The End of Fry’s Electronics

Oh the stories of Fry’s Electronics.  There was a point in my career when “we’re going to Fry’s” was a legitimate excuse to leave the building for a while.  Our offices at the time were over on Arques Avenue, about where Nuance is now, and Fry’s was across the street and through a parking lot, over on Kern Avenue.

Always Fry’s

That was the second Fry’s location in Sunnyvale, the one with the building painted up to look like a giant computer chip that would later become the location of Weird Stuff Warehouse in the late 90s, the used electronics outlet which finally closed back in 2018. (Some pictures of that here.  I remember seeing an early hard drive the size of a small washing machine there.)  The original Fry’s was across Lawrence Expressway, over off of Lakeside Drive, and the third and final location was in the huge building at 1077 Arques Avenue.

Not that Sunnyvale was the only Fry’s location.  They had a few across the valley, each with their own odd theme.  The one in Palo Alto was made up in an old west style, while the one in Campbell had a Mayan facade, and there were other odd or interesting styles to their stores, which 34 across several states at the chain’s peak.

But I don’t think that Fry’s meant quite as much outside of Silicon Valley.  Here it was an institution both loved and loathed.  In the early days in its first location, a crowded and comically small store… in light of the size of some of their future locations… with shelves practically up to the ceiling tiles to try and cram in as much merchandise as possible.

Fry’s was known not just as a place where you could buy chips and electronics, but also just about anything else that would get nerds in the door.  Their early ads inevitably featured case lot pricing on soda in addition to RAM and motherboard specials.  The joke was that you could buy both computer chips and potato chips there, with the offerings around the checkout line adding up to a convenience store all on its own.

As the stores got bigger, what they carried expanded.  They became the place to go for the release of new titles on DVD and used to stock an amazing array of titles.  I remember the day that the original Star Wars trilogy came out on DVD.  At the Sunnyvale store… by then at the huge third location… there was a continuous parade of nerds (including a few I knew, and myself of course) walking in the front door, following the sign to the pallet of copies dropped in the middle of an open space at the end of an aisle, picking up a copy of the wide screen set (because screw that 4:3 conversion), then turning around to get in the snaking line that led up to the long bank of cashiers.  As I went in to get my copy I had to laugh at so many people… mostly younger men… standing in line with exactly the same item in their hand.

The same went for software releases.  I went there on launch day for a number of titles.  The store opened up at midnight for the release of World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade and had pallets of boxes, both standard and collector’s editions, out in the aisles.  That is recent enough that I have a blog post about that day.  (Same for Wrath of the Lich King.)  Before digital delivery became the default, Fry’s was a good bet for any big release.  They would always have piles of copies.

And for years they never seemed to cull their shelves of older titles.  I used to go up and down the PC games aisle to spot things that were no longer readily available.  They had an array of EverQuest expansions and always a few copies of Total Annihilation or Command and Conquer that were otherwise out of print.  They cleaned all that up about a decade back, but for a while the place was like an archive.

Of course, there were problems.  The complaints about Fry’s could be legion.  The place was big and often crowded on weekends.  The sales staff was not hired for their technical knowledge.  Even getting directions in the store, much less advice about products, was very hit and miss.

There was a period of time when Apple would only see through a series of specifically vetted retailers in the early 90s when the new PowerBook laptops were a hot ticket and Fry’s got deep into the gray market, selling Macs without being an authorized reseller.  Since Apple, like most manufacturers, offered quantity discounts, it was guessed that Fry’s was buying excess from a certified reseller, but since they were not the first party purchaser there was some question as to whether warranties and such would be honored by Apple.  At the time I worked at a small authorized reseller across the street from the Sunnyvale Fry’s (second store) and we used to grumble about this shady practice and moan when somebody came in and wanted us to price match Fry’s.  Somehow they managed to sell at less than our cost. (The margin on Macs was razor thin. We needed to sell you a SCSI cable to make any money on the deal.)

Then there was the legendary return counter, the caprice of which was manifest.  Some days it seemed that you could returned used gum because you didn’t like that the flavor had gone out of it, while at other times you could come close to a fist fight trying to return an item still sealed in the box with the receipt.  A friend once bought a motherboard at a discount because it had the “returned item” sticker on it… Fry’s would just put returned items back on the shelf with a small discount, rarely ever checking to see if the item was still good… only to get it home and find that the motherboard inside was an old 386 model and not the current generation Pentium he was expecting.  When he tried to bring it back, explaining the issue, the person at the counter accused him of trying to scam the company.  In fact, they had been scammed by the first person who returned it who probably told them it didn’t fit in his case or was the wrong chip set or the like.

