Panbo

Geek Squad, the biggest marine electronics installer?

... written for Panbo by Ben Ellison and posted on Dec 7, 2010
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While the currently advertised marine services sound modest, the Geek Squad has major ambitions regarding the marine electronics installation business.  To be more specific, they hope to eventually have installers based at some 450-500 Best Buy stores which are within 50 miles of fresh or salt waters that harbor significant numbers of registered boats.  And while the idea started with stereos in trailer boats, the Geeks are gearing up for a full assortment of electronics and boats of most any size.  I learned this and lots more because a Bonnier Marine Group editorial colleague shared a lengthy interview he did with Ben Wells, who's been working on the project for three years in Southwest Florida...

In fact, the marine installation program started there as a local initiative, got embraced by corporate, now includes 38 stores from Mobile to Palm Beach, and is expanding in all possible directions.  What's unusual about it, besides the potential size, is fixed pricing, just as the Geek Squad does with various computer, home theater, and automobile services (as illustrated with the car video install below).  Wells says that they currently have a menu of 27  marine services which they've done time studies on, and, while they know that "construction techniques change across brands and even within brands from year to year" -- so true! -- they'll stick with their pricing no matter what, and they'll "never rush through a job."  Travel to the job is also flat rate, at $99 within 40 miles, and, at least for now, an initial on-board consultation is free (they're not sure they can keep up with demand).
   So do these Geeks know what they're doing?  Well, it certainly seems like Best Buy is taking a methodical approach, what with the multi-year roll out, lots of customer feedback, and extensive ABYC and NMEA training.  Ed Sherman, who's doing at least some of the teaching for ABYC, enthused about BB's service attitude last summer and continues to be impressed with the GS techs.  I have no experience with the Geek Squad myself, and haven't been in the stores much (none close), but I'm impressed with some of the online resources, which often manage to be both informative and funny (check the Tech101: Tablets & Friends video, now on the home page, for instance).
   Incidentally, while you don't have to buy electronics at Best Buy to use the Geek Squad, the stores will be increasing their selections, and according to Wells they "can get pretty much any piece of equipment within 72 hours" anyway.  So would I be depressed if I was a marine electronics dealer/installer anywhere near a Best Buy. You betcha!  But Wells talks about the significant customer dissatisfaction they've detected in their surveying, the pend-up demand caused by fear of unknown installation costs and hassles, and the merits of increased competition.  I think his points are valid, and that he may well be right when he concluded that "if we do this correctly, Best Buy has the ability to be a game changer where the customer winds up winning, and the industry ends up growing as a result."  What do you think?

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Comments

I think that Best Buy entering the installing business will be horrendous for us small business owners, but on the other hand, they will be limited to the size of the installs they can handle due to the limitations of expertise they will have on hand, ei, home video installers with no boat experience. Plus, i find most boat people are very peculiar and they don't want someone with limited experience installing equipment on their vessel. Now, if some manufacturer gave them representation, that would really be a threat! Hopefully that wont happen.

Posted by: Seth Lippincott at December 7, 2010 11:09 AM | Reply

Just a show of hands, folks: How many owners of
Quarter-Million-Dollar-Boats are enthusiastic about turning a car stereo installer loose with a drill just to save a few bucks? And if this Boomblaster Maven has the knowledge to install and integrate marine electronics the way ABYC and NMEA envision, why is he working for $18 an hour?

Posted by: Sandy Daugherty at December 7, 2010 11:34 AM | Reply

As to the comment about corprate backing, there is a real possibility that Garmin will, at least if their national sales force is like the local northeast ones. They love Besy buy as they are one of their largest and most profitable retail accounts, so to me there is little doubt we will shortly see signs saying we are a Garmin approved installer. As to the $18/ hour comment thats about what most of the installers working at Marinas and dealers here in the Northeast make (excluding more specialiced installers) so I really don't see that argument. Lots of people with smaller mass produced boats (read Searay, Bayliner) Will likely use this service as they are comfortable with Best buy, In fact a number of dealers in our area have cut back on staffing so I could see them contracting with Best buy to keep costs down.

Posted by: Colin at December 7, 2010 11:57 AM | Reply

As a service tech for over 3 decades, I understand how this would make some small businesses nervous. But I also understand that simply taking a computer tech and giving him or her ABYC training will not make them an marine electronics installer. If on the other hand, Best Buy hires qualified electronics installers, gets certification from Raymarine, Furuno, Garmin, etc. in addition to the ABYC training, then they will in fact become a force to be reckoned with. I doubt they will start out with million dollar yachts, but I did not either at the beginning of my career. It will all depend on the commitment of management and how broad they plan to enter the market as to how successful this program will become.

