Ok, the cat’s out of the bag. I’m a geek. Not only am I a geek, but I’m a geek with “prominently defined antisocial tendencies” (at least that’s how it was described to me by a medical professional way back when). I’m also a self proclaimed “Social Observer” (read: “That creepy guy in the corner that never says anything but watches everyone else have fun”). These “personality traits” offer me a LOT of “alone time”, often spent inside my own head, giving me ample opportunity to formulate odd theories and observations about our human existence (or at least my personal perception thereof). Some people have called me “weird” because of this. I, of course, prefer the use of the term “eccentric” to quantify my “unique” level of sanity mainly because the term eccentric conveys the perception of one having; A) large sums of money or B) a “higher than average” level of inelegance (the former is unequivocally false while the later is open for debate) .
One of my most prominent “Observational theories” as of late has been the “Best Buy – Circuit City Conundrum”. Don’t let the auspicious title fool you, this theory has nothing to do with Best Buy or Circuit City, I simply use those two stores as the easiest proof of the existence of the model. The basic model (which I will outline further in a moment) can be applied to any “entity” that has a general match partner in the same level of service. So the following model can be applied to stores, hospitals, restaurants, or any other service or retail based establishment that you can think of as long as there is another establishment that follows the same general business plan. Ok, enough babbling (“eccentric ramblings” perhaps?) let’s get down to the model.
The Basic Model
Any establishment can be compared directly (and without fail) to any of it’s peers within minutes of walking through the front door, allowing for quick assessment of said establishment. By automatically checking certain criteria you can easily evaluate whether this company should get your business or not. The base criteria used are; Cleanliness (Are the floors dirty? Are the shelves a mess? Does the salesman brush his teeth?), Order (Where the heck is everything? Are there clear signs pointing you in the right direction? Can you find the right section of the store within 30 seconds of walking through the door?), Lighting (I can’t stand poorly lit businesses, it’s ridiculous!), and Customer service (How helpful are the staff? How easy is it to find the staff?).
The Basic Model as It Relates to Best Buy and Circuit City:
Ok so here’s the meat of the model, I’ll use the Best Buy/Circuit City comparison here as these were the first stores that brought this idea into my mind. Let’s take a little trip in your mind for a minute (visuals are much more usefully for descriptions of abstract ideas). In your imagination, walk through the front doors of your local Best Buy. How’s the lighting? Well it should be pretty bright but not painfully so. Take a look at the carpet. Is it clean? should be. How do the aisles and shelves look? They should be pretty neat. How many employees do you see inside the door? You should count a minimum of 4, there’s the guy (or girl) standing at the podium waiting to check in return items or answer questions, there’s the girl to your left working a register (they’re always to the left…make note of that), there’s the lady at the service counter to the right making an exchange (always to the right), then there’s some goober in a tie and black pants standing (again to the right) at the “Geek Squad” counter (don’t talk to that guy). Where are the computer related products? Duh! over to the right side. Each aisle (from the front of the store to the back) goes like this; connectors and cables, Drives and storage, printers, then a section for pre-built computers. with me so far? then on the far right wall are the graphics cards, towards the center (but still in the same general area) are the racks with the software. Now where are the TVs? far right corner with the guys in blue shirts foaming at the mouth to sell you a snazzy new plasma. Continuing across the back wall heading from right to left you will pass buy the lower end TVs, the shrinking supply of CRT models. Next you’ll run into the “home stereo” section with all the Bose systems you could ever ask for, then come the paltry offerings of musical instruments (keyboards and maybe an electric guitar, though you’d be surprised at the amount of Mics they have). This is also where you’ll find the Headphone section. In the far left corner of the store you will run into the “Car Audio” section of the store (usually set off from the rest of the store with some kind of “kiosk” contraption in the middle loaded with the best speakers and amps that they carry). Continue along the left wall of the store on your way back up to the front. Along this wall you’ll find the home appliances like blenders, bread makers, Dysons, etc… Next you’ll run into the large appliances like fridges, washing machines, and dryers. Now you’re back up at the front standing in front of the checkout lines. Turn around, what’s in the center of the store? A sea of DVDs, CDs, Video games, and every kind of digital media you’d ever want to buy. Now look back on your trip through the store. Was there anything in your way (besides that idiot playing “Guitar Hero III”)? Were the aisles clear? How about the shelves, were they cluttered? did it look like most things were in the right place? Ask one of the employees up near the front where the “A to B USB cables” are. How long did it take him to figure out where to point? 2 seconds..it’s over there to the right when you walk in you dummy!