It was pretty much holy write never to buy an item at Fry’s that had the “returned” sticker on it.

Then there was the time somebody gave me a gift certificate to Fry’s, which practically took a DNA test to redeem.

But for all of that I generally enjoyed taking a trip to Fry’s.  I always favored the Sunnyvale store, which had everything from chips and components to phones and appliances, plus whatever was the fad of the day, from drones to hoverboards to anything else that was momentarily hot.  Over the years I bought many things from Fry’s.  I built several PCs out of their stock, bought controllers and games for our Wii, grabbed cables and presents and updated video cards at need.  It was the place to go if I was working on something over the weekend and needed some strange connector or a way to mount a SATA drive externally to try and rescue some data for a friend.

Over time though things began to change.

The valley used to be full of places that sold computers and electronics, from once ubiquitous Radio Shack to Best Buy and Micro Center and the once mighty CompuUSA.  But online began to fill a lot of that niche.

I would be hard pressed to recall the last piece of Windows software I purchased in a physical box.  Maybe WoW Legion?  Digital has take over on the PC front pretty much completely for me.  The last PC I built has a DVD/BluRay drive, but it rarely gets touched.  I keep my Civilization II disk in there, as that is the only game I play that needs to go find the original DVD… wait, that is a CD… in order to launch.

And then there is Amazon.  I built my last PC almost entirely by ordering through Amazon as the price advantage was significant.  I also bought that copy of WoW Legion through Amazon back when they had a 20% discount on physical pre-orders.

The last time I can recall going to Fry’s was before Thanksgiving in 2019, when I went to the Campbell store, which is closer to our house, to find a specific item I needed.  They didn’t have it.  In fact they barely had anything at all.  Considering it was the ramp up to the holiday shopping spree the shelves were quite bare.  The once amazing video aisle had been consolidated down to two and a half shelves of leftovers.  It was a place that looked like it was getting ready to shut down, not one braced for Christmas shoppers.

That was before the pandemic was even being speculated about.  Since then business tanked as we all stayed home and ordered online.

Fry’s had an online business as well.  They had bought another online retailer and consolidated them into their fold, but I was never keen to use them.  The reputation of Fry’s did not encourage me to trust them unless I could hold the product in my hand before I bought it.  If I wanted something from Fry’s I’d go there in person.

But I have been very few places in person over the last year.  It was a bad year for physical retail unless you sold toilet paper.  Now I wonder if Fry’s had that on the shelf somewhere?

So it was a bit of a shock, but still unsurprising, that it was announced earlier this week that the entire chain was shutting down.  Their web site was replace by this message:

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.

The Company is in the process of reaching out to its customers with repairs and consignment vendors to help them understand what this will mean for them and the proposed next steps.

If you have questions, please contact us using the following email addresses:

  • For customers who have equipment currently being repaired, please email customerservice@frys.com, to arrange for return of your equipment.
  • For customers with items needing repair under a Performance Service Contract, please call (800) 811-1745.
  • For consignment vendors needing to pick up their consignment inventory at Fry’s locations, please email omnichannel@frys.com.

Please understand if we are a bit slow to respond given the large volume of questions. The Company appreciates your patience and support through this process.

Sincerely,

Fry’s Electronics

So it goes.

I will miss having a store like that close by, though the Campbell store actually shut down in November 2020, surprising me by lasting that long.  There was never a store quite like it in the valley and, given the real estate prices, I doubt there will be again.  But change has been the way of the valley all of my life.  When I was born there were still huge tracts of active farmland here.  Now it is a sea of industrial parks and campuses and over priced suburbs.

15 thoughts on “The End of Fry’s Electronics

  1. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    I am also just old enough to remember the Fry’s Groceries, the business the Fry family sold to another chain in the 70s before starting up the electronics store. I can just picture the location on Grant Road in Mountain View as a hazy image in my brain, though I don’t know that I ever went in there until it became a Nob Hill years later.

    Like

  2. anypo8

    Our Fry’s south of Portland OR started up in a former Incredible Universe building when that business imploded after just a year or two because zomg what a garbage fire. Fry’s bought and painted over the trucks, changed the signage a bit, and otherwise just left the building alone.

    Our Fry’s was from the beginning most of the good things about the chain and very few of the bad ones. The staff was pretty hyper-competent, the return policy was incredibly liberal, their stock was mostly reasonable and their prices competitive. I will miss them.

