Get Your Used (stolen?) iPhones at Best Buy Shanghai (Xujiahui, 3rd floor)

Just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday shopping rush I come across evidence that at least one high-profile US-based entry into China’s cut-throat, price-sensitive retail market isn’t working out exactly as planned. I’m talking about Best Buy, North America’s largest electronics retailer. Three years ago they entered the Chinese market with plans to counter China’s aggressive sales culture with a low-key, service-oriented sales method (I wrote about these plans in early 2008 for MinnPost). They might have succeeded – but I’ll leave that question for another time. Tonight I’d like to talk about where they’ve clearly failed: security.

Case in point. This evening, around 6:00 PM I wandered into the third floor mobile phone section at the chain’s store in Shanghai’s Xujiahui neighborhood. As I came off the escalator, and approached a display of smart phones, a slight man in his late twenties sidled up beside me and pulled out a used iPhone 3G. He said ‘hello’ in English and made a quick price offer. After telling him where to put his (presumably) stolen iPhone, I walked to another kiosk and watched him. Nearby was another man, older, who watched him and the staff in the area – he looked like a partner to me, possibly muscle of some kind. A kind of shady, cigarette stained fellow. The staff, meanwhile, watched the man with the used iPhone and DID NOTHING, either unperturbed by his presence, or in no reasonable position to do a thing about him (I’m inclined to the latter – which raises other questions). A moment later, Mr iPhone approached a tallish Chinese man in his mid-twenties. The two appeared to discuss a price at length, and then the tall man wandered off to look at new phones. All through this, the store staff was watching and DOING NOTHING.

So what to conclude? Alas, I only had a few minutes to observe this situation AND look for a new phone (chose not to buy due to a lack of time and an aversion to retailers with used phone operations on the same premises). But I watched long enough to conclude that most of the staff knew what was going on – it would’ve been awfully hard to miss – and didn’t feel like they were in a position to do anything about it. On a deeper level, I conclude that Best Buy’s much celebrated retailing and staff culture has suffered a complete and total collapse at its flagship Shanghai store. If security has failed so completely on the mobile phone floor, you’re likely taking losses elsewhere – and alienating customers (like me). I’d like to make a few more conclusions, but I’m not interested in getting sued so … Conclusion: Best Buy Shanghai has serious human resources problems, ie Best Buy Shanghai has serious problems.

[FYI to Best Buy Security and Best Buy’s legal: on the security tapes you’ll see me come off the escalator and take a right into the mobile phone section just in front of 6:00 PM. I’m wearing a Minnesota Twins baseball cap. The phone hawker approaches me within a minute. The aforementioned interaction with the much taller Chinese customer happens within five minutes of me telling off the hawker. You’ll note the hawker’s partner standing on the other side of the escalator. You’ll also note store staff staring at both of these guys, and doing nothing.]


  1. That Best buy has been going downhill since it opened. I saw store clerks fighting in there one afternoon. Its no different than a Gome at this point.

  2. and what exactly did you DO ABOUT IT apart from write this blog post? it sounds like a matter for the lazy impotent police not downtrodden retail staff.

  3. Dan – A fair question. I went down to the first floor and notified a manager of what was going on (this, too, can be found on a security tape). Whether or not the manager took any kind of action, I don’t know. It’s up to him to call the police, not me.

  4. I support the comment from Feton.. last week I was in BEst Buy, and half the computer staff was playing grab ass, and the HP sales rep was belting out a bit of karaoke

    I grabbed what I needed and ran, and fortunately I am someone who knows what I need before I go cause no one in that store could be bothered to assist were I to need the help.

  5. I agree with Felton and AllRoad about the Xujiahui store. The staff are a bunch of unruly high school kids. The company can’t afford to pay for better so that’s what they get these days. They can’t train them too. Best Buy only in name and look. the store sucks.

  6. In Best Buy’s defense, their tech support is great, and has saved my digital life several times. For example, when I got my current Sony Viao, I wanted to install a legal copy I’d bought of English Windows XP, the Sony store staff *didn’t know how to install the legal software* – only the fake copies. Once again, Best Buy guy to the rescue.

    I don’t like the usual pushy sales staff approach common in China, so I prefer the indifference at Best Buy, I largely can browse unmolested. Remember that these guys are probably paid blue collar wages, probably are waidi ren who share dorms in the burbs and frequently sleep next door at McDonalds, less paid or trained than in the US, probably with a high turnover. It’s a broader issue because college-educated Chinese will not work in retail, not even as a summer or first job. That is a challenge at all levels of the retail industry.

  7. I sort of agree with Lisa’s comment. It’s true that Best Buy can’t pay its people the sorts of wages necessary to pull off an American style Best Buy store. I’m sure that when they opened they were thinking in terms of five star hotel service and wondering why they couldn’t doit in a retail outlet. But the labor market is tighter now and there is no way that they can afford to compete for the people they need to do that. But that’s Best Buy’s problem and short sightedness. They have a real problem I think and I have to think somebody in Liujiazui is wondering how the hell they can bail out this problem.

    I am not surprised at the stolen goods being sold. Xujiahui is rife with gangs and I’m sure they are ccapable of intimidating Best Buy security.

  8. “Xujiahui is rife with gangs and I’m sure they are ccapable of intimidating Best Buy security.”

    Do you have anything to back this up? I find it easy to imagine the XuHui district/ Shanghai municipal government tolerate the operations of criminal gangs, but just not in a such a high-profile area such as XuJiaHui.

Comments are closed.