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It's about 90 minutes to zero hour on Thanksgiving night and Mike Ersfeld is a study of calm in motion. The 31-year old general manager of the Best Buy store in Eden Prairie bounces from one end of the store to the other, never breaking his poker face even as he leaves a proverbial dust trail in his wake.
"You ready to rock this?" Ersfeld asks a younger employee.
"You know it," the teenager replied.
Despite his own relative youth, Ersfeld speaks with the confidence of the 10-year Best Buy veteran that he is. With 10 Black Fridays under his belt, the last two as general manager, Ersfeld certainly knows the stakes of this particular night. Retailers need a strong start to the holiday shopping season, which can account for as much for 40 percent of annual sales.
"There's nothing like a Black Friday," Ersfeld said. "You get employees who are energized and engaged. You get customers that are really excited to be here."
Best Buy this year decided to open at midnight, three to four hours behind Wal-Mart and Target. Ersfeld doesn't seem worried.
"I think we have an advantage, to be honest," Ersfeld said. "We are going to get a lot of customers at other retailers who will not get the items they are looking for. Best Buy is going to be the place they go to as kind of a last stop to pick up those items."
Best Buy has a lot riding on general managers like Ersfeld. The Richfield-based consumer electronics retailer has been struggling to grow sales as more consumers flock to the Internet, a factor that has weighed heavily on Best Buy's ailing stock price. To dig itself out of a hole, Best Buy needs guys like Ersfeld, who proudly admits he "Bleeds Blue," to help push the company's sales at stores open for at least year back into positive territory.
So it's no accident that Best Buy placed Ersfeld in charge of one of its new "Connected Stores." The smaller store features wider aisles, better lighting, more space for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, and a Solutions Central help desk run by Geek Squad agents and modeled after Apple Store's highly popular Genius Bar. At a recent meeting in New York, CEO Hubert Joly told analysts and investors that early results from a Richfield prototype yielded a 10 percent jump in sales through August and September vs. the old big-box model.
Black Friday would be a major test for the Connected Store in Eden Prairie.
"We have a brand new layout," Ersfeld said. "Tonight we're going to be able to showcase that to customers. It will make Black Friday much easier."
With inventory already in place, Ersfeld makes last-minute checks with employees. A Geek Squad agent tells Ersfeld that they will aggressively push the $99 tech support plan. Another manager reminds Ersfeld that employees need to ask customers what kind of cars they drive before they buy big-ticket items like flat-screen TVs.
"Fifty-inch screens don't fit into coupes," the manager said.
A crowd of 300 customers line up outside the front doors, desperately seeking not only the 40 doorbuster items but also respite from the bone-chilling cold. Some are starting to lose patience.
"He spit on my shoe!" one tall, bearded employee exclaimed to his laughing colleagues.
"Oh, some guy was mad that we ran out of [doorbuster] tickets for televisions," Ersfeld said.
Around 11:30 p.m., Ersfeld gathers his employees for a pep talk.
"I couldn't fall asleep last night," he told the crowd. "It was 2 a.m. and I was thinking about the shopping experience. Do we have people in the right location? Do people know their roles? There are some people who say that's all going to go away in two, three, four years. What I think about is that I completely disagree with them."
"It comes down to you guys," Ersfeld continued. "To simplify things, just pick one thing that you're best at, and then be the best at it. And we will succeed."
At midnight, the first wave of customers starts to stream into the store. Ersfeld personally mans the doors, letting in only 20 people every 20 seconds.
"Welcome to Best Buy," Ersfeld said. "Happy Thanksgiving. Thanks for coming."
"Oh my God, it's warm in here!" one frozen shopper shouts.
"My toesies are frozen!" yells another.
"Freedom!" a man screams.
After 15 minutes, Ersfeld peeks into the store and notices that customers have yet to form clear lines at the checkout stations.
Ersfeld calls his lieutenants on the radio:
"Ruth? Josh? We've haven't set up the cue lines. That makes me more nervous."
"I'm most uneasy about the cue lines," Ersfeld tells a reporter. "Until we get the lines up, we don't have structure to the store."
Nothing problematic happens. Eventually the customers form two orderly lines.
It's now 1:20 a.m. and the store is still humming with customers. Just as Ersfeld predicted, the store is attracting shoppers who had just visited other retailers. The crowd does not simply grab one item and leave. Instead, they browse the shelves and ask questions.
Ersfeld attends to one such man waiting at Solutions Central.
"I got a lot of loyalty for you guys," the man says. "I don't want you to go out of business. This is my utopia."
Thomas Lee • 612-673-4113