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

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