We’ve covered Radioshack but there are a few other retail stores I’d like to cover as well. CompUSA, CircuitCity, and Fry’s to name a few. Not only is there something to be learned from the move from brick and mortar electronic chains to Ecommerce but there’s plenty to be learned about how to treat people and how people perceived computers and what we need and when, as well.
You see, Fry’s was one of the few places you could walk in, pick a CPU, find a compatible mother board, pick a sweet chassis to put it in, get a power supply, a video card, some memory, back then probably a network card, maybe some sweet fans, a cooling system for the CPU you were about to overclock, an SSD drive to boot a machine, a hard drive to store stuff, a DVD, a floppy just in case, pick up some velcro wrap to keep the cables at bay, get a TV, a cheap knockoff smart watch, a VR headset that would never work, maybe a safe since you already have a cart, a soundbar ‘cause you did just get a TV, some headphones for when you’ll keep everyone else up with the sounder, a couple of resistors for that other project, a fixed frequency video card for that one SGI in the basement, a couple smart plugs, a solar backpack, and a CCNA book that you realize is actually 2 versions out of date when you go to take the test. Yup, that was a great trip. And ya’ there’s also a big bag of chips and a 32 ounce of some weird soda gonna’ go in the front seat with me. Sweet. Now let’s just toss the cheap flashlight we just bought into the glove box in case we ever break down and we’re good to go home and figure out how to pay for all this junk on that new Fry’s Credit Card we just opened.
But that was then and this is now. Fry’s announced it was closing all of its stores on February 24th, 2021. The week we’re recording this episode. To quote the final their website:
“After nearly 36 years in business as the one-stop-shop and online resource for high-tech professionals across nine states and 31 stores, Fry’s Electronics, Inc. (“Fry’s” or “Company”), has made the difficult decision to shut down its operations and close its business permanently as a result of changes in the retail industry and the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Company will implement the shut down through an orderly wind down process that it believes will be in the best interests of the Company, its creditors, and other stakeholders.
The Company ceased regular operations and began the wind-down process on February 24, 2021. It is hoped that undertaking the wind-down through this orderly process will reduce costs, avoid additional liabilities, minimize the impact on our customers, vendors, landlords and associates, and maximize the value of the Company’s assets for its creditors and other stakeholders.”
Wow. Just wow. I used to live a couple of miles from a Fry’s and it was a major part of furthering my understanding of arcane, bizarre, sometimes emergent, and definitely dingy areas of computing. And if those adjectives don’t seem to have been included lovingly, they most certainly are. You see every trip to Fry’s was strange.
Donald Fry founded Fry’s Food and Drug in 1954. The store rose to prominence in the 50s and 60s until his brother Charles Fry sold it off in 1972. As a part of Kroger it still exists today, with 22,000 employees. But this isn’t the story of a supermarket chain. I guess I did initially think the two were linked because the logos look somewhat similar - but that’s where their connection ends.
Instead, let’s cover what happened to the $14 million the family got from the sale of the chain. Charles Fry gave some to his sons John, Randy, and David. They added Kathryn Kolder and leased a location in Sunnyvale, California to open the first Fry’s Electronics store in 1985.
This was during the rise of the microcomputer. The computing industry had all these new players who were selling boards and printers and floppy drives. They put all this stuff in bins kinda’ like you would in a grocery store and became a one-stop shop for the hobbyist and the professional alike. Unlike groceries, the parts didn’t expire so they were able to still have things selling 5 or 10 years later, albeit a bit dusty.
1985 was the era when many bought integrated circuits, mother boards, and soldering irons and built their own computers. They saw the rise of the microprocessor, the 80286 and x86s. And as we moved into an era of predominantly x86 clones of the IBM PC, the buses and cards became standard. Provided a power supply had a molex connector it was probably good to light up most mother boards and hard drives. The IDE became the standard then later SATA. But parts were pretty interchangeable.
Knowing groceries, they also sold those. Get some Oranges and a microprocessor. They stopped selling those but always sold snacks until the day they closed down. But services were always a thing at Fry’s. Those who didn’t want to spend hours putting spacers on a motherboard and puttin
They also sold other electronics. Sometimes the selection seemed totally random. I bought my first MP3 player at a Fry’s - the Diamond Rio. And funny LED lights for computer fans before that really became a thing. Screwdriver kits, thermal grease, RAM chips, unsoldered boards, weird little toys, train sets, coloring books, certification books for that MCSE test I took in 2002, and whatever else I could think of.
