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.
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 email@example.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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.