Posted by: Chuck at December 7, 2010 12:03 PM | Reply

According to the first of the Ed Sherman blog entries I linked to above, the Geek Squad is getting vendor training, and Best Buy "is tied in with some of the biggest names in the marine industry like Garmin, Raymarine, ICOM, and KVH to name several."

I thoroughly agree that time working on boats, especially with people more experienced than you are, is a big part of becoming a good marine electronics installer. But Ben Wells also talked about hiring experts as needed, especially for bigger boat projects. Besides, it seems silly, if not downright snotty, to dismiss the Geek Squad as dumb kids.

Posted by: Ben at December 7, 2010 12:50 PM | Reply

At least on Long Island, I don't see Best Buy threatening small business Marine installers. Just wait until The Geek guy tells his boss it took a few hours to get four exits down the Long Island Expressway and two hours to snake a wire from the nav station to the cockpit and the batteries where dead and he has to go back tomorrow and finish fixing the two inch hole he drilled by mistake, etc.

I do all my own electronics installations and believe me I would never do this for a living as it is not easy and I already know my boat inside and out. ABYC and Garmin training are great but that's not what drives the price up on installations. Just getting to the job in summer traffic has to be a nightmare all alone and Best Buy hasn't even cut the first hole yet.

I don't think this program will last long in this market.

Posted by: Richard C at December 7, 2010 12:51 PM | Reply

If you read the computer mailing lists you'll see that Geek Squad has a pretty poor reputation, both for quality of work, and for pushing unnecessary upgrades/addons.

Unless they change their tactics (unlikely under Best Buy, IMO) they will soon be unable to get any business.

Posted by: Peter McCorison at December 7, 2010 3:27 PM | Reply

RUN AWAAAAYYYY!!!!

Posted by: robert at December 7, 2010 6:23 PM | Reply

I don't see a whole lot to be worried about here. It could actually be a good thing because they will get the bottom feeders that waste our time and we don't stand a chance of making a profit from anyway.

It will also help the manufacturers reduce their tech support costs. Even the basic training that the Geeks will get is more than the majority of boat owners have. This will result in fewer RTFM calls, and reduce returns of perfectly operable units.

I'm fine with letting them take this type of customer out of our market.

Posted by: Rob Emmet at December 7, 2010 7:34 PM | Reply

Well, GeekSquad stands a better chance of doing this instead of some organization like, say, Radio Shack.

Posted by: robert at December 7, 2010 9:02 PM | Reply

Run away generally when it comes to marine electronics installers! I have had more than enough experience paying upwards of $100 an hour for 'experienced' marine electronics installers, only to find shockingly low standards of workmanship and quality. It boggles the mind to remove beautiful pieces of teak with the latest MFD & electronics installed, seemingly 'all good' from the outside - only to find end cuts from tie wraps left behind (where they even bothered to cut the tie wrap ends), plastic wrappers, discarded pieces of tape, packaging and little or no thought to how cables should be routed and properly secured to prevent failure. How about cables tie wrapped to the eberspacher diesel heater exhaust system? What would you think if the milspec connector used for a radar pole installation - with all the wires attached - was simply hacked away and left in place after a new, latest and greatest Furuno NN3D install? No attempt to reuse it, no attempt to even take it off the boat, just ballast along for the ride..

'They' say cruising is all about repairing your boat in exotic locations - based on the quality of marine electronics workmanship I have directly experienced (and paid for!) I can believe it. It doesn't have to be this way, nor should it be - but the expectations for reliability in the marine environment are conditioned so low that all this is considered 'normal' - all a part of the 'cruising' experience..

Why pay $85 to 100 an hour for a marine electronics installer, for that level of quality? From my experience, at the mid-to upper end of the market where I don't mind paying for quality, and expect it - I have learned not to trust the experienced marine 'professional' installers. Bottom feeders? What's that? Maybe if I had paid $18/hour, it wouldn't offend me half as much when I find such a poor standard of workmanship, whenever I look behind any of those beautiful pieces of teak.

Posted by: Mike at December 7, 2010 10:13 PM | Reply

Rob, no disrespect but you are in the customer service business and you refer to potential customers as "bottom feeders". I would not look at those people as wasting your time but opportunties for future business. People are not dumb and can quickly sense in a very short period of time if they are mot being treated respectfully. Maybe that's why you are ending up with these so called "bottom feeders in the first place. Not everyone can afford a boatful of electronics on their first boat.
As far as Best Buy goes they may have just hit a homerun if they implement their business plan wisely and listen to their customers needs. A couple of mishaps on the wrong boat at the wrong time will definately make for an uphill battle. I would insist on some references from customers and would even want to look at the work performed but thats what I would do with any installer though.

