If Best Buy and Amazon are correct, then they may be able to provide at home what shoppers increasingly complain they can never find in the store: a well-informed sales associate.
Call them tech-enabled traveling salespeople. Both retailers are rolling out home-consultation services specific to home technologies, and in doing so, they are answering needs that are as much the shoppers’ as their own.
Amazon is expanding its smart-home consultations, launched in 2016, through which employees provide free smart-home consultations and related product testing. Best Buy began offering free home consultations in the fall. According to its website, its “in-home advisors” can answer questions and help customers make plans for home theaters, smart homes, Wi-Fi, appliances and more.
The anachronistic move is more ahead of its time than it may appear. First off, the service is technology-specific. By bringing their talents to the shopper, Amazon and Best Buy are bridging a purchase gap that has been widening as shoppers find fewer compelling reasons to invest in home electronics. Further, the visits open doors to new, more consistent revenue streams, such as home installations and servicing.
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As Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly put it to The Wall Street Journal: “What we’re finding is people in the home tend to spend more because we address a bigger need for them compared to what they spend in the store.”
Could traveling tech salespeople work? Here are three reasons why they could, and three why they wouldn’t.
Why It Could Work
It opens doors to data: Home consultants are able to gather information that is highly specific to a particular shopper but also helpful to understanding others in the shopper’s neighborhood and demographics. The homeowner may use the technology in a way that’s new to the manufacturer, for example. It’s a similar method to those used by Procter & Gamble when it performs in-home interviews with customers, or Nestlé, which employs door-to-door saleswomen to sell its products in poor neighborhoods of Brazil. The brands can learn how shoppers use their products in their homes, which enables them to more ably market for the end user. (Nestlé saleswomen know when customers receive their monthly subsidy checks, for instance.)
They don’t do windows: Remember when doctors made house calls? We may not have liked them as kids, but they made life a lot easier for adults. The same applies to “should do” tasks we tend to put off, such as buying insurance or installing home technology. If the consultant came to us, it would eliminate much of the procrastination, especially when considering we can schedule the appointment online. Amazon promotes “exact” appointment times — no windows — as well as a “happiness guarantee.” Best Buy’s in-home advisors each serve as the customer’s single point of contact, eliminating the need to rehash past conversations (and encourage future ones).
Free samples: Both brands provide their home consultations for free, which means the shopper saves time and gas money. Best Buy consultants help the customer design in-home technology services, such as for the home office, and will arrange deliveries (product prices are the same both in-store and online). Best Buy consultants also schedule Geek Squad repairs or installations. These services, however, are fee-based. Amazon consultants, who are available seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., can give interactive demos of home smart products such as the Amazon Echo smart speakers. It’s basically the same as free samples, though Amazon’s installation services also are fee-based.
Why It Wouldn’t Work (But Could Be Fixed)
Changes of address: If retail home consultations are designed to meet shopper needs at the time of the visit, they risk losing their relevance long-term. Retailers should train their consultants to seek predictive behaviors, ask questions to understand future needs and offer prescriptive solutions or services. Does the customer hint that he may move in the next few years, for example? Is she pregnant? Combining consultant insights from the home visits with historic purchase data will enable brands to gain a reliable understanding of what those same shoppers will need in two or more years.
Lost connections: If retailers do not communicate clearly how their home consultations dovetail with other services and offers, they risk a branding disconnect. Amazon’s consultations are only that — consultations. Shoppers have to purchase the products online separately. Further, a different Amazon employee may make follow-up visits, though armed with data collected from previous consultations. Best Buy shoppers may confuse the home consultations with its Geek Squad service, which is fee-based. Such potential confusion could be avoided with dedicated websites, disarmingly simple communications that visually explain how the services work with other brand features, and with follow-up calls to answer questions.
The hard sell: The most substantial barrier to an open door is fear of the hard sell. Even when the shopper has control over the visit time, she may not believe the brand will put her needs first. This is a trust issue that should be tested among a brand’s most loyal shoppers. Both Amazon and Best Buy seem to have addressed this: Best Buy’s traveling sales consultants are paid by the hour or are salaried, not by commissions; and an Amazon customer told The Wall Street Journal, “He wasn’t trying to sell me anything.” Still, the Amazon consultations typically last 45 minutes, and a shopper may feel that is too great a time commitment for a mere consultation. The “purchase is not required” motto should be stitched into all communications — it can even be a slogan.
Whether tech-enabled traveling salespeople flourish or fail is really up to brand execution. What’s clear is the shopper yearns to have her needs met with little fuss. Send salespeople to the home, but ensure their cases carry simple solutions, not hoops.