Doug Nelson was en route to a French vacation, but (Sacre bleu!) couldn't remember what he needed to do to avoid getting socked with steep charges for using his smartphone abroad.
He was going to call AT&T once he reached his gate at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. But then he noticed the orange Geek Squad booth in the middle of the main terminal. A Geek Squad "agent," identified by a uniform of a white shirt and black tie, showed Nelson how to turn his data off and told him he would be safe if he stuck to free Wi-Fi connections.
"This is nice for quick questions," said Nelson, an Edina resident who already was a customer of Best Buy's Geek Squad services. "I'm old, and computers are not my best friends."
The Geek Squad booth is a temporary fixture at the airport to help harried holiday travelers troubleshoot tech problems and offer advice. It was up and running on Monday morning and will remain in place through Sunday. Best Buy ran a similar operation at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport during the holidays last year.
The pop-up booth is one of the latest ways the Richfield-based electronics retailer is trying to plug its network of 20,000 tech agents who help customers with in-store repairs and installation in their homes. As it faces fierce competition from online retailers such as Amazon and other big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Target, the Geek Squad is one way for Best Buy to differentiate itself.
Under CEO Hubert Joly, Best Buy has been has been looking to further elevate the Geek Squad and make it a bigger part of his turnaround strategy. It's an offering, he has noted, that is especially helpful as many of the latest products such as 4K TVs and connected home devices require a bit more technical savvy and set up to get the most out of them.
Dave Brennan, co-director of the University of St. Thomas' Institute for Retailing Excellence, said Best Buy needs to do a better job promoting Geek Squad in part because profit margins on service and installation are usually higher than on hardware. "If you do the service well, price [of products] becomes less important," he said.
Services account for 5 percent of Best Buy's overall revenue, but the business is under pressure because customers are buying fewer traditional extended warranties, which have slid to about 2 percent of sales from 2.5 percent three years ago.
Best Buy is trying to combat that decline by rolling out new Geek Squad service packages for laptops and tablets that offer 24/7 technical support and can be combined with warranties. It's also offering for the first time free Geek Squad setup on its top holiday tech gifts, the option for customers to buy Geek Squad services as a gift, and free in-store Geek Squad support on devices that have been bought from its 200 or so Best Buy Express vending machines.
Joly told investors last month that these investments will drain profit margins in the near term. But he's betting they will pay off long term.
At the same time, Best Buy is still looking for a new executive to succeed Christopher Askew, its previous president of services, who left the company earlier this year after less than two years in the job. Corie Barry, the retailer's chief strategic growth officer, has been serving as interim leader.
At the temporary Geek Squad booth at MSP, travelers can't actually buy anything. William Woodworth, a Geek Squad staffer, pointed to a nearby Best Buy Express vending machine where shoppers can purchase products.
"Already this morning we've answered questions about how to connect to the wireless network and had people who didn't know how to change the pass code on their iPhone," he said.
The booth also features a virtual wheel that passersby can "spin" to get various freebies that range from car chargers to $100 Best Buy gift cards. One of the biggest draws on Monday, though, was the handful of top holiday tech toys on display at the booth.
The BB-8 robot from the upcoming Star Wars film turned many heads, including that of Bill English of Kalamazoo, Mich. He stopped to give it a test drive, controlling it using an app on a tablet.
"That would be a cool gift, but I don't know how much it costs," he said.
Woodworth looked it up and told him it was $150.
"Ooh, that's an expensive cat toy," English said. "Maybe next year then."
Soon after, some flight attendants stopped to admire the robot. English encouraged them to take it for a spin.
"They're probably sold out," one woman said.
Actually, Woodworth told them, they're not.