    Amazon was slowly killing Fry’s before the pandemic started, and the pandemic finished the job. For the last few years Fry’s was the store I went to for emergency electronics — something was busted and I couldn’t wait 24-48 hours for a replacement. I don’t think one can make a successful business out of that.

    RIP Fry’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @anypo8 – I remember Incredible Universe. That was the Radio Shack plan to go from little strip mall stores… which were everywhere in my youth, though even the grocery store sold TV tubes back then… to a big box format. Yeah, that failed. It also gave a company I was working for false hope and then wrecked it.

    I was working for a startup that was making ISDN terminal adapters for the home PC… that was going to be the next step from modems, which is where we all came from… but our first product was a called ID device that hooked up to your PC and would record the ID of incoming calls, play sounds for specific callers in your addressbook, and text you the numbers of people who called… oh, and would blink its light if you had Centrex phone services and you had voice mail waiting.

    We were having problems getting the device on the shelves, then Incredible Universe put in a huge order. It was enough to carry the company forward until our next product. And then they declared bankruptcy after we built and shipped all those units. We were build on demand at a local job shop, so we paid to build a bunch of units, never got our money for them, then had to rent storage as they all slowly dribbled back from Incredible Universe.

    Though, to be fair, the phone company screwed up ISDN so badly that a rare few ever signed up for it. I had ISDN at the launch of EverQuest and it made the game smooth and I always loaded zones faster than my party. And then the phone company announced ASDL at a much cheaper rate. And then cable internet sealed the deal. Home ISDN and its myriad features was never going to be a thing, though I did parley my ISDN experience into an enterprise software job, so it was good for my career in the end. (Though I never did work on ISDN at the new job, jumping over into speech reco technologies instead, then early enterprise VoIP, and VXML.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ula

    There were two Frys in the Sacramento area, as well. One went into the former Incredible Universe there, so that must have been a thing. Trips to Frys were exciting because it meant we were building new machines or picking up games. I remember the trips to Frys to pick up WoW and expansions. I feel like I’m writing a third grade essay on what I did over the summer just about now. Oh, and the Gauntlet of Temptation they made you walk through to get to checkout. I assume you guys had that too?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Archey

    There were a few Frys’ way over here in Texas. I moved back here in about 2010 and they were still here, though they faced stiff competition from Best Buy, Microcenter, and others. They shut down here a few years ago to the best of my knowledge. I wasn’t a regular customer but they were a good bet if you needed something really nerdy in a hurry.

    Nowadays that need is mostly filled (at retail) by Best Buy, which is uneven in terms of availability. RIP Fry’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. potshot

    Wow. RIP Frys. As Ula mentioned, RS rolled out a crazy Incredible Universe store which seemed to last about a year before Frys took it over. Our location was about as you describe– a complete and delightful hodgepodge of nerd gear. Despite the advantages of online, I would still use Frys for those things where returns would be too much of a pain or take too long– full computers, memory, etc. Things that I might need to return and swap in short order if I was building a machine etc.

    The Aisle of Temptation seemed to get longer every visit. Hard to checkout without collecting a slim jim, beer nuts, a usb cable or two, personal rechargeable fan, etc. Many good and weird memories there.

    If I recall correctly, ours had these weird murals on the upper few feet of the walls. Wagon trains, pioneer days or western expansion or somesuch. Maybe that’s just a miscued memory.

    What I do recall though was something we called, the Wall of Mediocrity or something similar. Near the checkout, there was some kind of Employee of the Month list posted prominently high on the wall for all to enjoy. Given the average level of motivation exhibit by most employees, I assumed the bar must have been pretty low.

    Still it was definitely a full on nerd safe space that will be missed. Where will I get sour gummies and a closed circuit video home surveillance system now? Dealing with Skippy at Best Buy just isn’t the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. kiantremayne

    Wilhelm, I don’t think ISDN caught on anywhere much – when I was doing my degree back at the dawn f the 90’s the lecturer referred to it as Ideas Subscribers Don’t Need. Having said that, when I started working for the unnamed retail bank I still work for at the dawn of the 2000’s I’m pretty sure I saw some references to ISDN lines… our enterprise technical architecture can be summed up as ‘The Land That Time Forgot’. As can most of our enterprise architects.

    Like

  8. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @kiantremayne – For enterprise infrastructure ISDN is everywhere due to the superior call control abilities over the old T1/E1 signalling. None of those in-band tones and no need to strip bits and lose data throughput. I was hired to work on that, and that went ahead, just somebody else ended up with that assignment while I was up in Menlo Park learning about speech reco. We’re just not getting 2B channels and a D channel split off into every home ever. 128Kbit throughput is peanuts these days in any case. The wildly optimistic “world of the future” plans for ISDN in the early 90s were pretty bold.

