Best Buy polishes its Apple

This Sunday, Best Buy will start selling iPhones.

If you're like me (or more correctly, like I used to be), you may be saying: "Huh? Best Buy? Who would want to go there to buy Apple products?"

Indeed, over the years, my opinion of Best Buy had sunk so low that you'd have to open a storm drain to even hope to find it.

But times change.

Buying a television

I recently decided to buy a new flat-screen television. Initially, I went to Circuit City. In the past, compared to Best Buy, Circuit City had a better selection of televisions, a more informed sales staff and most often had the best prices.

No more.

My recent visits to Circuit City revealed a weak selection of televisions (especially in the 37" to 40" size, which is what I was planning to buy), an unattractive and not well-maintained display area, and sales people that knew less about the products than...well than most of their customers (I imagine this last point is a by-product of the cost-cutting mass firing of their staff a few years ago).

In contrast, Best Buy had, in stock and on display, all the televisions I was interested in (and several more to spare). Their layout was clean and functional. The staff was generally well informed (although one salesman insisted that a Sony television had a 120Hz display, even though I knew it did not). With a few exceptions, even the prices were better at Best Buy (and Best Buy agreed to match the price in those cases).

These differences held true across several stores that I visited, both in California and in North Carolina.

Back to Apple

Returning to Best Buy selling Apple products -- many of you may recall Best Buy's earlier forays into carrying Apple products. They were a disaster. The main trouble (as with similar ventures by the now nearly departed CompUSA) was that the Apple products (what few they carried) were stuck off in a corner somewhere, almost as if they were there by mistake. If you asked the sales staff about the Apple hardware, they would most likely either profess ignorance or attempt to steer you to a PC. It was this type of experience that led Apple to open its own line of retail stores (and you know how that story ends: despite initial predictions of doom by the press, the stores have been a spectacular success).

In stark contrast, Best Buy now has an entire section of the store devoted to Apple products. While it certainly won't win any design awards, especially as compared to Apple Stores, they are a far cry from the "old days." And sales staff actually show some interest in helping you make a purchase of an Apple product.

Granted, Best Buy will never be a place where I would prefer to go for Apple hardware. The Apple Store is far better. For me, even the Web is better. Certainly the selection is better. But there are many potential Apple customers who do not live close to an Apple Store and don't want to shop online. Or who may not be committed to buying Apple and prefer a store that offers a broader choice. Or who want a store that sells stuff besides computers and iPods. For them, Best Buy is an attractive and viable alternative.

I expect iPhones will do well at Best Buy (but you may want to check out the cautions described in this New York Times article). Of course, that means Apple will also come out ahead. A win-win situation for everyone involved.