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White-Glove Retail: Service With A Smile

Services have become the great retail differentiator

Most folks enjoy special attention, be it a selfie posting, a restaurant birthday chorus or a first-class seat on a plane.

That people crave exclusivity has hardly been lost on retailers, which, after all, are in the business of customer satisfaction. It’s no surprise then that premium services — call them concierge, white glove or VIP — have become a mainstay for consumer-tech dealers that wish to offer an extra level of amenities above and beyond basic install and haul-away.

See: Walmart Adds In-Home Services Online

Some retailers, like Best Buy, are building out their menu of services to differentiate their brand, become less dependent on price-elastic products, and to develop new revenue streams and profit centers.

Others, like L.A.’s Video & Audio Center (VAC) and Dallas-based Starpower, are responding to customers’ needs for to-the-minute deliveries and varying degrees of handholding, both technical and emotional.

Each of these retailers leverage its own in-house teams to provide elite programs, but just like the different distribution channels and consumer segments they cater to, the definitions of white-glove services vary.

Related: Amazon Dons A White Glove

At the far end of the spectrum stands Starpower, whose name was inspired by the professional sports figures who comprise much of its celebrity clientele. The company built its reputation in part on the personal attention that co-owners Daniel and David Pidgeon provided; the twins were always a phone call away.

But as the business grew (to four showrooms in greater Dallas and Scottsdale, Ariz.) and demands on their time increased, the brothers created a VIP unit — essentially a special response team — to provide around-the-clock support to Starpower’s most elite customers.

The operation is headed by VIP services director Brandi Thompson, who oversees three full-time concierges and 10 on-call technicians, all serving some 200 VIP clients.

The program isn’t advertised; instead, customers, generally those with six-figure installations, are first qualified and then invited to join, not unlike holders of Black Amex cards, Daniel Pidgeon said.

Each customer is then assigned a VIP staffer, who develops what Thompson described as “a 360-degree relationship” with the client and is available 24/7, as tech glitches are treated as crises. Often, however, the two grow close, she noted, and clients have been known to call upon their VIP person for way more than technical support, including help with the laundry and advice on personal family issues.

“It’s a high level of engagement,” Thompson said.

To equip them for all contingencies, the concierges receive extensive training in sales, IT, installation and customer support. “We model it after the hospitality industry,” Pidgeon said, “like the concierge service you’d find in a luxury hotel.”

The VIP staffers also hold executive-level positions within Starpower, and “are granted the authority to do what needs to be done,” Pidgeon added.

For less demanding customers, regular quarterly contact is maintained to check on their status and suss out new sales or service opportunities.

But regardless of the frequency of contact, Crestron-based remote monitoring software is in constant communication with the customers’ home installations. “The goal,” said Pidgeon, “is to resolve an issue before it’s an issue.”

Despite the level of service, or more likely because of it, the subscription-based VIP program is not a profitable operation, Pidgeon acknowledged, and the company is presently reevaluating its fee structure. While its recurring monthly revenue model (RMR) is preferable to hourly rates — at least for dealers with in-house service operations — Pidgeon “would not recommend this level of service” for most retailers.

That said, the VIP program is of immeasurable value, he explained, by retaining current customers, referring Starpower to new ones, and sharing best practices with the retail side of the business.

“It unlocks an opportunity,” Pidgeon told TWICE. “You can’t look at it in a silo. The impact on the broader business is huge.”

Meanwhile, over in SoCal, the five-showroom Video & Audio Center offers its own menu of white-glove concierge services, although these are intended for everyone from the high-powered Hollywood exec to the harried walk-in customer, with the common denominator being time.

“For consumers, it isn’t just about saving money,” explained VAC corporate director Tom Campbell. “The most valuable asset for many clients is time.”

To aid time-constrained customers who live within 30 miles of a store, VAC offers a white-glove delivery option “that will have the TV outside your house waiting for you by the time you get home,” he said. The service is popular with people that “want it now,” and gives the chain a leg up over online-only retailers.

Other services range from TV wall mounting and home Wi-Fi and security camera set up, to whole-home design, installation and integration.

All white-glove jobs are fulfilled by VAC’s own certified, uniformed technicians, on loan from the company’s Just One Touch custom install subsidiary.

“It’s a very important part of our business and has been a huge portion of our success,” Campbell said.

Bringing special services to the masses is Best Buy, which has built upon its Geek Squad IT and repair business, and its Magnolia premium A/V departments, to create a network of in-home and home-monitoring services.

The portfolio-broadening effort is central to Best Buy 2020, the company’s next-stage growth strategy following its turnaround under CEO Hubert Joly, which leverages Geek Squad, taps into connected-home technologies, addresses America’s aging population and, as with VAC, differentiates the chain from e-commerce competitors.

Services include:

  • Geek Squad Total Tech Support, providing unlimited assistance with all CE and appliances, regardless of where they were purchased, for $200 a year;
  • free at-home consultations by uniformed In-Home Advisors, who can recommend products and coordinate large and small home installation projects; and
  • a home monitoring pilot called Assured Living that lets millennials keep tabs on their elderly parents remotely, and is presently available in 21 markets.

Last month Best Buy doubled-down on its aging America focus with its $800 million purchase of GreatCall, the San Diego MVNO that provides Jitterbug phones, mobile plans and medical-alert devices to seniors.

Most of the class-for-mass services are provided by Geek Squad, Best Buy spokesman Brenden Johnson told TWICE, but “we rely on third parties to assist with appliance delivery and installation.”

Best Buy also goes outside for “highly complex installs, such as those Magnolia clients may require for comprehensive whole-home home theater systems, highly advanced home networking, and/or whole-home security solutions,” he said.

Johnson noted that Best Buy’s In-Home Advisors “serve a special role in all of this” by acting as the coordinator of and point of contact for the company’s growing assortment of specialty services.

“They represent the client’s needs for any services required — whether they’re provided directly by Best Buy or other companies, such as the local cable or Internet service provider,” he said. “It’s their job to identify, source and manage any services the client might need.”