The Big Money: Shoppers Beware

Heidi N. Moore makes some fine points in a piece over at The Big Money that riffs off Best Buy getting over on her mother. It’s a good, well-timed consumer report.

For one, beware the “upsell.” Two, a corollary, beware the extended-warranty pitch. Three, salespeople are full of it. Keep these in mind, young Jedi, on Black Friday, and you will do well.

Moore’s mom got sold a bill of goods on her $1,200 Mac purchase recently at Best Buy. Geek Squad used technophobia to wring $40 out of her to “optimize” her computer, which includes typing her name into the user slot and putting virus-protection software on it—on a Mac! She also got sold the $300 extended-warranty, which is as close to pure profit for the retailer as anything in the story (This BusinessWeek article from a few years ago estimated the margins at 50 percent to 60 percent).

Moore is clever to point out the tension between Apple’s cherished reputation for simplicity and Best Buy’s thin margins on Mac sales. One way (the only way, really) for Best Buy to get some margin is to scare people into paying for unneeded “protection.” But that’s bad not just for consumers, but for Apple, as well (and Apple actually has power!):

At Apple stores, about half of Mac buyers are first-time Mac customers; it’s not a stretch to believe that the numbers are similar at Best Buy and other retailers. This probably creates a lot of opportunity to sell PC-type optimization packages to Mac buyers who don’t yet know that Macs don’t have the same applications and virus issues as PCs. The “Mac optimization” sell at Best Buy seems to be aimed at such switchers or at little old ladies looking for a computer.

In other words, if you want to effect change on some wrong, it’s good to point out to the powerful how they, too, are being impacted by bad actors. In this case, get it out there that Apple’s brand is being tarnished by one of its retailers and Apple will be more likely to nip it in the bud.

But she’s also good to turn this back on Best Buy itself:

And, more importantly, isn’t it sad that we expect dishonesty to be built into the retail system? Many upselling tactics are not only aggressive and dishonest, but they cast aspersions on the very products the stores are trying to sell. What upselling makes in cold, hard cash, it subtracts in basic trust. And that is Best Buy’s real problem.

There’s an underlying tone of outrage and/or disgust at these tactics. That’s a good thing. And not coincidentally, it’s a personal piece. That’s a good thing, too. Both help you connect with readers far better than the detached he said/she said stuff we get all too often.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.