforces the impersonalized perception of Best Buy. Whenever I have dropped by a Best Buy to purchase a very specific item, I have asked the associate a technical question that I happen to know the answer to. Not only are the answers almost always wrong, but those wrong answers are issued with an impressive certainty. Any shopper who didn't know technology and opted to trust these people could experience some serious problems.

Associates are expensive, and bona fide technology experts are hard to recruit, especially for a retail sales gig. But it's not impossible. Look at Apple Stores. Admittedly, that may not be a fair comparison, since Best Buy sells a far wider range of products compared with Apple. But Apple's consumer products are quite complicated, and its associates are impressively versed in Apple minutia — and, from my experience, they overwhelmingly get it right.

Even better, Apple associates have a willingness to say "I don't know" when they don't know. I'd love for Best Buy associates to be taught that trick.

To be fair, Best Buy is doing one brilliant move with the robot. To quote a Minneapolis Star-Tribune story about the NYC robot: "The souped-up kiosk has nine touch screens, including a couple that are accessible from the entryway to the store when the store is closed. This way customers can use Chloe [the name of the robot] to buy items if they have a movie emergency — or need a cellphone charger — in the middle of the night."

Although that middle-of-the-night effort is technologically not very different from the Best Buy airport kiosks — not surprising given that both come from the same Best Buy development group — it is a nice move in giving shoppers a reason to go to the store. I hope the irony isn't lost on Best Buy, namely that this Best Buy store is more useful to shoppers when it's closed.

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