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Best Buy workers mobilize to win crucial Black Friday battle

At the beleaguered electronics retailer's Burbank store and elsewhere, managers and employees are preparing for the big day in hopes of generating strong holiday sales.

November 21, 2012|By Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times
  • Carlos Portillo, center, leads a cheer in preparing fellow employees at Best Buy's Burbank store for Black Friday.
Carlos Portillo, center, leads a cheer in preparing fellow employees at… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

It's 8 a.m. Sunday and John Palyok, general manager of a Best Buy store in Burbank, is brandishing a $19.99 Dynex HDMI cable like a battle standard.

A group of 50 employees, mostly in their 20s, gather around him, gulping coffee and nodding slowly.

"It's about speed, velocity and execution," bellowed Palyok, his voice echoing through the store's cavernous, 45,000-square-foot interior.

"They, need, need this HDMI cable," Palyok said, slicing the thin blue box through the air like a battle-ax. "The absolute worst thing that could happen is if a customer goes home and doesn't know that it exists."

And Best Buy needs Black Friday and this holiday season to generate strong sales. The good news is that since at least Monday, customers have been setting up tents outside stores to be the first in line for the chain's big specials at its midnight opening Friday.

But the bad news has been the increasingly rocky times. Since April, Best Buy has ousted its founder-chairman, chief executive and two senior U.S. executives, and has closed 50 stores nationwide, including six in California.

Quiz: Do you know your premium jeans?

Its stores brim with DVDs and hardware that customers are increasingly buying online from other companies. Its online sales aren't growing fast enough to compete with the likes of Inc. or to make up for the loss of in-store sales.

Though still dominant in the retail electronics market, Best Buy is plagued with, among other things, high overhead from what are now considered oversized stores.

On Tuesday, the Richfield., Minn., company reported a loss of $10 million, or 3 cents a share, for its fiscal third quarter ended Nov. 3, compared with a profit of $156 million, or 42 cents, for the same period last year. Sales dropped about 3% to nearly $10.8 million. Same-store sales, a key measure of growth, fell 4.3%.

Chief Executive Hubert Joly called the results "clearly unsatisfactory." At an analyst meeting last week, Joly laid out a plan to close and reformat stores as well as tinker with the number of big-box locations and smaller mobile stores in the company's roster. He also said he plans to bolster the quality of customer service and slash costs.

Still, Best Buy shares fell $1.79, or 13%, to $11.96 on Tuesday. So far this year, the stock has plummeted nearly 49%.

But good numbers on Black Friday could give Best Buy some crucial breathing room — a good holiday season can account for as much as 40% of a retailer's annual sales.

"It sets the tone for the rest of the season," said Michael Pachter, an analyst for Wedbush Securities. "If you're down on Black Friday, you'll be down the rest of the season."

On Monday, Nick Valencia, an aerospace engineer from Huntington Beach, and a dozen others already taking up their posts outside a Best Buy store in Irvine said they were looking for flat-screen TVs and other electronics at big discounts.

Best Buy, for instance, plans to sell a limited number of 40-inch Toshiba high-definition televisions for $179.99, one of numerous bargains it is offering to try to lure customers into its stores.

On Sunday, Palyok and Best Buy stores nationwide got ready for the big day, putting employees through a high-octane practice run to make sure that things go smoothly.

"We have to learn to control the chaos," Palyok said.

Palyok's employees split into four groups with a cry of "Everybody to your battle stations!"

At the cash registers, employees learn to suggest HDMI cables and other bundled items. In computing, they're taught to offer Geek Squad protection at a large discount. In home entertainment, the goal is to persuade shoppers to buy bigger, more expensive televisions. In the back, a group of 20 broad-shouldered men and women are assigned to crowd control.

Palyok said his management team at the Burbank store has been planning the operation for more than a month.

In his office, which he has dubbed "the war room," there are large annotated schematics of the store covered with a color-coded constellation of stickers showing each employee's location. At the top of each store map, there's a target sales figure that cannot be disclosed. At the bottom, near the checkout lines, someone has scrawled in black marker "Feed the Machine," a reference to the cash register.

It is at checkout where the battle will be won, Palyok said. Checkers must ring items at top speed while suggesting other purchases and soothing frayed nerves. Green felt flags summon a supervisor to solve a problem.

Customers can get rowdy, employees said, so only 25 to 50 people will be allowed through the doors at a time to prevent stampedes.

Employees will hand out tickets for the major advertised deals and issue wristbands to the people who have been waiting the longest. Every hour or so, waiting shoppers will be updated on their chances of getting their desired items.

Louis Bustamante, a mobile electronics salesman and a longtime Best Buy employee, has seen what can happen when two shoppers place their hands on a hot item at the same time. He said they try to keep shoppers civil, but disagreements are inevitable.

"We just try to keep people calm. You have to hope that that holiday spirit eventually kicks in," Bustamante said.

The Burbank store is in a 900,000-square-foot shopping center that also includes Target and Staples stores. Parking is going to be at such a premium that Best Buy is bringing in food for its employees, who might not otherwise be able to get back if they leave for lunch.

"We say this every year, but it's the most important weekend in the history of Best Buy," sales supervisor Carlos Portillo said.

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