Phil Johnston – Best Buy Canada
It’s a concept Phil Johnston reckons is catching on in Canadian retail and maybe elsewhere. Indeed, he assures, the early feedback has been positive from consumers at a new and condensed Best Buy location at the Sherwood Park Mall just outside the Alberta capital of Edmonton.
“We could be trend-setters,” he tells Blueprint in November. “A smaller store helps us get into new markets.”
Whereas the traditional Best Buy is around 30,000 square feet, this store is just short of 8,000. Big things still can come in small packages, Johnston explaining there’s a curated selection of the most popular products and plenty more in warehouse space that consumes more than half the store.
Such an arrangement enhances online commerce as buyers can email their orders and pick up the same day. In-house services also haven’t been compromised, there being a consolidated counter with the iconic “Blue Shirts” tending to shoppers’ needs and the ability to have an item serviced by Geek Squad.
Should shoppers want the traditional Best Buy experience, they still can find it at a big box store a 20-minute drive into Edmonton proper. There’s room for both models in a fast-changing retail environment, says the man who’s been part of the Best Buy Canada operation for over three decades.
One might think Johnston has seen it all during that time, but he’d disagree.
“What I love about retail is it’s always changing,” he says from the company’s new headquarters just outside downtown Vancouver. “Nobody could have predicted what these last few years have been. While it’s been an unfortunate situation for everybody, there have been so many lessons that we’ve applied in making us a better and more versatile company.”
A member of Best Buy Canada since 1991 and director of store experience, construction and facilities for the past eight years, Johnston says the company anticipated the need for smaller, more service-oriented stores outside the metropolises even before COVID-19. How the pandemic made change all the more necessary, technology becoming a must with so much of the workforce—and schoolchildren—transitioning to remote work.
During the pandemic, aside from ensuring workplace health and hygiene, Johnston and his crew queried staff and customers and created express pickup and other amenities based on their answers. The Sherwood Park experiment, as well as one in Nova Scotia well received, he envisions such stores in every province.
He’s also fashioning the larger stores and distribution centers for a new era. Time was when rows of big-screen televisions at Best Buy’s big box or Mobile stores would be tuned to sporting events. Just as many screens now show video games or whatever movies are popular on streaming channels. It’s a small yet significant change, Johnston says, and another reminder of the company’s commitment to staying abreast of the times.
High on HQ
The company’s also got to appeal to its own workforce and Johnston says it’s doing so with its new headquarters that opened last spring in the top five floors of a glassy building owned by Cressey Development Group. Though Best Buy Canada’s leased space is just over half the 140,000 square feet of the former facility in suburban Burnaby, Johnston says it’s adequate with much of the workforce now remote or hybrid.
Those who opt for the office can access public transit and enjoy the amenities of what’s known as Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. The leadership was thinking relocation even pre-pandemic, and with much of the planning during COVID-19, Johnston says lessons were applied with an eye on the future.
The hundreds of desks in the old digs have largely given way to an open layout that encourages collaboration. Energy savings on everyone’s mind, the lighting and utilities were fashioned for sustainability. There’s up-to-date technology, spaces for video calls and just about every other function that fits the needs of a modern employee.
Johnston even was able to cut costs by tapping in-house talent to do much of the buildout with the Geek Squad Agents charged with wiring for TEAMS calls and other means of communicating. “That shows the confidence we have in the Geek Squad Agents,” he says. “The same people who trouble-shoot for the customers also do so for us.”
Though he’s been immersed in everything from merchandising and operations to inventory and facilities for more than three decades, Johnston’s not thinking about retirement anytime soon.
Personal life also fulfills with Johnston, his wife and two sons taking advantage of the outdoor offerings of British Columbia. Their hobbies include skiing, golfing and mountain biking, and Johnston has coached his youngest son in youth hockey.
“By now he’s eclipsed my skating and shooting, and I can’t show him as much as I once could,” Johnston says. “But I’ve learned so much as a coach that has made me a better leader and manager. It’s about understanding what your team has to do and communicating and inspiring them to be the best they can be.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. II 2023 Edition here.
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