Need to learn how to adjust a treadmill? Not sure which espresso machine to buy? Or the difference between a Sony and a Canon camera lens?
If you are buying online, Best Buy’s “virtual store” in Bloomington is set up to help.
Located in 40,000 square feet of space of one of the electronics retailer’s Bloomington warehouses, not far from its Richfield headquarters, the store is more like a Hollywood set. It is the company’s first foray into a new type of interactive, digital shopping experience that its leaders say is the next step in retail’s evolution.
One area is a gym staffed with personal trainers and equipment. Another is dedicated to Microsoft laptops and devices. In the large photo section, professional photographers explain details of cameras and lenses through equipment that allows the consumer to see through the camera lens. There are also cubicles for staff to have more private conversations with customers as well.
Ring lights, movable cameras and computers are everywhere to help staff demonstrate the products.
“This is kind of the first step into the metaverse where you actually have this virtual team,” said Damien Harmon, Best Buy’s executive vice president of omnichannel. “We are spending a lot of time and saying, ‘What does that experience look like? How should we think about this? What’s the next evolution?'”
The online expert service launched last winter as people were still worried about venturing into physical stores, and continued to grow even as brick-and-mortar shopping made its comeback. Best Buy leaders say the company continues to explore the potential for other uses.
Over the pandemic, consumers have become more willing to engage in different types of shopping experiences, said Ben Arnold, a consumer electronics industry analyst for market research company the NPD Group.
“I think that this type of service or storefront is something that gets at consumers wherever they might be, wherever their eyeballs might be and capitalizes on that convenience aspect,” Arnold said. “But it’s also something I think shoppers expect from Best Buy. … I think in a lot of ways it’s on trend for where retail is going.”
Some newer areas in Best Buy’s space include scooters and electric bikes, a Therabody station with leg compressors, and a place that will be set up for Best Buy’s new over-the-counter hearing aids.
“All we wanted to do is put the expertise that Best Buy is known for … and put them online,” said Adam Born, Best Buy’s vice president of category and virtual sales enablement, during a tour of the warehouse space.
Customers are directed to the virtual store by going to a BestBuy.com product page and clicking on the icon of a blue-shirted Best Buy employee in the bottom right corner.
Virtual store staff can text chat, talk over the phone, video chat and screenshare with customers. The experience is likely a step up for many consumers’ online interactions with retailers, Born said.
“Customers almost always assume they are talking to a chatbot,” he said. “The more human we make these interactions, the better they will get.”
There are 120 Best Buy employees who work in the virtual store. There are about 200 other people who work remotely offering help. A few dozen vendor representatives also give demonstrations for their products.
There also are satellite virtual stores staged in physical stores, a home theater set up in Illinois and an appliance center in California.
Over the past year, the virtual store has served more than a quarter million customers. The company said it is seeing a 20% customer satisfaction improvement from before the virtual store.
Best Buy has continued to grow its virtual sales throughout the pandemic. So far this fiscal year, the company has generated five times the digital sales as it did in the fiscal year that incorporated most of 2019.
Harmon said Best Buy will continue to experiment with how to use the virtual store. Best Buy is already partnering with some vendors to make virtual store help available from their product websites. Harmon said the space can also be used to remotely train employees on new products.
The virtual store is only one avenue that Best Buy is experimenting with to figure out the next evolution of its retail stores. This summer the retailer opened a small-format store in North Carolina that customers use their smartphones to shop. It is also testing outlet stores and experiential stores which provide more interaction.
Nicole Norfleet covers the fast-paced retail scene including industry giants Target and Best Buy. She previously covered commercial real estate and professional services.
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