What Can Schools Learn from Best Buy’s Continuing Troubles?

Not sure if you've been following the news or not, but Best Buy — like a slew of Big Box electronics stores in the past ten years –is teetering on the brink of extinction. 

The primary hitch for Best Buy is that there's almost NOTHING that distinguishes its thousands of square feet of sales space from online retailers like Amazon that have no overhead and sell us the exact same stuff for half the price.

As Roben Farzad and Kenton Powell explain in this Bloomberg Business Week bit, Best Buy has become nothing more than a digital showroom for most customers:

"Window shoppers go to one of Best Buy’s well-appointed stores to avail themselves of quality face time with gadgets and salespeople (think inventory and salary costs) before consummating the transaction elsewhere—online.

Fueling that growing practice are price-comparison apps such as Amazon’s Price Check, which lets those obnoxiously savvy smartphone users scan a particular item’s barcode at a store and immediately know who has the best deal on the Web. Consumers can then just buy it right on their phone.

It’s like a scene from the vintage cartoon comedy The Jetsons, but traditional retailers with hundreds of costly stores, such as Best Buy, Sears Holdings, and even Wal-Mart, aren’t laughing."

To save itself, argues Alex Goldfayn in this Mashable Business bit, Best Buy needs to improve the customer experience in its stores.  After all, stores — actual physical buildings that we stop by on the way home from work in order to get our hands on devices — is what makes Best Buy unique, right?

That's something that Amazon isn't even TRYING to provide, but it is something that customers STILL want — explaining the full parking lots in front of YOUR local Best Buy every weekend.

Improving the customer experience in stores, however, means reinvesting in employees — and that's something that Best Buy hasn't been willing to do.  The Blue Shirt Nation employee training program that Best Buy built its reputation on has been neglected for years. 

The results, according to Goldfayn, have been devastating:

"One of Best Buy’s major advantages over Amazon is that it employs people in blue shirts who are expected to help customers. These folks are young (because they cost less this way), but insufficiently trained.

Of course, Apple Stores employ young people too, but Apple’s people are empowered, no, mandated, to help people. Best Buy’s store staffers read the back of the box with you."

Improving the customer experience in stores also means stripping away the hundreds of items that Best Buy currently sells to customers to focus its efforts on a smaller handful of high quality gadgets that people actually want. 

As Goldfayn explains, "Best Buy should focus on the best products, not on as many products as can be crammed onto shelves."  Doing so would make the shopping experience more efficient for customers — and more profitable for Best Buy. 

I couldn't help but thinking about traditional brick-and-mortar schools when I was reading these two bits about Best Buy, y'all.

On the bright side, there is still a lot of faith in OUR physical buildings too.

People WANT to be able to walk into community learning spaces. Physical schools represent a sense of tangible community togetherness that still matters.  They connect us, providing a shared experience that we can rally around and find value in — even if they do cost more to run.

But we are underinvesting in our employees too

For too long, "cutting costs" in education has meant spending less on teacher salaries and professional development.  Like Best Buy, we are systematically under-investing in the primary advantage that physical schools offer to the communities that they serve – talented people who know their stuff.

And the consequences are just as disconcerting:  People are losing faith in schools.  They just don't see teachers as knowledgeable professionals that add enough value to make the costs of community learning spaces worthwhile. 

We're also cramming too many products on our shelves as well

We want our kids to learn basic skills and 21st Century skills and healthy living skills and social skills and vocational skills and college preparation skills and remediation skills and enrichment skills all in the same classroom with the same poorly prepared and poorly paid teacher. 

That's a lot like expecting the 19-year old Best Buy salesman to simultaneously support customers who want to learn to burn CDs, to set up home entertainment systems, to pick the right DSLR camera and lens package, and to choose an Energy Star Washer/Dryer combo all at once. 


In the end, it seems to me that physical schools are teetering on the brink of extinction because we're making the same mistakes that Best Buy is making

Instead of under-investing in our professionals trying to solve every social challenge under the sun, and attempting to deliver ridiculously large curricula in a bunch of 45-minute class periods, we've got to find a way to make physical schools places where highly trained — and well paid — professionals provide targeted support in a smaller range of essential skills that we really care about. 



Related Radical Reads:

Is It Time for A La Carte Education?

The Economy's Impact on Education

Adapt or Die, Curmudgeon


9 thoughts on “What Can Schools Learn from Best Buy’s Continuing Troubles?

  1. Black Friday 2012

    Surprised to see this horrible news. I was almost doing my all online shopping for electronic gadgets from Best Buy. Many fans of Best Buy criticize this very most trusted website now a days for this reason. A question against online shopping has been raised after this.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    David wrote:
    I really worry that for-profit schools will challenge the public system
    in a way that force them to be more cost-effective on the backs of
    teachers and the public system.
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
    Im with you on this one, David — and I think were already getting there, arent we? I mean one of the reasons that we see the push towards tying teachers to test scores is so that we can cut what were paying teachers. The market hawks that are driving #edpolicy will begin to set up score ranges on tests that will be used to determine salaries whether or not results on tests really means anything worthwhile for students and/or schools.
    On a simpler level, our building has cut custodial services to the bone — leaving teachers to clean their own classrooms for the most part. Sure it is saving money for the county. Sure its protecting teaching positions — which would have been cut had we kept our full complement of janitors. The problem is that making our school more cost effective by cutting janitors leaves more work for me to do.
    The implications are frightening largely because, as you explained, the sense of schools as a public resource doing work that matters for the long term health of communities has gone right out the window. None of that matters to people who want taxes cut.

