The holiday music (all our troubles will be miles away) piped through the walls of the Woodbridge Best Buy store as mothers grappled with babies while balancing VCRs, dads stood in line with open boxes containing "the wrong thing," and several men sauntered throughout the computer section, asking questions and getting answers . . . sort of.
"What's the difference between these monitors?" asks a male customer, looking at two different displays on sale.
The blue-shirted salesperson--a man in his twenties, with a handful of other customers waiting to ask him questions--picks up a tag in front of oneof the monitors and reads offit.
"And so that means this one is better?" asks the customer with a painful grin.
"Um . . . yeah. Yeah. That means this one is better," replies the sales guy, who then goes on to easily explain the ins and outs of the return policy.
As computer sales continue to boom, and the large computer retail stores continue to grow and expand, more customers are finding service lacking and questions going unanswered, especially during the hectic holiday season. Problems often start in the store and continue a few months and pulled hairs later, as repairs need to be made and more questions need to be answered.
According to the Washington area's Better Business Bureau, computer sales and services companies--the category in which Best Buy Co. falls-- were the fourth-greatest subject of complaints this year.
The BBB received 31 registered complaints about Best Buy this year, through Nov. 1. "They have responded promptly to all complaints," said Edward Johnson, president of the area Better Business Bureau. And Best Buy is not unique in this area: Previous complaints about Circuit City Stores Inc., for instance, alleged poor customer service, improper repairs and poor quality of merchandise.
So what happens to those consumers who have problems and don't call the BBB, like James L. David, a 19-year-old sophomore at James Madison University?
His problems started two summers ago, when he saw a laptop advertised at Best Buy for the price and options he wanted. He visited the Chantilly store and was told every day for two weeks that the computer was not in stock; a salesperson finally found the Compaq Presario in a different part of the storeroom. "It had been there the entire time," David said. "And thus begins my frustration."
In August, David tried to replace the computer's frayed AC adapter. After showing the computer and the damaged component to salespeople at the Chantilly store, he was told in several phone calls that the store was researching where to obtain the part. After two months of this--including a call in which he was told that the store had no record of his initial request--David filed a complaint at the chain's Web site and was told, in turn, to take his computer back to Chantilly for repairs.
The store took his computer in and returned it a week later with a new AC adapter--and a bill for $70, although David said he had purchased a service agreement that was supposed to cover all repairs. "So I refused to pay on principle alone," David said.
For other customers, the problem is simply getting a straight answer to questions like "how does this printer compare with that?"
Best Buy says that all of its salespeople do receive specific training for the department in which they work--even those hired just for the holiday season. According to spokeswoman Laurie Bauer, the company hires about 30 percent more employees during the holiday season, which averages about 40 new workers per store.
"Our customers are usually first-time [computer] buyers, and [the salespeople] are trained to evaluate that first-time buyer," she said. In addition, computer salespeople go through ongoing training, including weekly updates on new product features.
Kenneth Gassman, a retail analyst with Richmond-based Davenport & Co., said one of the largest customer-service issues facing electronics retailers such as Circuit City, which Gassman tracks, is that salespeople "learn about the product this week and it may change next week. So you would not have the same product knowledge [with computers] as you would have with, say, VCRs."
CompUSA Inc. spokeswoman Suzanne Shelton said her company knew it had to do something about customer service to improve profitability. Among other things, the company started a certification program for computer salespeople; if they pass all five components of the training--Macintosh computers, Windows computers, networking, peripherals and software--they are given a gold badge to wear in the store.
CompUSA also added six more full-time salespeople per store at the end of the summer. "Because of the training issue," she added, "we typically don't add a lot of seasonal help."
Circuit City spokesman Morgan Stewart said, "Our employees get four weeks of training before they're on the sales floor." Part-time help, which Circuit City hires for the holidays, get two to three weeks of training, depending on their knowledge at hiring. "We have a culture of training," he said. "We've been doing this for 20 years."
Gassman said retail sales help right now is probably the toughest job market to fill because the unemployment rate is so low. "Retailers in general are the largest users of minimum-wage and low-wage jobs in the U.S.," he said. "Most have to pay well above minimum wage to get help that is marginal at best."
Chi Perrus, a business banker with Sandy Spring National Bank in Olney, said he visits stores such as Circuit City and Best Buy for the competitive prices. "They get you in with good deals, but if you want advice or guidance, I would stay away," he said.
When he bought his Toshiba home computer about three years ago, he found exactly what he wanted in a Best Buy ad. "I went there looking for assistance, and one store would tell me one thing and the next store would tell me something else," he said. He finally bought the computer but had to pick up the keyboard and monitor at separate stores.
"Right now, I won't buy a big-ticket item from them. Now you can go online and do the research yourself," he said. But only if you have that computer first.