The digital revolution began something like 25 years ago. In 1997, as a 20 year old armed with my College Loan money at San Diego State, I bought my first computer at Fry’s Electronics. I didn’t really need the computer. But I wanted to use this thing called the internet, and I didn’t want to have to leave my dorm room to access it.
In that way, 23 years ago, Fry’s Electronics enabled me to access the entity that would in turn eventually make Fry’s Electronics obsolete. So today, we will toast the electronics store that is no more.
It was that Summer of 1997 that I moved from the Inland Empire to San Diego for college. So I quickly extolled the virtue of coming down to hang out to my IE friends. Friends like Shawn, Chris, Mike (who eventually moved here for school himself), and Vinney (who sort of moved, but he went to San Marcos, then moved back to Barstow for the Del Taco I guess...) visited. I am not joking when I say that the weekend often revolved around our trip to Fry’s.
Fry’s was definitely a “Superstore,” but they lacked the ubiquity of something like a Walmart or Home Depot, so it didn’t feel like they were putting small companies out of business. For computer building, they had everything in-house at a time when that was a novelty. Buying over the internet was still in its infancy. A Saturday run to Fry’s was always a bit of a pilgrimage. With help from Shawn, I built at least 4 computers from parts I got at Fry’s. I also built computers for my parents, my roommate, and some other friends. The excitement of starting with a raw motherboard and buying the other components was a real thing. I upgraded things that I had recently upgraded. That was the draw of the store.
Window-shopping was just as much fun as buying – imagining the things I could buy was great. I looked at that Soundblaster Platinum Soundcard for months before putting down the money for it (In no way did I need that card). Or putting down $300 for fancy Altec Lansing speakers with a giant sub-woofer that I ended up unable to use because my apartment neighbors couldn’t deal with the bass. Even my trusty old M-Audio monitors came from there. And in the PC builder world, upgrading part-by-part was a real hobby.
Everything Under One Roof
I first got interested in vinyl at Fry’s! They had a huge selection of turntables (at their peak, every selection of product there was huge). I remember dreaming about these Denon turntables and receivers (before buying an Audiotechnica, on Amazon of course…). Their CD collection was not quite what you found at Tower Records, but it was huge. The movie collection was solid – I wasn’t into anime but if you were, they had thousands of titles. And that was the personality of the store – they had thousands of everything.
Fry’s had perhaps the biggest chip and candy aisle in the world. If you ever bought something there, you were accustomed to their very long but organized lines that snaked through one Store section by the registers. Candy, drinks, and other useless items followed the lines. It was totally irrational to stand in line long enough that you couldn’t stare at a big bag of beef jerky without grabbing it, yet I saw many people who would finish the beef jerky by the time they reached the cashier! Retail impulse buying at its best.
There was also one person directing the lines. As you got to the front, this person would yell out “13!” or something, directing you to a register that wrapped around a very large island. Because there were so many cashiers, a little game to play was angling to get directed to the cashier I wanted to see. So several times over the years, the person would yell out a number, I would ignore them, and walk directly to the register with the cute girl working (Priorities).
Rush hour traffic could be difficult, so when I had to take 15 South, I often took back roads through Murphy Canyon. This “back way” also took me directly past Fry’s, and I probably lost thousands of dollars to the temptation of stopping by after work.
There were themes to most of the stores, although at some point the stores looked dated and any theme was less a part of the store’s personality. San Diego’s apparently was an aircraft carrier, and I can’t remember a thing of that theme in the store.
Somehow, I can say that Fry’s contributed to my career. In sales, I configure large workstations, servers, and systems for clients. Much of what I learned started with tinkering with my own computers, upgrading parts, and moving to new technologies.
Down The Drain
That being said, while that experience is relevant to my career, the stores themselves had long become irrelevant. Recent visits, often for nostalgia, were disappointing. I can’t remember the last time I purchased something at Fry’s. In recent times, there wasn’t much computer gear left, and shelves were empty or incomplete. The company was obviously struggling, since they had closed stores and for the ones that were open, reportedly moved to consignment stocking only. This meant that suppliers were not paid for their gear until it was sold in-store. Suppliers obviously weren’t good with this, and you can see where the failure of Fry’s was coming.