    Like

  9. Pingback: Six Degrees of The Ancient Gaming Noob - Goodbye Fry’s - Beyond Tannhauser Gate

  10. anypo8

    I skipped from a T1 to DSL, missing ISDN. My friend across town got a bonded pair of ADSL lines that he ran for a while. It was fiddly but quite fast for the time.

    Like

  11. flosch

    Re: ISDN, it was pretty big in Germany, rolled out at scale in the 90ies. I remember the ease of connection and slightly higher speed than even 56k modems, the ability to be online while my parents could use the phone, or occasionally using both lines for TWICE THE SPEED! But that was limited to night time use, when nobody at home wanted to use the telephone, and connection prices were cheaper (since two lines meant twice the cost). Or maybe I’m imagining that part…
    Towards the late 90ies,you could finally get flat rate Internet from your telco. I still had it in my first own apartment for a year or two maybe, before they started to roll out ADSL. Deutsche Telekom was early and big on ISDN, but the investment then slowed down their interest in rolling out DSL.

    Like

  12. flosch

    “I still had it in my first own apartment for a year or two”: that was in the early 2000s, got my place in 200p and moved to DSL in 01 or 02 I’d say, but it’s been too long and memory is hazy.

    Like

  13. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @flosch- Germany and Scandinavia were often used as examples of ISDN being the coming trend, but the phone companies largely screwed it up here.

    First, after the dial up boom of 94-96, when you couldn’t a dial tone some evenings because suddenly thousands of people were logging into the internet every evening and staying on line until they went to bed. Because of this they were determined never to offer a flat rate service again, so ISDN was measured rate, by the minute, making it much more expensive that modem dial-up.

    And then, at least out here in Northern California, Pacific Bell, the local phone company, screwed up nearly every install. It took me three tries to get my ISDN installed right, and then every time a crew came out to do some adjustment to the local switch, they would break it again. I’d see a phone company truck up the street and know the ISDN would be down. And then actually configuring your terminal adapter was somewhat arcane. I still have a flow chart printed out that you needed to use to figure out the SPID of you line, a key configuration parameter.

    But the phone companies are often dumb out here. I worked for a bit for a tech company that was a spin off from a mid-west phone company, and it was an agonizingly dumb place to work. And the states regulate their local phone companies differently. And the companies themselves just behave differently. (Or used to, before so many of them became AT&T again.) In doing a caller ID device, I found out just how widely you could interpret the Bellcore spec for caller ID. Texas seemed very bad at caller ID. And, of course, California didn’t even have caller ID due to it being blocked by the state until they worked out privacy concerns, which made developing a caller ID device in the state at the time a bit challenging. I know we look like one country from the outside, but we’re a lot more like 50 little countries in many ways.

    But the usual phone company muddle ended up delaying ISDN just enough that better tech, ADSL and cable modems, with higher throughput. So we pretty much skipped past ISDN and whatever promise it held.

    Like

  14. Pendan

    I had an ISDN line for about a year. Payed for by the company I worked for. I am thinking the hardware was made by IBM.

    Like

  15. Leaz

    Great article! Ive been in a Frys 3 times in my life. Twice was when i was 12ish so more than a decade ago and six months ago

    When i went when i was 12 i was blown away by all the massive machines appliances and computer gadgets. I remeber they had one of those gimmicky speech to text microphones and being amazed by the inventiveness of it all.

    I went six months ago to maybe grab some cheap computer parts and it is the ONLY time i have ever walked into a store, gone through a few aisles and thought, ‘wait are they closed?’ The lighting either didnt work or was flickering half the time, to the point i had to actually pull out a small flashlight i carry, along side a swiss army knife and stuff, to see past a full aisle because it had gone pitch black. I didnt hear anyone’s voices or footsteps for at least five minutes upon enterance, leading to me actually feeling kind of scared to walk around. Then when i did find someone, a store employee and asked them a question, the girl came off as rude and exasperated. Oh im sorry, did i ruin your schedule of wandering the dimly lit halls and playing on your phone?

    I resolved to never come back without a backpack, food and water, and flashlights lest i get lost in the bowels of frys electronics.

    Im surprised the stores didnt shut down the day after i went. Its existence to last week is proof that there is a God with a wicked sense of humor out there

    Like

Voice your opinion... but be nice about it...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s