Best Buy builds a virtual store to assist customers remotely

Photo: Best Buy
Aug 31, 2021

Distribution centers have taken on a more important role in retail as e-commerce ordering has dramatically expanded. Best Buy is now using one of its distribution centers not just to fulfill orders, but to engage with customers virtually.

On its second-quarter conference call, Corie Barry, CEO, said the chain will be piloting a “virtual store” in a distribution center leading up to the holidays.

We are building out a physical store in one of our distribution centers that will have merchandising and products and will be staffed by dedicated associates, including vendor-provided expert labor, but it will have no physical customers,” said Ms. Barry. “Instead, customers can interact with our experts via chat, audio, video and screen sharing depending on their preference and be able to see live demos, displays and physical products.”

She added, “We are excited about the customer use cases this provides. For example, you could be on our dot-com experience, click on a product you like and be connected via video to a Blue Shirt in the Best Buy virtual store and never leave your living room. Or you could be standing in a store, scan a barcode and be taken through your phone directly to this virtual store where an associate could answer your question.”

Best Buy has also been experimenting with new store formats, including an experiential store in Houston with large sections dedicated to gaming, headphones and fitness, and with a bigger-than-average Geek Squad presence. 

Giving remote customers a view into the distribution center may be unique, but similar trends like livestreaming have already begun putting e-commerce customers into closer contact with the retailers where they shop.

In apparel, for instance, livestream shopping began to experience an increase in adoption in the U.S. during the early days of the pandemic. The technique, in which online customers interact in real-time with people selling products via live video feeds, was long popular in Asia. In the midst of lockdowns, U.S. luxury brands such as Rebecca Minkoff began leveraging U.S.-based platforms like Amazon Live and Instagram to facilitate the shopping experience.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think of the use of “virtual stores” to provide ways to remotely assist shoppers? Do you see such a virtual store providing a bigger benefit to the in-store or online experience?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"A virtual store to assist customers is a great idea to further enhance the shopping experience without the customer actually being there – especially in today’s climate!"
"From a real estate perspective it is smart, because they are using current space rather than more expensive storefront space."
"This is further evidence of what I call the “hybridization of retail.”"

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28 Comments on "Best Buy builds a virtual store to assist customers remotely"

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Nikki Baird

I always thought there should be a virtual component to every store – that community shoppers should be able to more easily connect to their local store. I didn’t think it would go this direction first, though. However I can see how it makes sense. This is a more controlled environment – both for sound and bandwidth quality, as well as customer privacy concerns (you aren’t video chatting with customers unknowingly walking behind you).

The one thing this misses, though, is that local connection. Best Buy made a big deal out of investing more in full time roles and making their retail big box stores more stable from an employment perspective. Why not reap the benefits of that by investing in your local store employees’ ability to form lasting connections with local community shoppers?

Bob Amster

As in the old AT&T commercial: “It’s the next best thing to being there.” With many additional benefits such as saving time, seeing a live “how-to” demo, letting the CSR show the customer comparative items and more. I like it a lot.

Liza Amlani

A virtual store is a great move for Best Buy. It will not only help customers with real-time product assistance but will also give merchants and marketers real-time customer insights.

It’s innovative and it will set Best Buy apart from its biggest competitor, Amazon.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Intriguing idea. I just bought a new TV and one of the issues I had was what connections were available and how large the base was. Online didn’t give me the answer so I had to go to the store. Had this been available, the associate could have showed me the connection panel and measured the base for me. I don’t know that I’d call it virtual store – need something cooler/catchier.

Ken Morris

Back to the future! We did a similar concept in 1980 at Talbots where we built a store in the call center and distribution center to handle telephone sales for catalogue buyers. Innovation here might be to leverage the telecommunications infrastructure and existing stores to do the same thing with associates taking calls from a queue in various stores to deal with the volume.

Neil Saunders

Virtual retail assistance and advice rose dramatically during the early part of the pandemic, especially in Asia. It has since caught on in other countries and I expect it to stick around. For a category where demonstration and advice is needed, such as electronics, this is a very valuable addition – and is one that gives Best Buy the edge over online-only rivals. No doubt some will point to this as another indication that the future of stores is doomed. I don’t buy that. Many methods of shopping – remote, virtual and physical – will coexist so people can select the best option for themselves at any given moment in time.

