RealTime IT News

Geek Squad's Favorites Help Software Sales

Retail giant Best Buy's technical support arm, Geek Squad, has quietly emerged as not only a leading technical support force but also as an influencer for security software it deems the best.

That's the conclusion of one analyst firm and software vendors interviewed by internetnews.com.

While the Geek Squad commercials are often hokey, its popularity has grown along with its parent company, to the point that Best Buy  has opened a dozen stand-alone Geek Squad stores and plans more.

"In this market, where software is becoming increasingly complex, I think Geek Squad has proven to be a very effective force for Best Buy in the marketplace," said Mike Irwin, chief operating officer for Webroot Software, developer of the anti-spyware software Spy Sweeper.

Geek Squad is a pretty sizable effort. The company has 11,000 agents in North America covering 770 stores. Since it went national at the end of 2004, Geek Squad has served three million customers, according to a company spokesperson.

Geek Squad staff are very well trained, and more to the point, they offer advice to consumers. "They have become the IT consultant for the consumer market. No one has been as innovative at getting its service desk off the ground and branded as well as Best Buy has," added Irwin.

Techs selling software is almost unheard of at big retail chains.

"That's what vendors have dreamed of for years. Having people push software like that is kind of a new thing. Usually it sits on a shelf and no one will come help you pick a title," said Chris Swenson, director of software industry analysis for The NPD Group.

Getting on the Geek Squad short list of recommended products can mean a jackpot for software vendors. Webroot was one of them. Geek Squad approval has played a big part in the company becoming a market leader in anti-spyware software, according to NPD Group.

"Webroot rocketed from out of nowhere, partly due to making the [Geek Squad] short list. But they also have very good program. Geek Squad won't pick a title that doesn't work well," said Swenson.

Another beneficiary of the Geek Squad blessing has been Trend Micro  and its PC-cillin antivirus software. Early on, Best Buy split out its Geek Squad sales from regular in-store sales. Swenson said he noticed that PC-cillin on the Geek Squad sales list was selling like crazy.

"We saw Trend Micro's numbers exploding, made some phone calls and found out they made the shortlist with Geek Squad," said Swenson. "We saw the same route with Webroot. People were asking why it was doing so well."

For its part, Best Buy categorically denies playing any favorites or making any recommendations.

"We do not endorse specific products at all. We pride ourselves on being brand agnostic," said Paula Baldwin, a spokesperson for Best Buy.

She said Geek Squad agents do not and cannot endorse a specific product and give consumers a choice from a variety of products. "They will try to get a sense of what you think you need and why and make recommendations based on your needs but never recommend or endorse a single product," she said.

Swenson doesn't buy it. He said he's pretty confident that a large percentage of Geek Squad agents are recommending PC-cillin and that everyone he's talked to (including Trend Micro's competition) has said so. He added that sales data also suggests a Geek Squad influence.

How powerful has Best Buy become? NPD estimates that consumers buy 62.7 percent of their security software in retail channels, and 17.8 percent of all of those sales are from Best Buy.

Even if you don't get on the Geek Squad short list, a lot of people do their security software shopping at Best Buy, said Swenson.

Still, "if you have a solution the Geek Squad likes, it does do wonders for you," said Lane Bess, global general manager for the consumer segment at Trend Micro.

"They are true to the name geek. They are not going to sell the product because of brand awareness, they are going to sell what the blogs and their fellow geeks say is the best products."

Trend wasn't even in Best Buy for a long time, but when the company began negotiations, it was Geek Squad staffers who passed the word up the management chain that they really liked PC-Cillin and wanted it to sell.

"They don't favor one product so much as there's a natural dynamic that if you impress them, and they really believe you have the best product, it really helps," said Bess.

But he adds that Best Buy is careful not to alienate other software vendors on its shelves. "I only wish every time a Geek went into someone's house they sold our product and not one of our competitors," said Bess.