ASUS and Intel may now be teaming up to ask “we the people” what they want most in a laptop, but Best Buy had the idea long ago. The major retailer kicked off its Blue Label program earlier this month by announcing the availability of two notebooks that were exclusively designed by HP and Toshiba in response to the data Best Buy gathered from its customers. The home of the Geek Squad now carries two Blue Label laptops, the HP Pavilion dv3510nr and Toshiba Satellite E105-S1402. The notebooks are a result of collaboration between Best Buy and the notebook vendors, but put the consumer first and foremost. But what did the customers want exactly? How did Best Best Buy prioritize the feedback? And what is next for the Blue Label line? We spoke with Best Buy’s Vice President of Computing Jason Bonfig to get the answers to those questions and more. How did the Best Buy Blue Label program evolve? It was really driven out of customer feedback and we get a tremendous amount of it in different ways. Some of it directly, some through sales analysis, some through our Blue Shirts/Geek Squad agents. We took a lot of the information we get fairly consistently, like: I’ve run out of battery life, I can’t type in my password in the dark, I wish my laptop was a little bit lighter, I want to be able to use everything on my laptop. We had a list of a good and solid features that people wanted and developed the program to work with notebook manufacturers to incorporate these wants. How did you decide on what was most important? We did some very targeted research around how those different features would rank and came up with a ranking priority. The top of the list was the battery life. We thought over four hours of battery life was a good place to start. We went to some of our partners — HP and Toshiba in particular — and talked about this Blue Label project and that we wanted to co-develop a platform from the ground up that would be a Best Buy exclusive. They both will have over 4 hours of battery life; one of the products will have 4 hours and 20 minutes, the other product will have 5 and a half hours. It’s a very good accomplishment by these two OEMs. I think the 5 and a half hours of battery life [on the Toshiba E105] is extremely impressive, based on the fact that it does not have an extended battery hanging out the back of it. How do you guys measure battery life? Most of the OEM community today uses MobileMark. There are two specific tests we use — a combination of the productivity and the DVD tests to make sure that we have some consistency. We want to make sure it’s an actual usable battery life quote that is what the customer would experience in the way that they use the product. How are the other demands of customers incorporated into the products? Both products are thinner and lighter, and are about 1.2 and 1.25 inches in thickness, and they are less than five pounds. The key there is that they both also still have optical drives. I know that there are products that are thinner, lighter on the marketplace, but we felt that, for the battery life that we’re able to accomplish, as well as still including the optical drive, these are some of the more mobile platforms with those feature sets. Both products also have backlit keyboards. They can be turned on and off, and you’re able to see the keyboard keys in any environment, whether it be an airplane or whether at home in the dark. Both products will have 12 months of antivirus included, a 2-year manufacturer’s warranty, which is double the typical manufacturer’s warranty, and 30 days of Geek Squad support. What’s also interesting about this particular lineup is that the screen sizes are smaller than what is most popular, which is 15-inches. Do you feel like there’s an appetite for the 13 – 14-inch range? There are a couple of things we see happening. A lot of what happens in the market has to do with panel costs. The most affordable panel is obviously 15.4-inch, which is why you see it dominate. We are seeing natural trends, though, down to the 13 and 14-inch level, and we are seeing natural trends toward the mobile form factor. That’s really where we wanted to target this product. To try to appeal to a second or third time buyer who absolutely understands what he or she needs in their notebook product and has some experience with the category. If you look at the HP it’s a 13.3 inch, which is a great mobile platform, it looks good, and the weight is great. And in many cases the Toshiba’s footprint is similar to a lot of the 13 inch footprints I’ve seen, but you still get the 14 inch screen. As we develop more and more products that are targeted at a 14 or 13 inch customer that have appeal, we’re going to see more and more volume in that direction. Do you anticipate a side benefit of all this being that you minimize returns? I absolutely hope that there may be some benefit from that perspective. When people are shopping for Blue Label laptops how are you going to communicate to shoppers what they’re getting? Every store is going to be a little bit different. But the products will be grouped together, there will be consistent signage that states many of the benefits, and they will be featured in different spots