Joel Rubinson

I think this is brilliant and feels very contemporary. What I KNOW — the most predictive element (in terms of conditional probabilities) of a downstream add-to-cart event is for someone to view a product page. This is like that but on steroids because it is curated with human interaction (virtually). It is something that product marketers should welcome (there is potentially a shopper marketing program embedded here) and it is something that Amazon would be hard pressed to respond to. Last but not least, it is something that consumers will welcome as a mid-stage shopper journey option. So all around, I love this!

Kathleen Fischer

A virtual store to assist customers is a great idea to further enhance the shopping experience without the customer actually being there – especially in today’s climate!

Melissa Minkow

This is a great bonus use of distribution centers, however I wonder how it will impact staffing needs. Considering current labor shortages in the retail space, this may exacerbate the hiring challenge. If they can find the resources, then it’s a super smart idea.

DeAnn Campbell

This is a true foray into blended channel retail, which we’re going to see a lot more of in future. It’s an excellent way to leverage the strengths of Best Buy’s physical stores with their tech expertise and endless aisle options in a seamless and universally accessible way.

Liz Crawford

Best Buy’s virtual store has been a long time coming. Remember the dilemma over showrooming? Well, it’s so many years later and they have an answer. I believe this will crack the code, but of course it remains to be seen.

Suresh Chaganti

This is a very interesting and innovative use and totally in tune with the times. Any innovation that impacts customers positively and improves customer experience is welcome, and this checks all the boxes.

Now, some things that could derail the experience – slow internet connectivity, technical challenges, the need to download special software to initiate sessions, long wait times — and the list goes on. Making the idea come alive at scale is where the real test is. Best Buy should be able to execute well on this.

Christine Russo

Wow! This is amazing and definitely gets my stamp of approval! If they partner with one of the mega-funded delivery companies like Getir (when they come to the U.S.), Jokr or GoPuff, then customers can get their items in under 15 minutes. Kudos to Best Buy!

David Spear

Great move by Best Buy — and long overdue. Think about the number of times you buy a new TV, a new laptop, a new in-home security system and need assistance with setup, installation, or simply have questions about any number of issues you face upon the arrival of said item. It’s the old clienteling concept modernized to meet today’s remote shopping needs. And it can drive huge differentiation and customer loyalty if implemented correctly. There are a myriad of ways to drive new levels of engagement, new experiences, new ways of working — all for the benefit of satisfying a customer. I love it!

Bob Phibbs

Notice this is about having more human contact, not bots or QR codes. That’s what people are craving and this helps solve it. Of course, no purchase is final until it is home but this is a good start for personalized help on high ROI purchases. Some of my clients have converted their showrooms to virtually help not their commercial customers but those on their website. This definitely is the future.

Jennifer Bartashus

A virtual store for support could be a potentially great offering for customers, but putting it in a distribution center seems an expensive route given typical square footage costs. Why not convert an under-performing location for example into a dark store as some grocers have done to fill e-commerce orders?

Ken Lonyai

I call this a “call center.” Yeah, it’s a little different, but strip away the hype and that’s what it is. In fact, it’s not unlike the assisted shopping demo the keynote gave at Internet World circa 2000.

That it’s in a distribution center is irrelevant to customers. All they want is great service.

Andrew Blatherwick

If retailers trained all their store staff, they would provide a significantly better customer experience. This is a way of providing that without having all store staff trained. It also enables them to provide the same experience for the online customer.

However unless they have large numbers of these then it may cause frustration for customers having to wait to get their time with the virtual staff. Surely this is no substitute for training all your staff correctly.

Steve Dennis

This is further evidence of what I call the “hybridization of retail” (shameless plug: see my Forbes article and “Remarkable Retail” podcast episode on this topic). Best Buy has been on top of the fundamental blending of digital and physical for some time and the related change role of the physical store from merely a place to buy things, to a stronger role in digital fulfillment, product inspiration, service center and more. This is a next logical step. Many retailers are actively experimenting with formats outside of their core prototype model (see Nordstrom Local, IKEA and many others) to meet the demands of modern retail. Expect traditional stores to become more hybrid in nature, the supply chain to become more hybrid in nature, and retailers’ overall portfolio of formats to do the same.

