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In-store pickup needs to work every time. It doesn't

What are your experiences with Best Buy's in-store pickup option? Don Reisinger paints an ugly picture, not an easy, predictable shopping experience.

I like the idea of in-store pickup that Best Buy and other retailers offer. When you're in a hurry to get a product that's available at a retail location near you, you can go online, buy the product just as you normally would, if it was getting shipped to you, but opt instead to pick it up at your local retail outlet.

You don't typically save money over retail, but you do ideally get the product in your hands right away. You don't have to deal with looking for it at the store or standing in the register lines, since you've paid online already. Plus, you guarantee that when you get to the store, the item will be there for you, not sold out. In theory, at least.

In practice, it's a disaster. I've used in-store pickup at Best Buy more than once, and it hasn't worked. The first time, the site said my item (a camera) was available for in-store pickup, so I paid online, selected the in-store pickup option, and ran down to the store a couple hours later.

I went to the pick-up counter, explained why I was there, and waited a good 10 minutes before the representative came back and told me that the store had no record of me purchasing that product with in-store pickup.

A few weeks later, I purchased a product online for in-store pickup, and when I got to the store, it had a record of my purchase but couldn't find the item. One last time (in the name of research), I did everything the way it should be done through the site, only to find that it was sold out when I got to the store.

Explaining my issue and the fact that the Best Buy Web site told me the device was in-stock and that I had already bought it, I was told to come back in "a couple of days," and they should have one for me.

I'm not alone.

CNET editor Rafe Needleman experienced a similar issue and vowed to "never use Best Buy in-store pickup again." Technologizer blogger Harry McCracken told Rafe via Twitter when Rafe first mentioned his issue with Best Buy that "the first (and last?) time" he used Best Buy's service, he was forced to "wait for eons, then discovered it wasn't in stock, after all."

Rafe asked his readers and Twitter followers to tell him about their experiences with in-store pickup. While many respondents said they liked the service, plenty also said they had significant problems.

Looking for some sort of defense--or at the very least, justification for these issues--I contacted Best Buy and explained to them that at least three technology writers faced issues with the company's in-store pickup service, and my editor's anecdotal research turned up less than rosy reports about the consistency of its service. I also sent the company questions asking representatives to discuss their vision for in-store pickup and how they plan to improve it in the future. All I received was a two-sentence response.

"We are sorry you and your editor had poor experiences with our in-store pickup," a company representative wrote. "Last quarter alone, 36 percent of our total online sales came from in-store pickup, and overall, our customers told us they were happy with their experiences."

That response is a joke, right? That is Best Buy's justification for a poor customer experience? What about those customers who weren't "happy" with their experiences? I hate to say it, but I think the fall of Circuit City has gone to the heads of some of Best Buy's executives, and they think their company is bulletproof. Reality check: it's not.

Best Buy
Check stores? Will it be there? Don Reisinger/CNET

The reality is that even 90 percent satisfaction isn't good enough. The point of using in-store pickup is to give the customer a predictable shopping experience. If they want to roll the dice, after all, they could just head to the store without doing any online research on product availability ahead of time.

In-store pickup is supposed to eliminate the variability. With in-store pickup, you will, in theory, enjoy a predictable experience: you surf to the company's Web site, use the search box to find the product you want, add it to your shopping cart, select in-store pickup, and pay for it.

You'll then receive directions on when to get to the store and where to pick up your product. You drive to the store, go to the pickup counter, tell them who you are and what you bought, they find it within seconds because it's there, and you walk out with your new purchase. The pitch is that it works just like that every time and brings the predictability of online purchasing into the otherwise variable world of in-store purchasing. But it just doesn't.

I realize that 100 percent consistency in any retail operation is nearly impossible, but because consumers are expecting predictability, one bad experience will make them wonder if in-store pickup is really worth it. In-store pickup cannot work unless customer satisfaction with it begins to approach the reliability of online purchasing (which, to be fair, isn't perfect, either). One bad experience, and the chances of that customer using that service again are slim. Worse, they tell their friends.

Predictability is paramount with in-store pickup, but based on my experiences and others' over the past few months (at least using Best Buy), it is anything but. What's stopping me from buying products online from Amazon, knowing from experience that the service will be the same every time? Given the state of Best Buy's in-store pickup, nothing.

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