Introducing CompUSA's Connectivity Concierge

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CompUSA has taken a whack at becoming a VAR for the small-business market before. Now it seems it's at it again. The tech retailer/VAR is in the early stages of setting up a program to sell networking solutions to homeowners, home developers and small businesses. Dubbed the "Digital Living" program, the tech-design center is now piloting successfully in two stores, providing sales of and information about hardware, software, Internet access and connectivity, networking, home-theater and audio solutions, and biometric door locks.

So, is this a ho-hum or an uh-oh?

Gartner principal analyst Michael Haines notes that the Dallas-based retailer's past performance selling services and products to businesses via outbound sales organizations working out of local stores met with only so-so results.

"[CompUSA] had limited success...due in part to the fact that%85the sales organization was product-oriented and not adept at selling services or solutions," Haines says. And while "they may provide some competition to VARs in the small-biz market%85most VARs have deeper solution sets that are more palatable to businesses and sales organizations that are better equipped to sell to this audience."

True, but don't you think CompUSA knows all this by now? Probably. If the company is chasing this business again, it must have taken all that into account, right? So what's CompUSA got that you don't? Try awesome customer access, a lot of floor space, the opportunity to offer competitive pricing and, perhaps most important, an attitude adjustment toward chasing the small-biz market.

"We're trying to get away from selling pieces to selling solutions," says Doug Pilcher, a field services manager who oversees the retailer's Aurora, Colo., store, the site of one of the two pilots. (The other is in Plano, Texas.)

The beauty of the idea is that selling goods and services to the small-businessperson is roughly the same as selling to the home user. They both want:

  • Freedom from wires: The desire for a company to share high-speed Internet connections, to network multiple computers in different spaces and to share printers, hard drives and other peripherals.
  • Security: To monitor points of entry and exit, to know who's on the premises, especially when the boss (or Mom) isn't there, and to trigger lights to come on if the premises are violated.
  • Structured wiring: To enable computer cabling, audio/video and multiple telephone outlets to be combined into one system.
  • Single-system integration.
  • Central controls: To lower utility costs by programming lights to come on according to various schedules--or not at all, if closed for the day or on vacation--and to turn off lights accidentally left on.

Robert Wheat, CompUSA's coordinator of business development who heads up the Digital Living program, confirms the company "has been looking into the small-business market. [CompUSA is] doing research. I think it's something that's going to be adapted pretty soon. There's plenty of flex-time at the home, [and the] components [we sell] could easily work into a small business. I see our program going in that direction."

And how about all that floor space to show it to small-business owners? Wheat confirms the company plans to roll out its Digital Living Centers in all of its roughly 225 stores nationwide. While it's true that local VARs probably know their business markets better, hundreds of stores can translate to promotional prices; in the era of stolen market share, service sometimes only goes so far.

Not only will customers be able to visit Digital Living Centers in all major markets, Wheat says the company is working hard to establish relationships with builders, the better to capture the connectivity customer before the properties exist. So when a home-office or small-business customer wants to enhance its solution, the relationship is already there.

Wheat says the retailer's general managers at a recent meeting were ordered to go out and meet at least one builder per month to push a deal. In addition, the company signed a deal in February to have a Digital Living Center on-site at the Playa Vista community near Marina Del Rey, Calif. CompUSA keeps an employee on staff to service residents, who Playa Vista calls a "connectivity concierge." "Please push button 7 from the comfort of your bed for your VAR." As a sales advantage, that's hard to beat. Is it going to work? Time will tell. Wheat says the next store is scheduled to open in Frisco, Texas. And then, who knows? Maybe in your town?

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