I was hesitant when I first found out that Best Buy had a camera shop in their stores. My experience in the past had been a disappointment, walking through their small camera section was underwhelming and most of the associates avoided that area. I didn’t think too much of it, as cameras were not generally accepted knowledge like it is with computers or TVs. Your average employee would have issues talking about ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and the practical application of these terms.
Full disclosure: Michael Flores is an employee at a Best Buy store but Best Buy was not involved in this article.
When it came time for me to find a part-time job, I noticed there were openings in one of their newer Camera Experience Shops. I applied for the position and, having a large photography background, I was quickly hired on. I was then introduced to Best Buy’s new Camera Experience Shop.
What is a Camera Experience Shop?
Across the country, there are about 120 CES shops in certain Best Buys and growing. These shops specialize in having a large collection of cameras and lens on site and the knowledge base to support them. In the Best Buy world, they are considered specialty shops, not like your average Best Buy where they have a small selection of cameras and a couple drones. These CES shops have intro DSLRs, full frames, drones, and all the mirrorless cameras you could want, as well as the accessories to support the inventory.
Their selection is mainly geared towards Canon, Nikon, and Sony. They have a smaller area supporting Fujifilm, Panasonic, and Olympus with some lens. They do carry the higher end of these but their main focus is towards the larger three brands.
In my earlier experience with the camera areas in Best Buy, the employees didn’t know anything. It was frustrating, and the majority of my camera shopping was done online and I educated myself through YouTube.
Things have changed: these CES shops have partnered with Canon, Nikon, and Sony and in-store they have employees who represent each of the brands. They have specialized training directly from those vendors and have extremely in-depth training. I was surprised when I first came in at the knowledge base of the employees at the CES shops. On top of having direct training from the vendors, each employee in the vendor roll, and the department lead, are flown out to receive hands-on practical training with the vendors.
The employees are flown out to either Arizona or Colorado where they work directly with Nikon, Canon, Sony, Panasonic, GoPro, DJI, and many other camera companies. The main people that help coordinate and train the employees, besides the Best Buy team, are a group called Blue Pixel. This is a group of photographers who have very impressive resumes, everything from White House Press Pool photographers and Sports Illustrated photographers to UFC and professional portrait photographers. The Blue Pixel team also worked closely with the Associated Press training their staff photographers, and this is the same crew training the people that work at Best Buy.
I was amazed by the investment they put into these Best Buy employees just to get them properly trained, and impressed with the portfolios they were able to put together over the week-long training. The BluePixel team and Best Buy bring in models, take them off-site to a ranch, let them fly drones, teach light painting, bring in fire spinners, set up studio lighting and backdrops and proved a very wide range of practical camera training.
The employees at the CES shops are expected to be able to turn around and do similar trainings in stores once a month and help facilitate the advanced trainings that Best Buy has just implemented in certain markets.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Best Buy is still polishing up their stores and building out this platform. They have some hiccups here and there in the employee knowledge base, but things have gotten a lot better since the introduction of these shops. Where before they would just have your average employee stationed in the camera department, now they have people who are photographers or have a passion for photography in these positions.
In the store I worked, the Canon Expert had his bachelor’s degree in digital media and the team lead used to work for FOX News as their lighting and camera specialist. Not every store has this level of experience but with the trainings they are sent on, it’s growing.
Keep in mind, the people that work in these shops are photographers and camera nerds. They will often spend time just talking to photographers about the best way to light a subject, film photography, or what drone would be best for real-estate. The stores have budgets to hit just like anywhere else, but the employees are paid by the hour — they try their best to be unbiased and impartial to brand. Besides a playful jab here or there at the other brands, they are there just to help out. And with the large investment Best Buy puts into their employees, the majority of them love their jobs.
A big box store can often seem heartless when compared to a local camera shop, and unfortunately Best Buy has run some of those places out of business. Best Buy has more buying power than most camera shops, which means they can get a D850 a 1D X II or an a7 II in before most. They also have a very large client base and with a mix of price matching, and new legislation that recently passed where states can charge online retailers sales tax, Best Buy CES shops are here to stay.
About the author: Michael Flores is a photographer based in Houston, Texas, and a multi-platform journalist working with local newspapers and magazines. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. He works in a camera shop right outside of Houston. You can find his work through his project 360houston, which can be found on Facebook and Instagram.