They were also notorious for bad customer service (although it wasn’t a huge issue for me). Their bag checking upon leaving may or may not have been legal. Returns were a hassle. They tried shenanigans like charging people to skip the Black Friday line. Their employees were comically untrained. I remember a particular instance where a naive customer asked a teenage kid where to find some Mac accessories. The kid, probably a gamer who got the job just to get the employee discount, looked totally flustered and said, “Um, well, um, uh, we, um, like, don’t have many Macs here.” Directly behind him were hundreds of Powermacs stacked all the way to the ceiling.
I actually survived an attempted recruitment to a religious cult there. The guy was obviously a little creepy, started asking me in the aisle about my beliefs. I am a dedicated introvert, so I wanted him to get lost. I tried to be rude and aloof. He tries to hand me some materials and keeps following me. I tell one of the customer service people at the front and they acknowledge he’s been there all day, but won’t ask him to leave. Why? “Maybe he will buy something.” Right.
I have seen in-store violent encounters between shoplifters and loss prevention people. I have also seen in-store violent encounters between shoppers. At one point, I saw more fist-fights at Fry’s Electronics than anywhere else. And I almost certainly bought my Fight Club DVD there.
So how inevitable was Fry’s demise? Although system building could be fun, I eventually just ditched the PCs and got myself an iMac. The onboard GPU gave out the second the 2016 election was called for Trump (I am convinced it self-immolated). Other than that, I have spent next to nothing on the machine. I recently put MacOS on a brand-new SSD – my 7 year old system still feels new. So you can see what I am getting at – the need to obsess over computer parts and upgrades subsided when I became more focused on, well, being productive with computing (including writing this blog). Not tinkering with computing.
Who Will Beat Amazon Someday?
Amazon over the years also made the move from books to Everything. If you know what you want, and you’re a Prime subscriber, it is simply easier to just pull it up on the web and have it in 2 days. Amazon is what Sears used to be, what Walmart kind of was, and perhaps has already eclipsed the peak of both.
The thing is, Amazon isn’t necessarily better. There is more “stuff” available by search, but it is a grab-bag of results. It often feels that search results are geared towards the items it wants to sell you, not the ones you want to find. And results from 3rd party sellers are mixed, at best. Buying USB Cables on Amazon dangerous! Several times, I bought something on Amazon from a 3rd party seller, only to get something that wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I have done more computer returns with Amazon than I ever did with Fry’s. Despite the increasing uselessness of the stores, it’s failure was a result of mismanagement (A Vice-President somehow defrauded them of 65 million, wow). I firmly believe a well-run technology superstore would be useful today. All we know, now, is that it isn’t Fry’s. Somehow, RadioShack and GameStop outlasted them!
This being the internet age, nothing really dies though. No, not in the way that Sears/K-mart still exist (I will not write an RIP article for them…). Somebody undoubtedly will purchase the Fry’s Electronics IP and attempt to launch a digital zombie of the brand.
And of course, there are Fry’s grocery stores, which was the original family business. My Grandmother’s only grocery option outside of Walmart is her local Fry’s in Fortuna Foothills, Arizona (land of thousands of human Winter snowbirds). During the Winter season, when there is no pandemic, they often have 50 registers going. The place is crazy busy, kind of like a certain cousin in the electronics industry was.
All Circuit City stores were closed in 2009 (good riddance), and yet, you can buy something from circuitcity.com today (Don’t do this). Tower Records closed in 2006 (miss them!), and, well you can guess that towerrecords.com actually works and is run by some company you have never heard of. Like Myspace, many of these “brands” end up in a perpetual limbo. They exist online even if they really aren’t the real thing.
So while this is the literal end of Fry’s Electronics, I don’t believe it is the true end. Whether you choose to purchase an expensive soundcard from an entity cos-playing as Fry’s Electronics online is up to you (Don’t do this, please!).
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.