Reading Scoble's post on Dave's sour encounter with Best Buy and Scoble's suggestions on how to improve the tech sales/purchase experience made me think about the problem as well (the blogosphere is like this in that blog posts are like can openers. Reading a post could open your can.)
A sales person, no matter how carefully you choose them, will be cluess about most of the product he is assigned to sell. The first problem is that they lack the motivation to learn. The second problem is that they are not excited about the product. They are just clueless people who just wants to sell it and don't care whether the buyer is making the right purchase or not.
One solution I can think of is rather outrageous and could have some legal implications. The core idea is to let customers sell to each other in return for discount coupons.
If I am really excited about a newly released laptop from HP, I would have scoured the net for information about the laptop and would be far more informed than your average sales person pushing HP products at stores. Chances are also pretty good that I would be more informed than an employee of HP. All those hours spent learning about the product are valuable. Geeks are like that.
Now I walk into Best Buy to buy a laptop. At this point, I know which laptops they carry and which ones I am interested in. Only remaining issue at this point is the price. If Best Buy offered me a $100 discount coupon on any product I help them sell, I would be looking around to see if anyone else is looking at the laptops I know about. While I am not going to hang around for hours waiting for someone to come, I am very likely to tackle anyone who might be interested in the laptops I buy so I can get that discount coupon. It doesn't matter how many figures I make a year. It's the human nature thing.
The chance of me making a sales is arguably higher than a sales person because a) I am well informed about the products, b) I am highly enthusiastic about the products, and c) I am a peer. Although I am doing this partly for that $100 coupon, I wouldn't be doing it unless it's an effort in the same direction I am going anyway.
This model is similar to the way BitTorrent works. While I am downloading something via BitTorrent, I am sharing what I downloaded so far with other downloaders in return for faster downloading speed. While I am making a purchase, I am sharing my knowledge and energy with other potential purchasers in return for discounts.
Too creative? Well, consider the idea to be raw ore that needs further processing. I am just a miner.
There are some really good comments to this post, so don't forget to read them. Also, Jason Lefkowitz and his father discussed the idea over Thanksgiving and came up with a possibly workable variation which discusses in a Anthill Communities blog post. Interesting.
One potential pitfall in the idea seems to be that there won't be enough 'peers' hanging around to help or that they would be looked up on with suspicion. I think it depends on the how the 'peer sales' business is designed. A store 'well-known' as the place to go for geeks will attract enough during busy hours.
It is well known that people's behavior is highly contextual, particularly by where they are. If the store encourages 'conversations' among customers in the store, customers will remember that store as the place to go to find others with whom they can talk to about products they are interested in. As to the number, all you really need is one customer who is either knowledgeble or has friends who are. Even if everyone present is clueless, there is certain comfort in asking others what they think of the product one is interested in.
Ultimately, it all depends on how the business is designed and how attractive the sales atmosphere is. Think about the night club business and what it takes to create a successful night club. In a sense, night clubs are peer sales business because it depends heavily on how customers interact with each other. While I am not advocating that tech stores put bouncers at the door to control the quality of customers, encouraging certain types of customers to visit through marketing and in-store incentives will influence the sucess of the business.