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Speedy laptop repair a priority at giant Geek Squad center in rural US

HILLVIEW, Kentucky (AP) – The top U.S. electronics retailer didn’t pick Silicon Valley, India or another high-tech hub to build its hospital for personal computers. It chose the Kentucky countryside, known more for race horses and bourbon distilleries than geeks and microprocessors.

Geek Squad, the quirky PC service division of Best Buy Co., opened its 165,000-square-foot (15,300-square-meter) Geek Squad City warehouse just south of Louisville late last year with a goal of cutting the time it takes to repair and return PCs – especially laptops.

”This is all about giving the customer a better experience,” said Michael Rodgers, Geek Squad City’s ”ambassador,” or spokesman.

Computers with broken motherboards, hard drives with death rattles and virus infections begin streaming into the warehouse at 5 a.m. from a nearby UPS air hub in Louisville, one of the key reasons that the business was built here, said Wes Snyder, Geek Squad City’s top manager, or ”mayor.”

Snyder said the nearby city offered a tech-savvy work force. The state also offered tax benefits worth up to $9.3 million (euro6.9 million).

Inside the facility’s sprawling repair room, PC parts and precision tools are spread over the rows and rows of desks where hundreds of computer techs – Geek Squad’s ”agents” – fix more than 2,000 laptops a day. More than 700,000 PCs will be repaired here this year, Rodgers said.

Laptops are the majority of personal computers sold nowadays, and the smaller and more advanced they get, the more complicated the repairs. The portable PCs also endure more abuse than their larger desktop cousins, getting dinged, dropped and splashed with coffee.

”They’re getting down to where you need watchmaker tools and very special expertise. It’s not just swapping out a disk drive anymore,” said Richard Doherty, president of The Envisioneering Group, a research company.

About half the laptops are repaired on the same day they arrive at Geek Squad City, but the average time is about three days, Rodgers said.

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group research company, said the turnaround time is faster than any other computer retailer.

”From a store perspective, I’m not aware of anyone else doing this,” he said. Original or direct manufacturers, like Dell, can typically repair and return a PC in about that time, Enderle added.

Circuit City Stores Inc., Best Buy’s main competitor in the electronics retail market, launched its own PC repair service, called Firedog, in October. It offers in-home and in-store service, similar to Geek Squad. Circuit City declined to comment on Geek Squad City.

”Oftentimes what an industry leader like a Best Buy does is force others people to kind of follow,” said Samir Bhavnani, a research director with Current Analysis.

Most of the thousands of computers sent to Geek Squad City could not be fixed by employees at Best Buy locations, typically because the store didn’t have the proper parts. Best Buy is considering shipping additional parts to the stores, but for now the computers go to the Kentucky warehouse, Rodgers said.

Swift repair time is crucial in an industry with customers who don’t want to be away from their private files.

”Laptops are very personal and people don’t like a personal element of their life to be out of their reach for two or three or 10 days,” Doherty said.

Some smaller, independent tech support companies forego shipping computers and have instead built their business around online troubleshooting services., a small Massachusetts company, repairs computers with a remote screen-sharing technology, said Singu Srinivas, its co-founder. A typical service call costs from $75 to $100 (euro55 to euro75), he said.

”What we’ve found is 93 percent of problems can be actually solved remotely,” Srinivas said, ”because most of the problems people have these days are less, ‘My key is stuck on my keyboard,’ but more about, ‘I saw a new piece of software on the Internet, and my PC was working fine before that, but now it’s running sluggish.”’

Srinivas said consumer computer service and repair is a $15 billion (euro11 billion) a year industry and growing.

Geek Squad’s pseudo-serious image – high-tech culture with a dab of intrigue straight out of a 1950s spy novel – is embraced by Geek Squad City’s 600 employees, who carry titles like ”counter intelligence agent” and ”commissioner.”

Founded in 1994 in Minnesota by Robert Stephens, the company began with house calls to customers with computer woes. Stephens sold it to Best Buy in 2002. Best Buy offers Geek Squad service packages that range from $29 to $299 (euro20 to euro200). They also fix computers not bought at its stores.

There are no customer walk-ins here, but employees still don the standard issue black-tie and pants with white, short-sleeved dress shirts. About 350 of the facility’s workers are ”agents” or computer technicians, most from nearby Louisville. Rodgers said the facility is already planning to hire another 350 workers.

Though it’s been open since October, management is constantly streamlining methods.

”I’ve never found a problem that somebody here couldn’t fix,” said Justin Meade, a 21-year-old who works at Geek Squad City. ”We kind of relish in that.”

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