  3. Kate Fail

    Hello again,
    I’m back again from EDM 310. I really enjoyed this blog post and it definitely made me think. It is so true that traditional schools are on the brink of extinction just like Best Buy. As a future teacher, It crosses my mind daily whether or not I will be able to find a job when I graduate. I know I am receiving a great education and I feel I will be qualified for the job, but I wonder if qualifications other than a degree mean much anymore? Thanks for the post and I look forward to keeping up with your blog.

  4. Kayelyn fill

    I found your blog post to be very interesting. They never fail to make me really think. Like I had never thought of such an analogy. Comparing schools to best buy is right on though and that is pretty sad. We do need to make sure knowledgable teachers that are going to add value are working in our school system. It’s not only what people want, but what students NEED. Thanks again for your posts. I look forward to continue reading and learning.

  5. crazedmummy

    There are many other stores that “laid off” employees when they became too expensive – either because they were on commission and we consumers asked specifically for knowledgeable employees, or because the directors decided that the the knowledge of the employees was too expensive. Once the knowledge was gone, we went elsewhere. Also, once we got the product home, there was no assistance for us – so we may as well buy on-line.
    Our school district continues to treat teachers as widgets that can be moved around, to be made unhappy, to be criticized, rather than people who should be able to develop an expertise in one area, and teach in the way they feel best. As long as we as a district do not add anything to what is available in a book or on-line, why would consumers come to our schools? Hitherto, there has been no choice (our state now requires school attendance to age 18), but now the legal alternative is stay at home/go to work and then “attend school” on your own schedule (or have someone else do it for you), until you amass enough credits to get a high school diploma. Remember the goal is the grade not the learning.
    My introverted teenage self would much rather stay home. Who needs to come to a noisy nasty building at 7am where you can’t even go to the bathroom when you need to, you are herded from room to room and criticized if you are late or lose your pencil, you can’t have a drink or snack when you want, and there is a fight every week? Administrators, who control all these aspects, are finally waking up to reality now that we have lost 40% of the students in the district (and 50% of high school students), but it is really too late.
    Most of the remaining students are coming because they are required to attend by state welfare or court probation rules, which do not allow virtual school substitutes. When ankle bracelet monitors have become a fashion accessory at your school, you have lost the battle.
    Great analogy.

  6. Malalande

    Great analogy! Loved your blog article and it leaves me with these questions where the education vs. shopping experiences analogy is inspiring…
    What if the employees at Best Buy were true experts in their fields, could you still afford to buy anything there considering the impact on prices? I use the Internet to compare reviews, to gather info, to understand what all the different acronyms mean before I shop… I don’t expect the employees to know more than what I read. I do expect them to push a product they have in store. Is this what happened with school? Do we expect teachers to know more or do we expect them to help with exams? Could we afford the brain-and-learning-expert teachers in a public education system?
    There are a number of huge differences when comparing education to shopping, of course. One of them is choice. You can shop in many stores, online or in person, and eventually buy your wares in anyone of the shops you visited. In school, once you’ve made your choice (or your parents made one for you) you’re in for the long haul! Furthermore:
    – You can’t choose to postpone your purchase. You have to buy this stuff today and everyday, want it or not, like it or not.
    – Somebody else decided what you were going to buy everyday (the programs).
    – A store can close if it doesn’t sell its wares. You don’t want a school to close because its “customers” are having trouble with math or history or whatever.
    The list could go on, obviously…
    The idea, and this is what I get out of your blog article, is that the shopping experience is evolving, the shopper’s expectations have changed… How do we help the schooling experience evolve as well? We have to take a good look at Face-to-Face and Online-OnDemand learning (and I read your article on À La Carte Education) to make the schooling experience more in step with how people of any age want to “buy” their learning today. There’s so much more to say… Thanks for that!

  7. Datruss

    Great insight Bill,
    I think this post will only get more relevant as we begin to see online programs grow…
    I fear that rather then blended (online & face-to-face) models being built on the expertise of teachers with technology enhancing what they do, blended learning is more about pushing content and having teachers manage what doesn’t work well digitally. There is a fundamental difference in these two approaches and the problem is that the 2nd example is easier to extract more profit from while the 1st example is where we should be heading.
    The one big difference between Best Buy and teaching is that Best Buy is a company working on a for-profit model and teaching will always be an expense required for the sake of public good. I really worry that for-profit schools will challenge the public system in a way that force them to be more cost-effective on the backs of teachers and the public system.
    I just read this by Chris Lehmann and think it is worth sharing here: http://practicaltheory.org/serendipity/index.php?/archives/1335-Sustaining-the-Teaching-Life.html

  8. Robert ryshke

    Like your piece very much Bill. I think your comparison is right on. Creative insight into a fundamental problem with traditional schooling. a thanks for sharing.

  9. John T. Spencer

    A few more things Best Buy is failing at:
    1. Not giving the workers any creative control in how they approach the customers or design the departments.
    2. Not allowing for personalization. I would be more likely to go to Best Buy if I could not only buy a product, but have it customized right there for me.

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