Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Best Buy, Amazon, and Independent Schools

                Recently Best Buy has been determining how to respond to a growing phenomenon: shoppers who visit its stores to try a product, then whip out a smartphone and order from the vendor offering the lowest price. Usually that means Amazon. This morning I saw a headline on the HBR blog about why Best Buy should not try to beat Amazon at the price game, because it can’t. I didn’t read the article, so I don’t know what alternatives may have been proposed.
                Whatever they were, an article from a few days ago said that Best Buy is considering creating more high-end retail centers. I guess they would be like Apple stores but with a wider array of products. I’m not sure that is the answer, either. Too much brand affiliation for Best Buy to shift.  I suspect not many people go to Best Buy to spend even more money on electronics.
                If I were Best Buy, I’d focus on trying to provide what Amazon and other on-line retailers—not even the fabled Zappos—can deliver: outstanding face-to-face, genuinely caring service. As much as people want to save a few bucks, they also groove on human interaction. And I think they will spend their dollars where they feel that sense of connection. It’s naturally more personal when the interaction is not virtual.
                There’s an important reminder for independent schools in there. A couple of years ago, videos on Khan Academy were the rage; now everyone seems to be talking about MOOCs. In various ways, on-line learning is becoming more common. I advocate leveraging technology to enhance learning, but we must do so thoughtfully and in ways that keep us true to who we are and what makes us great. That’s why I like the possibilities opened by the flipped classroom. It allows for more frequent and individualized teacher-student interaction.
                After all, great independent schools are not Best Buy or Amazon. In Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America, George Whalin writes, “They all share an extraordinary passion for their businesses and an obsessive commitment to serving customers” (Kindle edition, Loc 77). He adds,
When asked whether their companies had been built based on a business plan or set of guidelines, they invariably answered no, their growth was guided by what customers wanted and expected from their stores, what the marketplace dictated, and how they could best serve their customers. (Page 3)
I like to think of us as the all-too-rare owner-operated stores where they know the customers’ names and preferences, take the time to help them make the best buying decision, build that sense of loyalty and trust, and really make a positive difference in their lives. That’s about more than price point. It’s about both value and values.

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