Thursday, August 02, 2007

Touching the Elephant: Circuit City and the Perils of Retail

Good grief.

Circuit City had a flyer in the Sunday paper with this teaser:
SAVE $20 with the purchase of any 2 Xbox Live accessories of $19.99 and up

Below that, they had two $19.99 accessories--a wired headset, and a 1600 point Xbox Live card.


Seemingly, they were begging you to figure out that if you bought two 1600 point cards, then one of them would be free.

And, of course, people did. There were quickly multiple reports of Circuit City managers confirming that the 1600 point cards were eligible for the deal.

So Sunday morning, about half an hour after one of the local Circuit City's opened up, I called them.

"Do you have any 1600 point cards for Xbox Live in stock? You have an ad in the paper today that shows them."

The person on the phone put me on hold, then came back on the phone. "Sorry. They didn't ship them to us today. We'll have some on Tuesday."

Tuesday morning about 11:00, I stopped by. Here are the stories I got, in order, from the people I spoke to--and remember, this was after I carefully explained the ad and the details of the deal.

1. "I don't know if we have any of those in stock. Somebody in the gaming department should know."
2. (in the gaming department)"We had some on Sunday, but they sold out really quickly. I don't know if we got any today."
3. (guy unboxing stock) "We never got any on Sunday. I haven't finished opening our boxes yet, but I haven't seen any. I should be done in about an hour."

Three people, three different answers.

I come back at 1:30 that afternoon. Stories:
1. "We didn't get any today."
2. "Those were in an ad? I don't think we have any."
3. (stock unboxer) "I still have two boxes, but I haven't seen any. Oh, you could go check at the customer service counter--they might have them there."
4. (customer service clerk #1) "We don't have any back here. They were in an ad? We don't have any in stock.

Then he turned to the person working the area with him, who may or may not have been a supervisor.
Clerk #1: Can I get these?
Clerk #2: They're a special order.
Me: How many can I get?
Clerk #2: Two.

At this point, it's all gotten so damn annoying that I tell the first clerk to forget it, but he says it will only take a second to order, and he can send them right to my house.

After ten minutes of trying to put the order through, he says he can't send them to my house, but he'll call me when they come in.

Now I don't have a problem with Circuit City limiting how many cards I could buy--no problem at all. But when half a dozen people are all telling you a different story, Circuit City becomes that story of blind men each describing an elephant differently because they touched a different part of its body. They weren't familiar with the circular, they weren't familiar with the stock, and only the very last clerk had any idea about what was going on.

All these people were nice, by the way. They just didn't know what was going on. The store had a complete leadership vaccuum.

If they screwed up on a circular, it's not a big deal--put up a sign by the front door, and put one in the gaming section as well. But to advertise the card and the deal, agree that the cards are covered by the deal, and then just not send the card to the stores so you can't get the deal, that's pretty chickenshit.

As I'm walking through the Labyrinth of Cluelessness, I'm wondering why I shop at retail stores anymore. Before the Internet, when you went to buy something, the person you bought it from probably knew more about the item than you did. They were, to some extend, subject matter experts. They guided you. There was a value-add.

Now, the Internet guides us. On the rare occasion when I do buy at retail now, I almost always know more about what I'm buying than the guy who's selling it to me, and I'm not unusual--anyone who uses Google is the same way.

So the only way Circuit City got me into their store was by advertising a deal that was almost impossible to get. Borderline bait and switch, in other words, at least to me.

Here's the kicker, though. Gloria's digital camera has puked, and it's old, and I wanted to buy a replacement. So while Mo, Curly, and Larry were checking on 1600 point cards, I went and looked at cameras, finding exactly the camera I wanted.

It was $399, and I fully planned on buying a memory card that probably would have added about $100 to the total.

In total, a $500 purchase.

Did I make that purchase? No. I walked out of the store completely disgusted--and they lost a $500 sale. I went to Amazon, got the bundle for $50 cheaper, and got overnight shipping for less than it would have cost me in taxes (thanks to Amazon Prime). Game over.

There's another angle on these promotions, though, and that angle comes from my good friend John Harwood. When Guitar Hero 2 was originally released on the 360, John found it at Circuit City almost a week early.

That Sunday, Circuit City ran an ad that offered a free 1600 point card ($19.99 value) to anyone who bought Guitar Hero 2 for the 360.

Since John had bought a copy of the game for both of us, he went to Circuit City that Tuesday and got two of the 1600 point cards by showing his receipt from the week before.

Shortly after that, Circuit City had a big ad that said if Super Paper Mario wasn't in stock by 2 p.m. on the following Tuesday, then they'd give you a $20 gift card. Knowing how inept this particular location can be, John showed up at 2 p.m. and--you guessed it--they didn't have the game. At 2:15, he got a $20 gift card.

At this point, he's up $60 in points and gift cards.

His plan this week was to buy two 1600 point cards, pay for one with his $20 Circuit City gift card, and get the second 1600 point card free.

He's the gaming equivalent of the guy who, after a number of trades, wound up with a house after starting with a giant red paper clip.

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