Troubled electronics retailer Best Buy is already on the ReadWrite DeathWatch list, and this holiday shopping season could be a make-or-break period for the company.

After my visit there last weekend, I’m increasingly worried that it’s gonna break. And I take no happiness in this realization, as my experience also reminded me just how much we need a good brick and mortar place to buy electronics.

New Speakers For My New iPhone 5

As faithful readers of my smartphone adventures may recall, I recently got a new iPhone 5 (see My Week With The iPhone 5). That’s great, but as I noted when they were first released, Apple’s new Lightning connectors do not work with existing peripherals (see iPhone 5’s Lightning Connector Is A Bigger Problem Than Apple Thinks). And I can now say with certainty that even with Apple’s $30 adapter, you can’t play an iPhone 5 through an old iPhone speaker dock. (Plus it looks ridiculous.)

Clearly, it was time to upgrade the Altec-Lansing iMT520 that had been providing tunes in my kitchen for the last few years. I hopped online, and found several choices that connected wirelessly via Bluetooth or Apple’s Airplay system. Several of them looked good and were in my price range. But there was one problem: There was no way to tell what they sounded like. And since the whole point of these devices is their sound output, I was unwilling to pull the trigger on any of them sight unseen and sound unheard.

Failure At Best Buy

Instead, I hopped in the car and headed down to my local Best Buy. I was hopeful that the store would have at least some of the models I’d researched and I’d be able to listen to them before I handed over my credit card.

As I walked into the crowded store (a good sign, I guess), my first thought was, “This place is so noisy I probably won’t be able to hear anything out of these speakers.” Then I rationalized that if I can hear anything, at least I’ll know they’ll probably be more than adequate for my kitchen.

After wandering around the giant store for 15 minutes, I finally found the aisle with the devices I was looking for. And surprise, they actually had several of the ones I was interested in, plus a couple others I hadn’t see online. And the prices weren’t bad either. Score!

Even better, there was a slick set-up where you could just hit a button to listen to the device you want to check out. Score again! That was exactly what I hoping to find.

So I pushed the button for my top choice. Nothing happened. I pushed the button for another one. Silence. I pushed the buttons for all of them. Nothing. I wasn’t surprised, but I was sad and a bit frustrated.

I spent another 15 minutes looking for a salesperson to get some help. I eventually found one, who acknowledged that the system was broken and should be fixed in a few days. He suggested I come back later and check. 

What Now?

Well, maybe I will and maybe I won’t. It was a hassle the first time and probably will be the next time, too – and I can’t be sure the system will be working even when I get there. (If you saw the cast of characters wandering around that store, you’d be surprised anything worked there, ever.)

I’m still unwilling to buy iPhone speakers without listening to them, though. So for the short term I’m using my old iPhone 4 as an expensive iPod, or hooking up my iPhone 5 via a headphone cable (no charging, no remote control) and hoping I don’t accidentally kick the cord and pull the phone off the table onto the floor and break it. Sure, I could choose one system to order, and send it back if I didn’t like it. But I was really hoping to be able to compare my top choices.

Now I’m thinking about how much we really need a clean, well-lighted, properly functioning place to actually see and try the equipment we want to buy. I was hoping that Best Buy would still be that place. And maybe they are in many places, but not the store I visited. And who knows how much longer Best Buy is going to be around, anyway?

I was ready to buy, but didn’t because I couldn’t properly test the merchandise. As online retailing increasingly takes over, that’s going to be a bigger and bigger problem for non-commodity items. Who knows, maybe Amazon or other etailers will have to start building their own showrooms. Because speakers aren’t the only things that at least some shoppers aren’t going buy without a chance to check them out in person first. 

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock. Other images by Fredric Paul.