A Samsung Retail Tale: A (long) conversation with a Samsung rep at retail

Mobile Jul 13, 2011 No Comments

Last week, I had an unexpected encounter at a Best Buy with a retail representative whose job it was to demo and answer questions about the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t really be near the Honeycomb tablets in Best Buy, but I’d wandered in to play with the nearby HP Touchpad. Not being one of the privileged few to receive a unit for an early review, I was dying to get my hands on the only tablet I’ve actually looked forward to this year. Like the early reviewers, I found the Touchpad a pleasure to use but hampered by unimaginative, boring hardware and software sluggishness that has yet to be resolved. In the end, though, it wasn’t the Touchpad that left the most lasting impression from this trip. Rather, it was the conversation I had with a hired gun for Samsung.

Just steps away from the dedicated Touchpad display sat a row of various Android tablets. As I swiped, flipped and otherwise investigated the Touchpad, what appeared to be a Best Buy employee struck up numerous conversations about the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. While the word “iPad” came up numerous times, the employee was giving a fairly hard pitch for the Samsung. Even though there was a row of Android tablets, this representative was clearly only interested in talking about the Galaxy Tab. Given that the Galaxy Tab is the undisputed champion of the Android tablet world, I can’t blame him, but it’s also not hard to spot someone dedicated to selling just one product.

After I finished up with the Touchpad, I moved over to the lonely HTC Flyer sitting next to the Galaxy Tab (Side note: Best Buy, if you plan on selling any Flyers, you might want to have its only distinguishing feature, the pen, available for people to use). As I played with it, the rep (who we’ll call James) finished with the customer they were talking to and asked if I had any questions. I said no, I probably don’t, but I am curious about how you’re pitching the Samsung to customers like the ones I’d seen. To a regular consumer, how do you sell them on it? In the process of asking the question, I also inquired for my own benefit about who exactly was his employer.

To give some context, even though he appeared to be a Best Buy employee at first glance, he was actually wearing a white shirt instead of blue. That white shirt had a Samsung logo on it, though he certainly wasn’t volunteering that information to customers. I said it was obvious he wasn’t a Best Buy employee, but who does he work for? Samsung? No, a “third party.” When I asked who contracted his company, he wouldn’t say, even though I pressed and pressed to find out. Given his focus on the Tab, I would have to guess it was Samsung, though I suppose it’s possible it could have been Google itself. This trend of hired guns to pitch specific products in other companies’ retail stores is both fascinating and disturbing to me. In fact, I mentioned to him that Microsoft should be hiring similar agencies to advocate for and overcome the obstacles for Windows Phone.

In my opinion, James’s sales pitch for the Galaxy Tab was fairly weak, even discounting the fact that I have been particularly bullish on the iPad. The first thing he did was address the hardware, pointing out how thin it is and the fact that the display is of a high quality. The display on the 10.1 is actually excellent, but what wasn’t excellent was the reason he gave for it. “Plus, you know, the display is really good. It’s made by Samsung, and they make great TVs. so you know it’s of good quality.” Of course, this is beyond terrible reasoning, and I didn’t think it was worth it to explain to him that Samsung is a giant conglomerate with different divisions that source their displays competitively, rather than in an integrated fashion. There’s nothing that dictates that a Samsung tablet would even use a Samsung display, for instance.

James continued on to show the truly killer features of Android 3.1 like resizing widgets. I couldn’t believe he’d already been reduced to selling the device based on that, but he went on to talk about all of the great applications available on the Android Market. At this point, I thought it was necessary to delve deeper into exactly how he was positioning the device, so I said, “It seems like people are just nuts about apps, apps, apps. If I’m a regular consumer and all I know is that the iPad has more tablet apps, what would you say?” Feeling the pressure, James replied in a way that really shows part of the difficulty in giving uninformed consumers an accurate picture. He said, “well, if we’re talking about apps, Android has over 200,000 apps available now.” I acknowledged that Android did, but that there were maybe only a few hundred Honeycomb-specific apps, which is what my original question was about. To prove my point, I opened the Weather.com app that was on the home screen of the Tab. Predictably, it opened up the phone-optimized version that had been stretched to fit the screen. This particular app, though, was written in a way that pushed all of the UI to the right half of the screen, making it look extremely unattractive and bizarre.

Needles to say, James was a bit shaken up by this challenge and fell back on the typical Android talking points of the last year. “Well, Android 3.0/3.1 is only a few months old, so they’ll catch up, particularly since there are more Android devices than iOS now.” Of course, this would have been true if we’d been talking about phones, but we weren’t. I pointed out that my original question was about tablets and tablet-specific apps, so it doesn’t matter if there are more Android phones vs. iPhones. Furthermore, what he said was factually incorrect. Android phones are outselling iPhones, but overall Android still lags behind if you include tablets and other devices. The mistake so many people make is to not include the iPod Touch and iPad in their comparisons of the ecosystems. If he’s going to use Android phone numbers to support his position on tablet apps, then we have to include the other devices Apple sells.

This threw James for a bit of a loop. When I stressed repeatedly that the number of Android devices does not eclipse iOS devices as a whole, he consulted a binder near him that included all of the marketing information he was directed to use. It didn’t include that specific information, so we went to the internet to find the answer. Sure enough, my contention was confirmed and he found that “interesting.” He said he was curious because he didn’t want to be giving inaccurate information. I expressed to him that this was exactly the type of issue that wasn’t clear to people who talk to him. If you lump all apps and all devices into one category, it doesn’t give customers a clear picture of the comparison between devices. If there aren’t many Honeycomb-optimized apps, then the usefulness for a Samsung Galaxy Tab falls far behind that of an iPad. Maybe that will change someday, but that day is clearly not here or even close except for those individuals who absolutely have to have Flash or some other Android-specific feature.

James had previously admitted he had an iPad but said that he primarily used the Tab for everything now. I found this hard to believe and asked why. His answer about using the keyboard dock on trips was unconvincing, but perhaps he doesn’t have a keyboard dock for the iPad, since Samsung undoubtedly gave him one for the Tab. At any rate, when it was all said and done, I found very little he said convincing when it comes to choosing a Tab over an iPad. Whether or not most people who are less informed would have the same reaction remains to be seen.

Feeling like he’d spent far too much time talking to me, I thanked James for being a good sport and offered him a Google+ invite (he’d previously said he really wanted in). I’m sure that companies would not be hiring these representatives if they felt like it wasn’t making a difference. In many ways, it is helpful to have someone demoing new devices, but I get the impression that most people won’t recognize that the opinions they’re being offered are not unbiased. Most customers will assume that these people are employees of the store they are in, complicating and potentially contaminating their buying experience. James indicated that Best Buy was moving more towards this model of segmenting their computer section and allowing representatives like him to pitch products. This may help manufacturers compete more against Apple at retail, but it may not end up being in the best interests of consumers.

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