Here at 3 p.m. in aisle No. 3, amid the flat-panel TVs and TiVo systems, is a glimpse of the chaos that Best Buy employees must navigate in the days leading up to Christmas:
A young man is trying to persuade salesperson Aileen Menson to let his parents buy him a 34-inch flat-screen TV over the phone, using their credit card — a violation of Best Buy rules. During the negotiations, Menson's manager pulls her aside. A woman is on the phone trying to cancel delivery of a 24-inch liquid crystal display TV that is already loaded on a truck. As Menson tries to solve these two problems, an impatient customer demands her attention.
"Can't you help me?" she asks Menson in a huff.
In the run-up to the holidays, people often gripe about clueless, inattentive and rude sales people. But the view is rather different from the sales people's vantage point, especially during the holiday rush, when shoppers are most frazzled. Of the 24 million retail employees in this country, most are paid less than $9 an hour, according to the Labor Department. They often work eight-hour days, sometimes late into the night, with few breaks. They are on their feet constantly.
Best Buy allowed The Washington Post to spend two days with one of their salespeople, a 29-year-old home theater department supervisor at the Tenleytown Best Buy store in Northwest Washington. In a little more than 16 hours, she sold about $20,000 worth of home theater equipment, answered about 250 questions, shook nearly three dozen hands and crisscrossed the 44,000-square-foot store at least 25 times. She dealt with dozens of customers, priding herself on being able to pick out the serious buyers from the browsers.
She lugged around DVD players, dusted off TV sets, printed out price tags and crawled behind a TV onto a shelf to retrieve a remote control that had fallen behind it. All the while, she smiled and asked customers if they "have gotten everything they need for their gift-giving needs." And she never sat down.
One shift starts promisingly enough. Matt Prossen, 26, walks into Best Buy looking for a television. He tells Menson it is a combination birthday and Christmas gift from his parents, who will pay for it.
"I want this one," he said decisively, pointing to a sleek, silver 34-inch Phillips Magnavox high definition television. A worried look immediately appears on Menson's face. There are none on the shelf. She heads to the stock room but finds none. "We can look at another TV and split the difference in price," Menson suggests.
But Prossen isn't interested. "Can you sell the floor model?" he asks. Menson checks and finds out that she can, and will cut the price about 10 percent because it is not brand new.
But now there is another problem. Prossen's parents want to pay for the TV over the phone. Menson said store rules prohibit such sales. The buyer must be in the store. Prossen keeps pressing, but Menson won't budge. "I don't think I am being unreasonable," he said. He considers taking the matter over her head. "How long have you worked here?" he asks Menson.
"Five years," she said.
"Okay," Prossen said, "so I guess you are pretty senior."
Menson's manager comes up with a solution: If Prossen's parents fax a copy of their credit card and a driver's license, they will process the sale. As Menson returns to tell Prossen the good news, an agitated woman spots her bright blue Best Buy shirt from the video game section of the store and complains about poor service. "There is no one over here. I mean, jeez," the woman said.
Menson tells her she will help her find another employee, and on her way back to the home theater department, she flags one down. "You can get some very nasty customers," Menson sighs. "They just need to vent it out." If customers truly lose their cool, Best Buy employees engage in a process called "switching." They tell a nasty or abusive customer, "I am going to ask so and so to help you from here," on the theory that a new person may have better chemistry or a new face may help defuse the anger.
Best Buy employees do not work on commission, making them more willing to hand off customers. It also takes some of the stress out of selling, Menson said. Menson is a department supervisor, and her hourly wage is $18. If she works more than 40 hours a week, she gets overtime.
The fax from Prossen's parents arrives, and he buys the TV and a TV stand, for $1,235, delivery included. In all, the sale took more than 90 minutes — too long, Menson said. Menson said it usually takes an hour to sell a plasma TV or a home theater system; a DVD player, in contrast, only takes about 10 minutes.
What's more, with the discount, she thinks Best Buy probably lost money on the sale to Prossen.
"Sometimes that happens when you try to satisfy a customer," she said.