Ok, well that’s YOUR local Best Buy, but how did I know where everything was? Because EVERY Best Buy is the same! Sure there are occasional differences but the layout is almost always generally the same, computers to the right, TVs and home audio in the back, car stereos to the back left, appliances up the left wall, and CDs and DVDs in the middle. This feature of design makes it easy to staff these stores. If you’ve ever been into a Best Buy to shop, you don’t need a training video to tell someone where the TVs are. Sure you may not know how to hook up that TV but you can tell them where it is in the store.
Now, let’s do the same with your local Circuit City. Walk through the front door. How’s the lighting? Pretty bad isn’t it? it’s not like they’ve got the lights off or anything, it’s just that the lighting seems inadequate. It gives the store a “dank” feeling. How’s the carpet? Is that gum ground into the fibers? When’s the last time they vacuumed in here? How about the aisles and shelves? Things are out of place, on the floor, stacked up in the aisles, it’s a mess isn’t it? How many employees do you see? I thought I saw someone to the right when I walked in but she ran away like a cockroach when you turn the lights on. Where are the computer related products? Not a clue! they might be over there to the left, but that might also be an LCD TV not a monitor. How about the music? Well that’s easy, the CDs are actually in the middle of the store. Good luck finding anything else right off the bat. Now try and track down one of those employees (good luck!) and ask them where to find the “A to B USB cables”. If you were lucky enough to find an employee I bet their answer was less than helpful. It’s not the employee’s fault. He/She just works in a confusing store!
Why can’t I tell you where anything is in your Circuit City? Because they’re like snowflakes! No two are exactly the same. Circuit City’s model is flawed. They fail to design their stores to fit a constant structure. You can walk in to 20 Circuit Cities and never be able to find what you’re looking for. They’re always inadequately lit, they almost always have an odd smell, you will be hard pressed to find an employee (let alone get an answer out of one of them), and their aisles and shelves are always a mess (I defy you to find the R&B section in the CDs).
Now this isn’t to say that Circuit City is by default an inferior store that sells inferior products. You will find the exact same brands in both stores and usually at around the same prices. From a purely sales standpoint Best Buy and Circuit City are pretty much at the same level. From a shoppers experience standpoint they’re miles apart.
The Basic Model as It Relates to <Insert “High Shop-ability” Establishment> and <Insert “Low Shop-ability” Establishment>:
This model can readily be applied to any establishment that has a DIRECT competitor in it’s same field. Here are some examples (some with an added 3rd tier relationship) with their corresponding relational equations:
Target > Wal-Mart > K-Mart: Go to a Target, I can assure you that it will be well lit, clean, well organized, staffed to the gills with people that know where things are, and it will be exactly the same as any other target you walk into. Now go to a Wal-Mart, you can bet that it will be relatively clean (there are times when they don’t clean up a spill that fast), very well lit, well organized for the most part (you can’t stop kids from messing up a toy aisle), you can’t take a step without falling over a staff member (however they generally only know the locations of items in their area), and this Wal-Mart will be EXACTLY like any other Wal-Mart you’ve ever been in. Now, if you dare, take a stroll through K-Mart. It WILL be poorly lit, the floors WILL be scuffed beyond recognition, there WILL be copious amounts of boxes in your way, you WILL NEVER find an employee except at the register, there WILL NOT be any rhyme or reason to the layout, and to add insult to injury, the store will smell weird (and that smell will get weirder as you travel farther back into the store). K-Mart’s one saving grace is that they sell really cheap bowling balls, that’s it, the only good thing about K-Mart is bowling balls.
