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Best Buy May Seek Apple’s Magic

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Best Buy plans to close some stores – and shrink others – as consumers in search of the cheapest electronics increasingly go online. The answer for the big-box retailer, analysts say, may be to emulate Apple and improve the physical shopping experience.

Best Buy said Thursday that it’s closing 50 big-box stores this year, and will test new store formats in San Antonio and Minneapolis. The chain also plans to increase worker training by 40% and cut $800 million in overhead costs. “The era of the big box store is over,” says Yung D. Trang, president of TechBargains.com.

Consumers will take some convincing, experts say. Best Buy needs to transform its remaining stores into an “experience” where shoppers want to hang out just like they do at Apple’s glass-encased showrooms or Barnes & Noble’s bookstores, which introduced cafés in 2004 to encourage shoppers to linger.  “This is what will increase sales and get more people to shop there,” retail analyst Jeff Green. “As they are, these big blue stores lack any sort of excitement.” (Best Buy declined to comment.)

Most consumers no longer wish to trudge through jam-packed warehouse stores, experts say. “Apple has very few products per square foot,” Trang says. “It’s okay to have open space.” He says shoppers will always want to buy cell phones in person because of their often complex carrier plans and still want to test-drive televisions on the shop floor. “To increase sales, local stores should be about quality not quantity,” he says.

Shoppers are also growing weary of Best Buy’s infamous receipt-checkers, who stop people as they leave the store, Green says. “Those guys are intimating,” he says. “You might have people watching you at Apple but you’re not aware of it.” Green suggests that Best Buy invest in more Big Brother style cameras that are out of sight to help people feel more welcome. “I feel like I’m presumed guilty before innocent at Best Buy when they stop me on the way out,” he says.

Other established electronic stores already try to make their stores more fun than shopping home alone on a computer. California-based Fry’s Electronics has science fiction themed stores, Wi-Fi and cafés for lounging about in. Some of Fry’s outlets feature giant UFOs at the foyer or statues of pop culture characters like Gort from the 1950s B-movie, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Others use the frame of Chevys and Buicks as dining tables. Until Best Buy follows suit, Green says, expect more closing-down sales.

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