Wake Up CompUSA! Best Buy is About to Run You Out of Business

For many people the entire concept of a “computer store” has come into question. In the past few years, especially, media products have converged to create a system that makes the idea of a computer store practically obsolete. Video, audio, print, graphics and internet capability have combined to create multimedia hardware that are fast becoming the standard. In a few years it is quite possible that one will be able to sit in a park with a single handheld device that allows the users to take pictures and video, record audio, write a novel, watch a television show, listen to satellite radio, play a game and chat in real time with someone halfway around the world, all without the need for cables or a multiplicity of storage devices. When that day comes, and that day is approaching more rapidly every day, it is probable that more people will buy that device, and any extraneous add-ons which will undoubtedly be added after its creation, at Best Buy rather CompUSA. In fact, judging by the manner in which both these retail stores address customer needs, price products and conduct business within their establishments, one suspects that CompUSA may no longer even be in existence.

CompUSA faces trouble attracting younger buyers because they appear to be trapped in some kind of black hole from which they cannot escape; a black hole that successfully sucked in the business approach of the late 90s and is keeping the store firmly entrenched there. On the other hand, Best Buy appears to be a fresher, if not necessarily hipper, place that more likely attracts younger buyers. Upon entering CompUSA the feeling is definitely one of entering a computer supply store not unlike Office Depot or Staples. The CompUSA is set up traditionally, conservatively, unimaginatively. Row upon row of achingly similar aisles which all bear not just a resemblance to each other, but appear to be exact copies in terms of design and space, differing only in the products being sold. Best Buy, on the other hand, is designed in a much more open manner, giving customers at least the appearance of some kind of freedom of choice that a customer doesn’t feel inside a CompUSA. Of course, it’s only an illusion of choice, but the rigidly designed interior of CompUSA exerts a psychological influence not felt inside Best Buy. Best Buy, on the other hand, is much more successful at imparting a psychological sense of choice. One that doesn’t really exist, yes, but at least certain customer can feel warm and fuzzy within his or her bubble of manipulation.

Whereas the row design of CompUSA can make one feel like a mouse trying to find a piece of cheese waiting for him at the end of a maze, Best Buy is laid out in such a way that upon entering it, a customer can halt for a moment, assess the store, and theoretically walk directly to wherever he needs to go. This psychological difference probably affects people of all ages, but the disappearance of rigidly ordered societal factors over the course of the last few decades no doubt appeals more to those at or beneath the baby boomer age limit rather than those above, and perhaps that is one reason why Best Buy is more successful in bringing in younger customers than CompUSA.

Of course, no matter how well a store is designed, or even how easily one can access the product one has come to get, repeat business will not factor in unless the store carries the product so desired and in this case Best Buy again comes out on top when compared to CompUSA. Although CompUSA sells basically the same product line as Best Buy, there is a subtle difference that may not at first appearance seem to be too big a factor when it comes to appealing to younger customers, but actually does seem to play a part. Not only does Best Buy feature a fully-stocked music section that covers the gamut of musical tastes from country to alternative to world, one can also find nicely packaged boxed sets and, of course, Best Buy also features an internet connection allowing customers to search for music. One of these alone would be enough to beat out CompUSA’s approach to selling music since that store effectively carries no music whatever. Again, CompUSA seems stuck in the dark ages of the computer store revolution. While one can find puppy calendars and violet-colored sticky notes, should one desire to walk away from CompUSA with the latest release of one’s favorite artist, he will be out of luck. This again is indicative of CompUSA’s bizarre unwillingness to enter into the next generation of computer stores.

The media revolution has, of course, completely changed the way that media is delivered and the way that computers are used to deliver that information. No longer is the computer relegated to being just an ugly gray box sitting atop a desk. While Best Buy seems to have learned this and put it at the top of their business plan, CompUSA unwittingly goes about its business as though things haven’t changed. It’s almost stupefying that CompUSA would sell DVDs, but not CDs. Meanwhile, Best Buy breaks away from the competition.

Overall, Best Buy seems to have a clearly defined advantage over CompUSA when it comes to attracting and keeping younger consumers. Although neither store could hardly be described as trendy, much less as dripping with street credibility, there is no getting around the fact that CompUSA seems firmly entrenched in the 20th century while Best Buy is leading the way into the new millennium. From the moment a potential shopper enters either store, it is apparent that a huge difference exists. While CompUSA sticks with a design more appropriate for a grocery store, Best Buy allows for at least the illusion of choice (actually, ONLY the illusion of choice) and a pathway toward the product one desires that it is not filled with obstacles. In addition, Best Buy offers consumers musical choices that are non-existent inside CompUSA. While that may seem unimportant considering the wealth of opportunities available for purchasing music nowadays, it is indicative of CompUSA’s lack of initiative and forethought in breaking away from its more stolidly traditional approach to the idea of a computer store. Finally, Best Buy appeals to younger buyers through its consistent practice of training its staff to become more knowledgeable about the products it sells than does CompUSA.

If this seems as if it has been a commercial for Best Buy, let me assure that it is not. Personally, I shop at Best Buy only as a last resort. Their prices are higher than the stores I choose to visit first, and on those occasions when I can actually find a sales associate to help me, more often than not I get either no information at all or misinformation. My point is American consumers are poised on the verge of a potential loss of competition. Free enterprise is supposed to an engine driven by competition that in turn lowers prices. Guess what? That’s a crock. Twenty years ago there was one phone company in America. Amazingly enough, it was during the Reagan administration of all things that this monopoly was successfully broken up. Twenty years later and we stand on the precipice of 80% of American phone customers having their bill traced back in one way or another to just one company: ATT.

I don’t look forward to Best Buy monopolizing the multimedia retail industry that lies just around corner. If their prices are too high now, guess what will happen when CompUSA and the others go out of business or, more likely, are bought by Best Buy.

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