The stores were kitchy. Some had walls painted like circuit boards. Some had alien motifs. Others were decorated like the old west. It’s like whatever they could find weird stuff to adorn the joint. People were increasingly going online. In 1997 they bought Frys.com. To help people get online, they started selling Internet access in 2000. But by then there were so many vendors to help people get online that it wasn’t going to be successful. People were increasingly shopping online so they bought Cyberian Outpost in 2001 and moved it to outpost.com - which later just pointed to Frys.com.
The closing of a number of Radio Shack stores and Circuit City and CompUSA seemed to give them a shot in the arm for a bit. But you could buy computers at Gateway Country or through Dell. Building your own computer was becoming more and more a niche industry for gamers and others who needed specific builds.
They grew to 34 stores at their height. Northern California stores in Campbell, Concord, Fremont, Roseville, Sacramento, San Jose, and that original Sunnyvale (now across the street from the old original Sunnyvale) and Southern California stores in Burbank, City of Industry, Fountain Valley, Manhattan Beach, Oxnard, San Diego, San Marcos, and the little one in Woodland Hills - it seemed like everyone in California knew to go to Fry’s when you needed some doodad. In fact, they made the documentary about General Magic because they were constantly going back and forth to Fry’s to get parts to build their device.
But they did expand out of California with 8 stores in Texas, two in Airizona, one in Illinois, one in Indiana, one in Nevada, one in Oregon, and another in Washington. In some ways it looked as though they were about to have a chain that could rival the supermarket chain their dad helped build. But it wasn’t meant to be.
With the fall of Radio Shack, CompUSA, and Circuit City, I was always surprised Fry’s stayed around. Tandy started a concept similar called Incredible Universe but that didn’t last too long. But I loved them. The customer service wasn’t great. The stores were always a little dirty. But I never left empty-handed. Even when I didn’t find what I was looking for.
Generations of computer enthusiasts bought everything from scanners to printers at Frys. They were sued over how they advertised, for sexual harassment, during divorce settlements, and over how they labeled equipment. They lost money in embezzlements, and as people increasingly turned to Amazon and other online vendors for the best price for that MSI motherboard or a screen for the iPhone - keeping such a massive inventory was putting them out of business. So in 2019 amidst rumors they were about to go out of business, they moved to stocking the stores via consignment. Not all vendors upstream could do that, leading to an increasingly strange selection and finding what you needed less and less.
Then came COVID. They closed a few stores and between the last ditch effort of consignment and empty bins as hardware moved, they just couldn’t do it any more. As with the flashier and less selection but more complete systems Circuit City and CompUSA before them, they finally closed their doors in 2021, after 36 years. And so we live in an era where many computers, tablets, and phones are no longer serviceable or have parts that can be swapped out. We live in an era where when we can service a device with those parts, we often go online to source them. And we live in an era where if we need instant gratification to replace components there are plenty of retail chains like Target or Walmart that sell components and move far more than Fry’s so are more competitive on the price. We live in an era where we don’t need to go into a retailer for software and books, both sold at high margins. There are stores on the Apple and Microsoft and Google platforms for that. And of course 2020 was a year that many retail chains had to close their doors in order to keep their employees safe, losing millions in revenue.
All of that eventually became too much for other computer stores as each slowly eroded the business. And now it’s become too much for Fry’s. I will always remember the countless hours I strolled around the dingy store, palming this adapter and that cable and trying to figure out what components might fit together so I can get the equivalent of an AlienWare computer for half the cost. And I’ll even fondly remember the usually sub-par customer service, because it forced me to learn more. And I’ll always be thankful that they had crap sitting around for a decade because I always learned something new about the history of computers in their bins of arcane bits and bytes sitting around.
And their closing reminds us, as the closings of former competitors and even other stores like Borders does, that an incredible opportunity lies ahead of us. These shifts in society also shift the supply chain. They used to get a 50% markup on software and a hefty markup on the books I wrote. Now I can publish software on the App Stores and pay less of my royalties to the retailers. Now I don’t need a box and manual for software. Now books don’t have to be printed and can even be self-published in those venues if I see fit to do so. And while Microsoft, Apple, and Google’s “Services” revenue or revenue from Target once belonged to stores like Fry’s, the opportunities have moved to linking and aggregating and adding machine learning and looking to fields that haven’t yet been brought into a more digital age - or even to harkening back to simpler times and providing a more small town white glove approach to life. Just as the dot com crash created a field where companies like Netflix and Google could become early unicorns, so every other rise and fall creates new, uncharted green fields and blue oceans. Thank you for your contributions - both past and future.