CompUSA's Experience

In a follow-up to my previous post on Home Depot, computer and electronics retailer CompUSA is closing half of its stores. David Pogue posts about his experience with shopping at CompUSA and judging by the hundreds of comments, he wasn’t alone.

There’s a CompUSA near me, but I avoid going to it as much as possible. Handily enough there’s an OfficeMax right next door, so it makes it easy enough to comparison shop. Ironically, the last time I went into the CompUSA they had spruced it up with new lighting (much brighter) and new signage (it isn’t on the list of closures). But it was still the same rabbit warren of aisles, seemingly random arrangement of products, and poor service.

There’s a real squeeze going on for these traditional “stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” stores, like CompUSA and Home Depot. They both sell products that are increasing in complexity. In fact much of what they sell are actually systems not products, requiring levels of knowledge on both staff and customers that are much higher, needing deeper customer service if something goes wrong, and taking longer to explain and demonstrate. Finding low-wage staff (to enable low-cost pricing to compete with low overhead internet stores) that are educated enough on the fine points and have the customer service skills required to do these complex sales is very, very difficult. There’s no silver bullet to that problem.

It seems to me there needs to be a new pact between retailers and manufacturers.

Retailers are not doing manufacturers many favors with their aisle-based division of products that belong to holistic systems - this makes it hard to sell systems and make the value clear. Also, retailers are undercutting manufacturers with their own private-label lines.

From the manufacturers side they could provide much better tools to help retailers sell these more complex systems, and support the staff who are not getting adequate training from the retailers themselves. Some of this happens now of course, but judging by the level of staff knowledge at a lot of these stores, it’s not sinking in very much (or the turnover is high enough that chances of you getting someone who’s had the training are diminished.)

There are perfectly logical reasons why all of these things are going on, and why the relationship between retailers and manufacturers is increasingly strained (and why retailers have greater sway than in decades over manufacturers). However, the way the current system has evolved is hurting just about everyone and helping no-one (customer especially).