Reading the customer
Menson, who grew up in Ghana, where she owns a small import-export business, moved to the Washington area after graduating from college in London seven years ago. She planned to work at Best Buy for six months as a part-time employee, but stayed and is now working full time.
Menson prides herself on being able to read customers' intentions, mainly through their questions. Buyers always ask very specific questions; browsers prefer general inquiries. The next day, for example, Menson spots District resident Tom Karygiannis looking at home theater systems. "Welcome to Best Buy," she said. "Can I help you find anything?"
"Yeah," he said. "I am looking for a receiver with three zones so I can play different music in two rooms."
Menson gives him two options. He can buy a receiver and separate speakers or a system already bundled by the manufacturer. The latter, she said, "is a lot more expensive."
Karygiannis, 40, said he needs more time and leaves the store. "He'll be back, though, if not today then later this week," Menson said, smiling. "When someone asks about multi-zone receivers you know he has done his research and he wants to buy it."
And sure enough, Karygiannis returns about two hours later with his girlfriend to take another look at his options.
Still Menson often spends 30 minutes or more talking to a customer who then walks away. Around 4 p.m. one day last week, Menson found Christine Colby Giraudo, of the District, standing in the flat-panel TV aisle.
Giraudo, 44, said she wants to mount a television to a wall in her Northwest home. "But I don't want it to be enormous," she said. Menson shows her several 30 to 40-inch televisions, their prices ranging from $3,000 to $4,000. "These are nice," Giraudo said.
To narrow the search, Menson launches into a series of questions. "How far do you sit from the TV when you watch it?" Eight feet, Giraudo said. "What kind of cable service do you have now?" Giraudo does not know.
Menson is trying to figure out if a projection television is right for Giraudo. But Giraudo is more worried about the price. How much would it cost to have Best Buy install the wall-mounted TV system, she asked. It is $500, Menson said.
"$500! Oh my god, that is a lot of money," Giraudo said. Soon she renders her verdict: "It's not going to happen."
Menson tries one last pitch. She offers Giraudo a Best Buy credit card, which would allow her to finance the purchase interest-free for several months. "I think I'll pass," Giraudo said, after the 30-minute encounter.
Little time to pause
When no customers are around, which is rare, Menson walks the aisles of the home theater department looking for things to fix. Cleaning, stocking shelves and checking prices is a big part of the job, particularly during the holidays, when customer traffic doubles.
Menson finds six price tags missing in the flat-panel TV aisle, probably removed by customers who took them up to a salesperson to ask about a specific model. Menson runs to the back of the store and reprints them. Then finding that only 10 TiVos are left in one display, she grabs a hand truck and wheels it over to a storage shelf to replenish the pile.
As customers walk buy, Menson stops to greet them, even when she is in the middle of hauling boxes across the store. "Welcome to Best Buy," she said.
Best Buy employees subscribe to a customer service system, spelled out in a large billboard in the employee break room, called FIRST. (Friendly. Immediate Recognition. Say Hi. Thank you.)
Menson adds her own twist. She is a hand shaker, ending most of her sales with a firm grip. She goes through about three bottles of hand sanitizer a week during November and December, as she tries to avoid getting a cold.
Most days, Menson works eight hours. During the holidays, eight hours stretches to eight and a half, or sometimes nine. One night last week, Best Buy closed at 10 p.m. but a $7,000 plasma TV and home theater sale kept Menson at a register until 10:30 p.m.
After the last customer leaves, the employees begin cleaning the store — straightening out TVs and home theater systems so they form a straight line across the shelf, filling empty CD player displays and wiping down the televisions. She discovers that cable equipment has been incorrectly stocked. She said she will have to sort it out before the store opens the next morning.
"It is very frustrating," she said, as she surveys a racks filled with wires and other equipment. "This is all wrong."
But it is not until 11:15 p.m., when the lights began to turn off over her head and the metal gates came down over the store's front doors, that Menson betrays something resembling fatigue.
Menson never lets it show in the store, but "by the time I get home," she said, "I can't even pick up the phone, I am so tired."