The announcement that Google will expand the retail footprint of its hardware partners’ Chromebook netbooks is one that threatens to come back to bite the search giant — or, more likely, the hardware makers.

A couple of months ago, I was on a business trip in Milpitas, Calif. A colleague, eager to get the newest Chromebook without waiting for it to go on sale in Canada, had located online the Best Buy store nearest to our hotel and pre-ordered one for pickup, a testament to his likeable geekiness. With a little downtime, we strolled over to the store. He went to the pickup desk for his order. One staffer handed it over; a second, with a look of horror on his face, literally snatched the box out of his hands.

“This isn’t what you think it is,” the staffer said. He explained that it wasn’t a real computer in that it only really worked when connected to the Internet. Apparently, he’d had enough training to recognize that a techno novice might be seduced by the low price, but expect regular computer performance, resident applications, etc. He wouldn’t hand over the netbook without interrogating my colleague until he was satisfied he really wanted the Chromebook.

chromebook pixel
The Chromebook Pixel

I’ve heard similar stories from others. And while it’s irksome at the time, it’s also understandable and even a little noble. Don’t sell the customer what he or she doesn’t want. It’s annoying, you’re going to have to deal with complaints and returns, and it can damage the reputation of the store and the product.

The store can ameliorate that reputation damage with good return service. The reputation of the hardware brand, though, is always going to be tainted in that customer’s eyes.

So while there’s merit in extending sales to, say, Staples — where there’s likely to be some office-oriented experience and training — there’s not so much in extending them to a department store like Wal-Mart. The likelihood of appropriate staff training is small, and given the wide range of products department stores sell, a good return experience isn’t likely, either. And the black mark stays with the hardware brand.

Read more about Google’s retail expansion plans here.

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