Lowes > Home Depot: Ok, Time for a little DIY. Let’s take a walk through Lowes. As you walk in the front door, the lights are on and they’re HUGE, they’re like little suns hanging from the ceiling (lay down in one of the display hammocks I promise you’ll get a tan). You could eat off of their floors. You’d be hard pressed to swing a cat without hitting a staff member. Go ahead ask the guy you just hit with a tabby where the nails are, he won’t tell you the aisle they’re on, he’ll actually walk across the store with you to explain the difference between each nail they sell. Now for the universal layout. When you walk in the front door look to the left, that is the garden supply area with lawnmowers and plants and barbeque pits. Straight back on the left wall you’ve got small power equipment (leaf blowers and things), then plumbing fixtures, then bathroom fixtures (tubs and sinks), on the back wall there are the appliances (fridges and washers), then there’s the flooring, the siding, the doors, the whole right side of the building is for lumber. Coming back down the front aisle back to the left side of the store you’ve got the contractors equipment, then masonry, then fasteners (screws and bolts), take a look to your left that’s where the power and hand tools are, then you see the paint department, then electrical, then lighting (with all the fancy ceiling fans!), and across the front wall are the registers. Do the same at a Home Depot, it’s dark, I want to wash my shoes after walking on their floor, look out for that forklift coming down the aisle next to you! There are boxes everywhere, there’s plumbing fixtures in the electrical section and sheet rock in the plumbing section, and i’m convinced that the staff at Home Depot are all mute. I’ve never had anyone do more than point when I ask them a question and they rarely point to anything but the exit. Home Depot has absolutely no redeeming qualities, I only go there when Lowe’s is out of something I need
The Dollar Tree > Dollar General: Ok, you may think it’s unfair to apply this model to dollar stores but thrifty shoppers deserve a good shopping experience too. Walk into a Dollar Tree anywhere that you find one. The store will make sense right off the bat. Seasonal items are up front, party supplies to the right, then toys, then miscellaneous home items, then hardware/pet supplies, then food, then kitchenware. The store will be very clean. There’s not really any staff walking the floor, but the people at the register can literally see the product you’re looking for from where they’re at. There may be boxes on the floor if someone was stocking a shelf and got interrupted but this is rare. Dollar General, however, is a dank store with poor lighting, boxes everywhere, product ALL OVER the place, product on the floor, and generally “unpleasant” staff. I don’t really like going into the Dollar General to get those $1 party decorations for a kid’s party because the place just feels dirty and it makes me anxious just being in there.
Bestbuy.com > CircuitCity.com: Can this model also be applied to websites? I don’t see why not! Let’s compare Best Buy’s website to the Circuit City Website. At first glance the home pages look almost identical. Both have a basic white background with the main contents using their company colors (blue for Best Buy and red for Circuit City), both have their “current” specials listed towards the top of the page, then of course the standard copious amounts of navigation links. The main “foreboding” difference on the home pages is the URL for each page; Best Buy uses the uncluttered “http://www.bestbuy.com/” whereas Circuit City uses “http://www.circuitcity.com/ccd/home.do”. I know, it’s silly to even judge that, but why the added portions of the URL? You’re just going to the home page, so why do you need to hit a subdirectory? Okay, let’s do some shopping. Let’s try to buy a laptop. On both pages there are categorized navigation links across the top of the page listing the general categories that each store sells. I can see one on each that says computers, a laptop is a computer, so let’s hover the mouse over that button on each page. Good – both pages have laptop listed there, so let’s click it. Okay, still the same page layouts as before, but what’s this? Best Buy has a very helpful “laptop selector” right there at the top of the page (that’s like a helpful employee that can direct you to the product you’re looking for) that allows you to see the different laptops available categorized by general usage. Well that’s pretty handy! Circuit City has no such helpful links, they just list the types of laptops they have and you can sort by brand, price, etc… but not by function. Alright, I’m tired of laptops, I want a WII! Let’s see if we can find one. Well, both sites have a link for games across the top, so let’s hover. Okay, both sites show the WII in the list, however Best Buy has each console listed separately while Circuit City lumps the WII in with the GameCube (who wants a GameCube?), that seems a little cluttered but not too bad. Both sites look the same here, basic listings for the hottest games with navigational selections down the left side to sort through the products; however, even though Circuit City lumps the WII in with the GameCube, there’re no pertinent offers for GameCube games on the landing page, so why lump them together? Separating them wouldn’t be any more difficult (product placed on the wrong shelves). Most of these differences are actually relatively small, but a website is a lot easier to redesign than a store front, and while it’s pretty obvious that both sites visit their competition to stay close, differences are there and can be found.
