Call it a home invasion. The helpful kind.
Consumer-electronics giant Best Buy has an army of in-home advisers trained to be experts on anything having to do with your home, from making it more WiFi- and entertainment-friendly, to setting the thermostat more efficiently. Tech-savvy and well-trained, these advisers have offered free consultation visits over the last year and a half to anyone who signed up at select stores.
On Sept. 10, the program is being expanded to more than 920 Best Buys — about 90 percent of the chain's-big box stores nationwide.
With a sharp focus on customer service and experiences, industry analysts say the brand is well-positioned and successfully navigating many of the challenges facing retail today.
Best Buy had a notable second quarter ended July 29. Online sales were up 31 percent year over year, helped by faster shipping and improvements to its checkout and search functions, while overall U.S. sales were up 4.9 percent.
Same-store sales rose 5.2 percent in the quarter. easily topping analysts' estimates for a 2.1 percent gain. Net income increased to $209 million, or 67 cents a share, from $198 million, or 61 cents a share, one year ago. Revenue increased 4.9 percent to $8.94 billion, versus an estimate of $8.66 billion.
Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail, said the key reason Best Buy is enjoying such strong growth online is its system allowing customers to quickly and easily order products, then collect them in stores.
"As much as some of the elevated sales are the result of the exit of players like HHGregg and the continued store closures of Sears and others … equally important is a desire to see and experience products before buying them — this applies in particular to larger purchases like televisions and appliances," Saunders said. "Here, Best Buy's stores are a valuable asset, and this should allow it to withstand the recent decision of Sears to sell some appliance brands via Amazon."
Just five years ago, things weren't looking so good. The year 2012 was a low point for Best Buy. Many thought the chain would go the way of Circuit City and other electronics retailers. But the brand has done an about-face, with the stock rebounding in the last five years.
A couple things have worked in its favor, most notably its September 2012 hiring of Hubert Joly, a hospitality-industry veteran and well-regarded turnaround expert, as chief executive and chairman.
From March 2008 to August 2012, Joly headed Carlson Cos., a privately held international conglomerate in the hotel, travel and restaurant franchise industries that employs more than 175,000 people in more than 160 countries and territories. Under his leadership, Carlson grew its annual sales from $8.9 billion in 2003 to $25.5 billion in 2007.
Joly has been clear about where Best Buy's emphasis should be. In the company's shareholders letter in June, he said: "Our purpose is to help customers pursue their passions and enrich their lives with the help of technology. We want to play two roles for them: be their trusted adviser and solution provider; and be their source for technology services for their home."
That, he said, "means that we can and should go beyond selling products." Which plays well to a strategy of encouraging customers to buy in-store, as opposed to just looking at products then purchasing them at home to score online discounts.
There are just over 1,000 big-box Best Buys in the United States, about 50 of which are attached to or part of a mall. Roughly 300 smaller stores are inside malls, a model known as Best Buy Mobile stores. More than 70 percent of the U.S. population lives within 15 minutes of a Best Buy store, according to company spokesman Kevin Flanagan.
"Best Buy is addressing this opportunity [to meet people's different shopping habits] through services, like In-Home Consultation and the Geek Squad, where customers can get help 24/7 online, in-store, in-home and by phone," he said.
Starting Sunday, 14 stores in the Philadelphia region will offer the in-home consultation service, including King of Prussia, Plymouth Meeting, Montgomeryville, Willow Grove, Northeast Philly, Deptford, Mount Laurel, Cherry Hill, Wilmington, and Christiana, Del.
Last month, in-home adviser Greg Hodur, 40, paid a visit to Gerri Finnegan's South Philadelphia home. Finnegan, a businesswoman who commutes regularly to New York, walked him through her home and detailed what she wanted done.
Her "wants" included a new entertainment center that meant blowing out a wall in her living room and taking out the fireplace. She also wanted to put a large-screen TV in her outdoor patio to entertain family and friends during summer get-togethers and to watch her beloved Phillies.
Hodur took notes and wrote up an order form. He has a follow-up visit scheduled later this month to update Finnegan on the timeline for the work and a cost estimate on the electronics. Finnegan will be making separate arrangements for the construction work.
"This is going to dramatically change retail," Hodur said of the Best Buy program. "The one thing that's been missing for customers who want to get the most use of technology for their homes is an expert.
"That's where we come in. And you get this service for free."