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Best Buy’s Black Friday dress rehearsal: How one retailer girds itself for the shopping crush

Rob Delissio, general manager of the Best Buy in Alexandria, goes over Black Friday sales strategy with employees. (Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle/For the Washington Post)

A Black Friday sale at a big-box retailer is a dance that needs a master choreographer. As shoppers glide through aisles, lunge after merchandise and dart urgently in and out of line, there’s an art to keeping them moving and keeping them happy.

At the Best Buy on Jefferson Davis Highway in Alexandria, Va., that job belongs to Rob Delissio.  And this year the store’s general manager has left no detail to chance.

The sliding doors at the store entrance will be cracked open only two feet wide, preventing eager customers from busting through in a dangerous mob.  The lines within the store for hot items will be positioned to ensure flashy displays are never blocked.  If a child gets separated from his parents–something Delissio says happens every year–staffers know to declare a “Code Adam” over their two-way radios. Ten employees will have just one task: Look for holes on shelves where merchandise needs restocking.

“If you do a Black Friday at Best Buy, believe me, you can do anything,” Delissio told his employees Saturday morning as he aimed to pump them up for the action.

The staff–all 121 of them–had gathered at the store barely 30 minutes after sunrise to learn their marching orders for the big day and to practice some logistical elements of the plan when the store was not open.  Most of the 1,400 Best Buy outposts in the U.S. were doing the same thing that morning, making for a simultaneous, cross-country dress rehearsal for one of their biggest sales days of the year.

Best Buy’s business, like that of so many other electronics retailers, has been challenged in recent years as the rise of e-commerce has brought new competitors and made it easier than ever for customers to compare prices.  And even though the retailer just delivered better-than-expected third-quarter earnings, it is only forecasting flat revenue growth for the fourth-quarter amid an environment it expects to be fiercely promotional. And so the company is perhaps more determined than ever to make a good impression with shoppers this Thanksgiving weekend.

At the Alexandria store, employees toting Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups and McDonald’s breakfasts met Delissio between the Samsung Galaxy display and the Geek Squad service counter and settled into the stools he’d arranged in front of a 65-inch TV.  On the screen, Delissio pulled up a PowerPoint slide that showed a photo of frenzied shoppers with text that read, “Black Friday:  When people trample others for cheap goods mere hours after being thankful for what they already have.”

“This is not how we’re going to be,” Delissio said emphatically.

Soon, he’s showing detailed drawings of the store’s floor plan that have been marked up as if with a Telestrator on Sunday Night Football.  Once shoppers are inside the store, there will be separate lines for different doorbuster deals: One for the 50-inch Panasonic TV, another for the Digiland tablet, and so on.

When the sale kicks off at 5:00 pm. on Thursday evening, some lines will be routed through low-traffic areas to relieve congestion–for example, dishwashers aren’t typically hot Christmas gifts, so that section will contain one of the lines.

Meanwhile, the lines for gaming systems and GoPro cameras will snake through the DVD area.

“If I’m a customer and I’m just standing there, I might grab a few,“ Delissio explains.

Still other lines have been designed to steer clear of what he believes are the store’s most attractive displays, such as showrooms for Microsoft, Samsung and Sony.

One other bit of line innovation will take place outside the store, where last year Delissio allowed Best Buy’s queue to snake toward his next-door neighbor, Target.  Big mistake, he says, since both had such big crowds. This year, Best Buy’s line will run toward TJ Maxx, another neighbor which does not open on Thanksgiving.

He’ll also have a few staffers he calls “line sellers” out working the crowd, answering questions about Best Buy products and getting a feel for what items will be in highest demand.

But a smooth Black Friday is about much more than queuing.  Checkout stations will be set up all over the store so customers can pay up quickly. Some merchandise that is usually under lock and key will remain unlocked so staffers can get it in customers’ hands faster.

Delissio analogizes this strategy to flipping tables in a restaurant–the faster you churn customers through the store, the more chances you have to make a sale.  Every minute you waste, say, waiting for an associate to unlock a storage locker, is a minute that could’ve been spent cultivating another sale.

Nowhere is this focus on speed and efficiency more evident than at Best Buy’s counter for customers that buy items online, then pick up their purchase in the store. Delissio tells his staff that this tiny, 12-foot station at the front corner of the store has become a crucial part of its business and he expects it to be especially busy over Thanksgiving weekend and the rest of the holiday season. Last year, he had just two employees trained for this counter; this year, he’s got nine.

Company-wide, Best Buy says these kinds of purchases now account for 40 percent of its online revenue.

With the in-store pick-up counter, Delissio stresses to the staff that speed should be their top priority.

“The one thing we do not want is a customer sitting there, sitting there, sitting there,” Delissio tells them.

After all, he reasons, they used this service in the first place because they hoped to be in and out of the store in a flash.

“The only thing a customer should have to wait more than three minutes for is a 55-inch TV,” Delissio said, since bulky items are challenging to retrieve from the storage area.

From the in store pick-up counter to the sales floor and the stock room, Black Friday is an all-hands-on-deck event at the Alexandria Best Buy with every employee required to work Thursday evening. Best Buy wants to make sure they are cheerful, and that’s where a rare change in dress code comes in.

Delissio closes his presentation to the staff by telling them that they will be required to wear their usual polo shirts with the Best Buy logo, name tags and black trousers.

But, he adds, “You can wear comfortable shoes.”

This draws whoops and applause from the employees, who are usually required to wear solid black shoes, no slip-ons or open toes.

He also is ready to cater dinners during the busy period, promising Boston Market on Thursday, pizza on Friday and free drinks in the refrigerator throughout the long weekend.

“Red Bulls?” a voice from the crowd asks.

Delissio says sure–whatever it takes to get them through the commotion.