Places that Don’t Sell you things: What about places that don’t sell you anything? How about web forums? They’re not really “Shop-able” in the sense that you “walk in the front door and buy something” but they are “shop-able” to the extent that you have the ability to decide whether you use their services or not. So the model still applies. Now, i’m not going to lie to you, GeeksToGo.com is my home. It’s the ONLY support forum online (besides one or two forums that are specific to hardware or software that I use at work) that I visit on a regular basis, and it’s definitely the only forum where I participate daily. This said I do not have a specific comparison between GeeksToGo and any other support forums that meet the same market but it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to think that there are forums out there to which the model can be accurately applied. Some forums have clean design (man they keep the carpets clean around here), are well organized (wait, where’s the beer fridge? oh yeah over to the right near the chocolate dispenser), have good visual contrast, and are easy to read (MAN the lights in here are bright!). Other forums are dark (Ok, who’s the chucklehead that picked a black background with gray text?), poorly organized (Where the heck is the “register” button?), have spam posts (QUICK! Act now and you could win a free WII!!!!!111!!! Fer REELZ!), and are poorly moderated (What is this post about FORTRAN doing here?). Good support forums like ours mostly follow a consistent model of having separate categories for operating systems, software, hardware, malware, etc. Some sites try to be too clever, and make it too hard to know where to post, or look for answers. It should be easy to identify staff, and there should be staff visible at most times just like in a “High Shop-ability” type store.
The Big Lots Paradox:
So far I have found one chink in the bulletproof logic of the “Best Buy/Circuit City Conundrum” and that’s Big Lots. The stores are usually a little dark, the shelves are usually messy, and sometimes it’s hard to find what you’re looking for. However, the staff is helpful, the floors are clean, and there’s a relative sense of order in the store. I know it looks like we’ve hit the bottom of the model right? Wrong! Big Lots is a marvelous store, they have some of the weirdest combinations of things, and sometimes very good deals on hard to find items. Their prices are low. It’s like a treasure hunt in there! You never know what you’re going to find. Also Big Lots doesn’t truly fit the model because they don’t really have any direct competitors.
The point of this article isn’t to promote one store over another, in fact, all the locations that I’ve listed actually carry (for the most part) the exact same products at the exact same prices. You won’t really save much money going to Home Depot over Lowe’s (in general) but you’ll definitely increase your chances for annoyance. Hopefully you can take this general model and apply it to new stores that you choose to shop at, in my experience it saves me a lot of headaches. If I know that i’m going to have to shop at a Circuit City for one reason or another, at least i’m prepared for the ordeal before hand. If i’m absolutely required to go to K-Mart (the wife sometimes likes to see what they’ve got) then I know I’ve at least got a couple of hours to look at bowling balls.
Look around as you go through your daily life. What local establishments can you apply the model to? What about websites like Amazon? How about Myspace? YouTube? You’d be surprised at how effective this model can be at saving you time and hassle while “shopping” (for services or products).