based on each store. How receptive were HP and Toshiba to your program? We were able to partner with HP and Toshiba in a way that I think is advanced and stronger than what we’ve been able to do in the past. We worked on every step of the process in order to develop a product that meets customer needs. I’ll call out the Toshiba example because I think it’s something they definitely deserve credit for. We were able to work together to get to the five and a half hours of battery life that didn’t need an extended life battery. Because we developed the platform from the ground up we actually used space inside the machine because we said a customer wants better battery life but they don’t necessarily want to increase the bulk of their product. We were able to get an 8-cell battery that would be flush in the product. It gives all the benefit to the customer, but we still keep it light in weight — it’s still below five pounds. It took hours and hours of manpower on both sides to try to accomplish that end goal. Can you explain how the collaboration takes place? What’s involved in the back and forth? The collaboration was in lockstep all the way. We traveled to Tokyo twice to meet with Toshiba and go over the product. We’ve had multiple conference calls and multiple meetings looking at prototypes, looking at sketches. We made decisions around design, around prototype concepts and around look and feel. In some categories Best Buy makes its own products–like the Insignia brand–where you can incorporate the feedback from your customers directly. How does Best Buy decide when to make its own products versus partnering with others? Especially given the fact that, in the past, Best Buy had its own notebook. It’s a decision made by the person managing the product category as well as taking direct feedback from the customer. Looking at the Blue Label series, we think it’s a great example of how we can take customer information and deliver features in a very unique way with brands that really matter. HP and Toshiba are extremely strong brands. And if we went down a path to do something from a private label perspective, I don’t know that we would be able to position the product the same way we would by having HP and Toshiba’s brands behind the products. In different categories there are different opportunities, but in this particular project it definitely made sense to partner with extremely strong partners like HP and Toshiba and I think it’s a great benefit. Could you share some other wishlist items from your customers and what other sorts of Blue Label laptops you might be working on? What can we expect from the future with this line? Some of the things that Best Buy continues to pursue are a battery that has the ability to charge in a very short amount of time — 5 minutes and you’d maybe be able to get an hour, or something like that. Also, indoor/outdoor screens — when you’re in a high-light environment, outside or on a porch or on a deck, it gets very difficult to see LCD screens. There is technology that exists, but is not quite ready yet, that would allow you to see your notebook or your cell phone screen in those environments. Those are things we continue to pursue, but in some cases our customers are asking for things that there are no technology solutions for. There are some other things that I’ll keep confidential at this point so we can keep our competitive advantage. We spoke with one company that’s going to be entering the U.S. notebook market soon and they seem to have mixed feelings about Best Buy getting involved with the design aspect. Could it be that a retailer has too much power when it comes to deciding what goes inside a notebook? I don’t think so, because what we’ve noticed from the Blue Label series is that our customers are asking for things that are oftentimes new technology. There have been a lot of examples in the past, not just in laptops, but in other categories, where things have been put in from a technology perspective but have not been adopted by the customers in a really aggressive way. The more everybody can talk — meaning customers, Best Buy, whatever vendor company we’re talking about — means that we’re going to bring better products. It’ll be the right stuff at the right time and our customers will respond to it because we’ve thought through what the benefit is of that product and that technology. Do you feel that if Best Buy is working with these partners and on wish list of items, will the notebook vendors still be able to differentiate their wares? I think they will. If you look at these two final products they have a common set of features, but they also have some things that are differentiated. The HP’s got a 13-inch screen the Toshiba’s got a 14-inch screen. The Toshiba has better battery life, but the HP is still very strong at the 4 hours twenty minutes. The HP has a graphics card built in – to get that battery life with the graphics card is impressive. The Toshiba has an 8400 Intel chip, which is a little bit stronger chip than the HP. That there’s definitely tradeoffs you’re making with each and they’re differentiated. Not only by what I just laid out, but they’re also very different in the way that they look.