I Bought Something from a Best Buy Vending Machine, and It Didn’t Go So Well

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Harry McCracken /

Sometimes fate is just plain mean. On Wednesday, I wondered if Best Buy’s best strategy for reinventing itself might be to radically reduce the selection of products it stocks and institute a no-frills customer-support policy. Later that day, I made a purchase at a Best Buy that carried only a few dozen items and had no human staff at all. And I ended up pining for someone in a blue shirt to rescue me.

The Best Buy in question, as you may already have guessed, was actually a Best Buy Express vending machine. I’ve been intrigued by these devices — which sell travel-oriented gizmos and are operated by a company named Zoom Express — since I spotted one at San Francisco’s SFO airport nearly four years ago. But I never actually bought anything from one until Tuesday night, when I came across one sitting quietly next to an ATM at the Hilton hotel in the O’Hare airport in Chicago.

Best Buy Express stocks some obvious items, such as various models of iPods, headphones and digital cameras. It also has some interesting oddities, like an Alcatel cell phone designed for international use. (Wait, Alcatel makes phones?) And it sells a number of different batteries and power adapters, which certainly makes sense when you’re catering to busy travelers.

I decided to buy a Mophie Juice Pack Air, a battery case for my iPhone 4s. I’ve been enviously eyeing the one my wife uses and have found it increasingly tough to get through the day without my phone croaking. And the Best Buy Express price of $79.99 was the same I’d pay anywhere else.

As I swiped my credit card, I noticed a message: “If you need assistance, please see a Store Representative.” That seemed curious given that I wasn’t in a store and I saw no representatives or anyone else in the vicinity. But I didn’t need assistance, so I continued on.

Which isn’t to say that the process went smoothly. I used the virtual keyboard on the machine’s touchscreen to enter my e-mail address for a receipt. At the last moment, I noticed a typo. When I touched the screen at the point where I needed to make a correction, I got a cursor — but when I typed the right character, it showed up at the end, not where the cursor appeared.

And then, right as I was finishing with entering my e-mail address, the machine abruptly declared that it hadn’t heard from me in awhile — wrong! — and that it was going to give me a paper receipt instead, without so much as a “Do you need more time?”

When the Mophie tumbled out of the dispenser, I opened up the box and was flummoxed by what I found. My wife’s Mophie has a streamlined look, an open top that provides easy access to the controls and a bottom that you can quickly remove for convenient access to the dock connector. This one had a closed top with cutouts that made it tough to reach the controls, and it sealed tightly in the middle, putting the dock connector out of reach.

I thought it was an older model — but after doing a little online homework, I figured out that there are two Mophie Juice Pack Air variants. My wife’s version, which I much prefer, apparently is sold only at the Apple Store. Best Buy and everybody else stocks the one I got from the machine. (Why is Mophie selling two different designs under the same name? Beats me.)

Now, if I’d bought this Mophie at a real Best Buy store, I’m pretty sure that I could have immediately returned it for a full refund. On the rare occasion when I’ve taken something back, the chain has been accommodating. I even brought back a PlayStation 2 after opening and using it just because I’d changed my mind.

But Best Buy Express machines have a pretty hard-nosed return policy: you can return a gadget only if it’s unopened or defective, and then only by calling a toll-free number and waiting for a prepaid shipping label. Buyer’s remorse isn’t an adequate excuse. And as my receipt put it, “Items purchased through Best Buy Express(TM) MAY NOT be returned to Best Buy stores or through”

There are apparently 200 Best Buy Express locations, but their association with the chain that gave them their name seems to be tenuous. They’re managed by Zoom Systems, and the only reference I can find to them on Best Buy’s sites is a sales pitch trying to get other companies to buy ads on them. In fact, the machines don’t have any online presence aimed at consumers at all, as far as I can tell. They’re less tiny Best Buys than they are something else entirely marketed under the company’s name.

So lesson learned: buying an $80 gizmo is more complicated than buying a Diet Sprite, and you might want to be careful about where and how you do it. I’m done being intrigued by Best Buy Express — and I own an iPhone battery case which I don’t really want.