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Wanted: A New Kind Of Electronics Store

A Modest Proposal

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Wanted: A New Kind Of Electronics Store
Photo: SF Gate
Most electronics manufacturers, particularly the biggest ones, have a love-hate relationship with the retailers that sell their products. It's a classic case of can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.

Most consumers agree with the first part -- can't live with 'em. Witness the demise of Circuit City, CompUSA, Ultimate Electronics, Tweeter and numerous other electronics chains that are now empty, bulldozed and forgotten. Some of these chains offered a slightly better experience than others, but nobody misses any of them, other than the unfortunates who lost jobs or held stock.

The can't-live-without-em part is the more knotty problem. Someone's got to "fulfill" all these high tech goodies that people want to buy. Maybe you'll purchase from an e-tailer like Amazon, or a megastore like Wal Mart. But short of manufacturers selling direct to the consumer -- an idea that has failed for virtually every brand that isn't named after a fruit -- retailers are a necessary evil.

The problem is that with few exceptions, like high-end boutique retailers, the experience for the consumer still stinks no matter where you buy. It's time for a new paradigm, a new kind of retailer for home tech.

Why Brick And Mortar Stinks

Where to begin? First, let's consider how limited a conventional store's inventory is. In just in the TV category alone there are hundreds of current models and hundreds more that are less current but still factory fresh.

Even a huge store like a Best Buy can't carry them all, nor would they want to. Especially these days, because more and more consumers simply use Best Buy as a place to pick out the TV they want so they can go and buy it for less on the Internet. This process of "showrooming" is a disaster for the traditional electronics retailers. Witness the downward spiral of Best Buy with each fiscal report.

So what if you went to your local Wal Mart instead? You'll certainly get a good price. But will you get a good product? Most of the major manufacturers make cheaper, scaled-down models specifically for Wal Mart and other cut-rate retailers. You may think you've bought the real deal from Sony, Samsung et al, but what you've actually bought is, in effect, an official knock-off with the same name.

Both these retailers, and others of their type, share one major problem. Neither of them can offer real customer service. Best Buy employees are occasionally knowledgeable about what they sell, but these are real exceptions. There is little to no formal product or sales training. And it wouldn't matter much if there was -- the average turnover for a Best Buy blueshirt is about 60 days. As for Wal Mart, you're lucky if you find any help at all -- this is meant to be a self-serve environment.

Why Buying Online Stinks

Ok, so instead you go to Amazon, or an even more cut-rate e-tailier like Overstock.com, Buy.com, eBay, etc. Surely you'll have plenty of choices. Surely you'll find the best price. Surely you'll find a product that will make you happy. But how? There are thousands and thousands of choices.

You can read the user reviews of course. But how many of them are legitimate? Amazon has been caught more than once letting manufacturers put up bogus positive reviews. And how many of these user reviews are genuinely knowledgeable? One user says TV X has a great picture and is very happy. Another says that the same TV has been a disappointing purchase and they'll never buy that brand again. You obviously can't see the TV in person (unless you do a bit of showrooming yourself), so who do you believe?

Then, of course, there's the problem of the return policy. If you buy a big screen TV from an online dealer and decide you don't like it, are you really going to box it back up, drag it to the local UPS store and ship it...even if the shipping fee is free, like it is at Amazon?

Of course Amazon is a real retailer; it has recently been legitimized by several of the major electronics manufacturers as one of the few true "authorized" e-commerce sites. But for every Amazon, B&H, Crutchfield and other legitimate online retailer, there are hundreds of fly-by-nights that sell unauthorized or refurbished products with no warranty and sketchy-to-non-existent return policies. You can do your research on them and take your chances, if that's your idea of a good time.

It’s time for some brave – and smart – manufacturers to try something new. I mean really new. I’m not talking about the lame, nearly pointless e-commerce experience that some manufacturers insist on pursuing directly. There’s absolutely no reason for me to buy a Sony TV from Sony’s web site; I can get the exact same product at almost any retailer online or off, and in many cases find it for less money.

I'm also not talking about the Apple Stores, everyone's current retail darlings. Sure, it's a much better customer experience, but that's easy to do when you sell only one brand with dozens of products, instead of dozens of brands with hundreds of products.

A Modest Proposal For A New Retail Paradigm

Imagine going into a brick and mortar "store" that's essentially a showroom -- on purpose. Think of it as a high tech bazaar. There'd be independent sections and "stores within a store" held by each participating brand. You can actually see and touch the product you're considering. Each brand would have sales reps that are actually knowledgeable on the products and can actually help you. You pick out what you want in person, and after you buy, the product is delivered to your home.

A "store" like this would have lots of benefits for both buyer and seller, and blend the best of e-commerce and physical retail plants. Consumers get the advantage of a better buying experience. Manufacturers could control their pricing, messaging and distribution.

Today's TV makers and sellers are undergoing a major shift. There are too many brands and models, and too few differences between them. There are already industry consolidations and many venerable names will go away. Brick and mortar selling is becoming a bloodbath for both manufacturer and retailer. E-commerce is killing industry profits, and along with it, the impetus to bring out better products.

There needs to be another way. I look forward to seeing it soon.

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