Posted by: Jeff Kissner at December 8, 2010 12:59 AM | Reply

There are many instances in many industries of a newcomer taking over a large market share and dominating the industry in a relatively short period of time. In most cases the established industry powerhouses dismissed the new competitor.

Any installer who dismisses a well funded effort like Best Buy's is being naive and short-sided. If I were an installer I would take the threat from Best Buy very seriously.

Posted by: Raul at December 8, 2010 8:03 AM | Reply

Ben,

I welcome an additional source of electronics and installation support at "more reasonable" costs. For those of us who don't have large budgets it may be helpful. Time will tell but I wish them the best.

Posted by: Butch Davis at December 8, 2010 8:28 AM | Reply

Ah sigh, although I applaud Best Buy's efforts to do this, there is an old saw in the retail market that 80 percent of the sales, come from 20 percent of the product, and I suspect that the basic market is what they are after, ie a Garmin 541S, bracket mounted on a 18' Boston Whaler with a TM xducer.

The reality is that most of the jobs I do have several things in common. The boat requires some form of modification ie panels fabricated, electrical infrastructure added et al, no two boats are ever the same, there are endless forms of integration, and part of the job is insuring that the owner, is throughly trained in how to use their new systems.

I charge $70/hr, there are never travel charges, 99% of my work is firm fix price bid, every owner receives unlimited training for as long as they own the boat, receive no charge warranty support, and software upgrades. I strive to help the client buy the equipment at the lowest possible wholesale cost, and I don't mark up the hardware.

If they were providing the level of service, and the expertise I do, I would be very concerned. I sell my hard earned technical skill set, coupled with hard work, not hardware. So good luck Best Buy, I fear you not, but you will scare some of the shamans.

Posted by: Bill Bishop at December 8, 2010 1:45 PM | Reply

Good to hear, Bill. And while Best Buy seems to cultivate a sense of humor, I'd vote you the funniest man in marine electronics!

Start here, friends, and then look around:

http://themarineinstallersrant.blogspot.com/2010/10/big-trouble-in-transducer-town.html

Latest gem, albeit something Bill found elsewhere, but new to me:

"Find out what you don't do well in life, and then don't do it"

Posted by: Ben at December 8, 2010 2:37 PM | Reply

History repeating itself? West Marine tried this not that many years ago by buying established electronics businesses with trained staff. They ended up closing the doors.

While I don't know the details why it didn't work for West, I do know that this is a difficult business to make a profit. It is hard work and takes years of experience to mitigate the huge liabilities incurred as soon as one steps on a customers boat.

Fun fact: an often forgotten true-isms is that boats move. So, unlike a house which is always where you left it, or a car that can come to you, a clients boat can be elusive. If I had a buck for every time we went to the slip and found the boat had "gone to the yard early" or some such thing....

Best Buy in the marine electronics biz, I see this as a problem for West and very few of the rest of us. At the end of the day, there are only some many sales to be made and BB will dilute the pool of vendors. West is the nearest competitor to the BB model, so West will be impacted the most, at least to start with.

Posted by: Anonymous at December 8, 2010 6:21 PM | Reply

What problem are they trying to solve? I was under the impression that the marine electronics industry was suffering from a shortage of customers, not a shortage of installers.

Does Garmin think that this will change the economics so significantly that they'll increase demand?

Posted by: Russ at December 8, 2010 8:40 PM | Reply

I can see them installing depth sounders on bass boats, but an N2K/0183/Seatalk setup on a sailboat, yeah!

Posted by: Anonymous at December 8, 2010 8:56 PM | Reply

I have helped out many friends AFTER they have employed The Geek Squad for some pretty simple needs. In personal dealings I have found the techs to be somewhat under-qualified in hands-on stuff, but most talk a good game. For me, I wouldn't let a GS tech near my boat.

Edd

Posted by: Edd at December 9, 2010 1:54 PM | Reply

Ever thought the reason for Best Buy doing this is because of the screws others put to people? At least if I have a problem there are BB throughout the area I can go too. How many electronic experts have taken a sh*t right after you bought the product. I can name ten right here in Florida in the last three years. Best Buy will do just fine..Go to West and try and buy a product and get it installed. They give you a list of installers to do the job to choose from and good luck if you have a problem after installation from the expert private guy who lives paycheck to paycheck these days.
I've seen some BB installs, no problems and support from suppliers

Posted by: Dick at December 13, 2010 4:15 PM | Reply

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