Harley Feldman

Virtual stores to remotely assist shoppers is a service whose time has come. Rather than Best Buy customers getting frustrated at home with their recent purchase, they can now reach out and get help quickly. It should also stimulate additional business for Best Buy as their customers will know this help is easily available.

The virtual store will provide assistance to both Best Buy’s in-store and online customers. The in-store customers will know that help is available even after they leave the store and take their technology home. Online customers can connect and find advice and support not available today before they buy.

Evan Snively

As long as the wait to talk to an associate is minimal, the virtual store has the opportunity to be a really great customer experience, and a story that customers are likely to share with friends. I think there are some data driven “secret sauce” options that could differentiate the virtual experience from in-store, for example if Best Buy is able to share a virtual customer’s browsing history on the Best Buy website (in an quick and easily digestible fashion) prior to them hopping on a call, it could help the Best Buy team member anticipate needs and show up really well. The same could be said if they were logged in and the team member had access to their purchase history to understand tendencies and budget ranges.

Jeff Sward

If I understand this correctly, then I don’t interpret this as “virtual.” It’s not me looking at my screen at a pixelated version of something. I’m looking at real product and talking to a real human. It’s a highly pragmatic version of showrooming that keeps the sale and service internal, versus offering a showroom experience for an Amazon purchase. I already give the Geek Squad access to my computer for potential problem solving. And since my nearest Best Buy is a 45 minute drive, I just might find this new service to be highly useful.

Venky Ramesh

We are living in a world where virtual is the new reality. However I see a conundrum here and I am not sure how companies are handling it. If the virtual store assist program succeeds, more customers will be waiting for limited resources to assist them – then at some point in time, soon, there will be a need for scheduling. And when that happens, it will lead to dissatisfaction. One way to handle it probably is to offer this service to only top-tier customers.

Oliver Guy

With some of the technology available that has been tried and tested for virtual conferences this seems like a logical extension of the dark store concept. The ability to create a store and allow a customer to navigate through to specific areas to get advice seems to make a lot of sense.

It would be interesting to understand how this approach could be blended with existing stores – in that the stores become multi-purpose, allowing someone to navigate a store in both physical reality and in a virtual world – allowing them to pick-up a conversation with the same product expert seamlessly between in-store and online if that was what the customer wanted to do.

Natalie Walkley

Interesting concept. From a real estate perspective it is smart, because they are using current space rather than more expensive storefront space. I’d be curious to see how finding the *right* type of employee for the space pans out — as most distribution centers are in more rural areas. Might be a great way for a warehouse worker to expand their career opportunities.

For years electronics stores have been looking for ways to ease buyer concerns about purchases and make them more comfortable (i.e. diffusing vanilla scents in the stores) — and virtual assistance for unanswered questions might tip the scales for reluctant consumers.

Ananda Chakravarty

This Best Buy effort is remote customer assist with video and staffing. The challenge for Best Buy will be to scale it across their entire network of over 1,000 stores. Best Buy will leverage experts from vendors in their virtual store and I suspect video recordings combined with online chat and some AI to drive the offering. The move improves the customer experience, centralizes costs and might even be able to leverage the Geek Squad from localized stores to develop content. According to Accenture, 85 percent of customers find video chat to be helpful. As for online or offline, this is designed as an integrated solution, for Best Buy this is intended to improve on almost $19 billion in online sales as it continues to grow rapidly.

Georganne Bender
When I worked for Ben Franklin Corporate in the ’80s we would build a complete store prototype twice a year at our merchandise shows. The point was to show franchisees what their stores could look like with a few changes. It was a lot of work but it showcased the products that were offered, highlighted fixtures and visual merchandising techniques, and increased sales at the buyer level. Last week I visited an Aerie store and clicked on the QR code to look at their virtual store. There was a 3-D scale model, plus you could move around the entire sales floor. I think it was used more to give customers a feel of the stores rather than being able to purchase from it, but it was cool. The Best Buy virtual store goes even farther by enabling associates to virtually walk shoppers to actual products and demo them, rather than just directing them to tiny boxes to click. I love this idea and, for the record, I do not for a minute think it will… Read more »