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Best Buy Completes Mobile Rollout, Tests Airport Kiosks

August has been a busy month for Best Buy, which completed its national rollout of in-store mobile shops, began a 12-market test of CE vending machines, and opened a store in Mall of America, the country’s largest indoor shopping mall.

All 965 U.S. Best Buy stores now feature a Best Buy Mobile store-within-a-store thanks to a nationwide rollout effort that began in October 2006 and was completed earlier this month.

The rollout was quickly followed by the announcement that Best Buy would become the only retailer besides Apple Stores and AT&T stores to sell the iPhone (see story, right).

The shops, designed to sell carrier plans along with handsets and accessories, have been modeled after the company’s 15 stand-alone stores that focus solely on mobile technology.

“Customers let us know quickly that they dreaded shopping for a mobile phone anywhere in the United States, whether with us or anyone else. Wireless customers are asking for more choice and more attention to their individual needs, and our new concept provides that,” said Shawn Score, president, Best Buy Mobile. “Where the new experience has been available, our customer satisfaction scores are through the roof — a direct result of the dedication and cooperation of thousands of employees and in our stores and our corporate office to develop this unique and exciting set of customer choices and experiences.”

Best Buy Mobile began in 2006 as part of a joint venture with U.K. mobile retailer CarPhone Warehouse. In May, Best Buy acquired a 50-percent stake in CarPhone Warehouse’s European retail operations as part of a new agreement to partner and expand both brands throughout Europe. The deal also covers Best Buy Mobile operations in the U.S.

Best Buy Mobile’s product selection and services includes more than 90 different handsets from nine carriers along with a wide array of accessories. According to the company, Mobile employees, hired exclusively for the wireless unit, undergo at least 80 hours of training, as well as continuing education on mobile phone technology and trends. The company said the rollout included more than 250,000 hours of employee training, based largely on CarPhone Warehouse’s U.K. training programs.

“As the networks and the handsets become more capable of doing many different things, mobile customers want more help in making them work, and they are becoming more discriminating about the way the handsets look and how they function,” Score said. “They want to know that as change continues, they can go back to the store and get help and advice. That is part of our promise to them.”

Mobile phones also play a part in Best Buy’s test of CE vending machines, begun this month in 12 U.S. airports. The automated kiosks are branded “Best Buy Express” and carry cellphone and computer accessories, digital cameras and accessories, flash drives and portable storage devices, MP3 players, headphones, speakers, unlocked phones, portable gaming devices, gift cards, travel adapters and chargers.

Pricing is similar to that found in Best Buy stores, the retailer said.

Best Buy’s partner in the pilot program is ZoomSystems, a San Francisco-based IT and software company that has placed and maintains over 600 robotic “ZoomShops” in hotels, airports and other high-traffic locations nationwide for Apple, Macy’s, Sony and Rosetta Stone, a language-learning system.

Best Buy’s machines will be located in airport terminals in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and San Francisco. The rollout is expected to continue through Sept. 1.

“The launch of Best Buy Express is another way for Best Buy to provide consumers with the products they need from a brand they trust, even while they’re on the go,” said Chris Stidman, the retailer’s strategic planning VP. “Whether travelers are looking to purchase a last-minute gift or are in need of replacement for a lost, forgotten or broken product, these kiosks will allow them to purchase the product they want from a brand they trust.”

ZoomSystems CEO Gower Smith described the 30-square-foot robotic shops as “automated, self-service stores” that provide education and shopping information about products, rather than high-end vending machines.

“No vending machine can do what a ZoomShop can do. It is a different experience,” he said in a statement.

Consumers can learn about product offerings through a software program and video display, and can make purchases with a credit or debit card through a touchscreen user interface. The shops are remotely monitored from ZoomSystems’ headquarters, where each unit is tracked for maintenance and security, the company said.

In other news, Best Buy opened a 45,000-square-foot store at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., along with an additional area called the Best Buy Rotunda at Mall of America.

Best Buy said the Rotunda will provide as a platform to stage a variety of entertainment from musical performances and celebrity appearances to game launches.

The store officially opened on Aug. 7 on the third floor of the mall’s West Market. Beyond the main store, a Best Buy sales kiosk featuring selected products will also be located within the Rotunda.

According to Maureen Bausch, Mall of America’s executive VP, the mall sees more than 40 million annual visitors.

“Mall of America is one of the world’s premiere shopping and tourist destinations. Becoming part of the Mall of America community means that we are able to give people from around the globe the opportunity to interact with our great employees and experience Best Buy,” said Best Buy president/COO Brian Dunn. “We are excited to bring the latest in technology and services to this popular venue. Our new 45,000-square-foot store gives us a prominent presence within the mall, which is only a short distance from our U.S.-based headquarters.”