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Best Buy Trains 30,000 for Microsoft’s AI Laptops Launch

(Bloomberg) -- Best Buy Co. is gearing up for one of the biggest product launches of the year: artificial-intelligence computers.

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The retailer is training tens of thousands of its employees to sell and repair Microsoft Corp.’s Copilot+ PCs, the firm’s new AI Windows laptops that go on sale starting Tuesday. Best Buy says that this is its biggest training effort in a decade in both scope and number of employees.

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Best Buy has worked with Microsoft and chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. to build instruction materials and train more than 30,000 employees so far and is still going. The retailer says it has exclusive sales rights to more than 40% of the Copilot+ PC’s models, including the OLED Surface Pro.

Best Buy gained 0.8% at 8:26 a.m. in premarket trading in New York. Its shares had gained nearly 17% year to date through Monday’s close.

Geek Squad tech support agents will be doing Copilot+ demonstrations in hundreds of stores and answering questions from shoppers. The retailer will also offer AI computers from brands such as Dell Technologies Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd.

“Especially because AI is such a buzzword and can be misunderstood so easily, we’ve been very thoughtful about the material and how we are putting it together,” said Luke Motschenbacher, president of retail at Best Buy.

AI PCs contain neural processing units, a kind of chip that is meant to speed up artificial intelligence work like running a chatbot. The first wave of AI PCs will contain chips made by Qualcomm, a maker of smartphone components that’s been trying to grab a foothold in laptops for years.

Best Buy’s training for Copilot+ PCs has been more extensive than for other types of new products, since AI is a new technology. These Microsoft computers come with features like summarization that encapsulate pages of documents and a paint function that can turn a text into an image. And employees have been coached on AI-specific concepts like TOPS, or trillions of operations per second, that measure AI performance.

The major AI training push comes at a crucial moment. Best Buy, which operates about 1,100 stores, is looking to reverse 10 straight quarters of declining same-store sales. Industry analysts expect that new AI products will be a big driver of growth, along with newer categories like e-bikes.

After the introduction of Amazon’s Echo smart speakers with the intelligent personal assistant Alexa debuted in late 2014, Best Buy began to see an increase in requests for help in setting up the new technology. In 2016, it expanded its in-home service staff to aid customers with everything from sound bars to smart shades. By the end of 2017, Best Buy was reporting that same-store sales had increased the most since 2003.

Best Buy’s business boomed again during the pandemic when people rushed to upgrade electronics and home appliances, though sales have fallen off since then. Consumers have largely remained on the sidelines for bigger purchases due to inflation and high interest rates.

Company executives have said they expect the consumer-electronics industry to return to growth. Laptop sales turned slightly positive during the fourth quarter, they have said, and computing products are expected to grow for the full year due to new wave of products and the need to replace or upgrade older ones.

(Updates with premarket share move in the fourth paragraph. An earlier version corrected the number of store demonstrations.)

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