Best Buy still garners plenty of headlines when they announce more store closings, but the writing has been on the wall for some time. The age of the consumer electronics superstore is over; and with it, many fond, fun, and geeky memories.
If you have any sort of geeky bone in your body, the1990s were highlighted by trips to those places, half amusement park and half trendy consumer indulgence. My nostalgia and regret isn’t reserved for Best Buy, the flag-bearer of these big box electronic wonderlands; depending on where you lived, there were glittering destinations like The Good Guys and Incredible Universe, but there was no shortage of competitors anywhere. Some, like Ultimate Electronics and Circuit City, had a definite home entertainment focus, and others such as Computer City and CompUSA provided more of a full-on PC geek experience.
Wherever your wonderland was, it was the same experience; walking through those front doors and seeing big wide aisles full of the greatest electronic diversions under the sun. Many of us share poignant recollections of those magical weekend afternoons lost among the seemingly unending possibilities of technological fun. My grubby fingers were all over every button, touchscreen, and joystick that I could find. My covetous eyes fondled high-def TVs, audiophile home theater systems, the latest game consoles and handhelds, CDs, DVDs, geeky tech gadgets, and of course every category of PC software and component that one could imagine. My throat was sore from telling the staff “no thanks, just looking” for hours on end.
And this is part of the disease that killed them, and part of the desperation that infects the remaining Best Buys. Going there became less and less fun for many reasons; at first, you might be tempted to think that it was all about YOU growing up and losing your sense of wonder, but you know better (I’m still every bit the gadget geek that I ever was, if not more).
What Has Caused so Many Stores to Fail?
Internet Shopping: Yes, Internet shopping is the recurring scapegoat for the failing brick-and-mortar electronics retailers, who complain about undercutting and losing customers that they’ve persuaded with vital hands-on experience and well-informed staff. It’s a compelling argument, but I suspect that it’s overstated. Aside from the whole ‘experience’ that I’ve described in such glowing terms, the superstores have the advantage of proximity. I know that I’ve often been willing to pay a few extra dollars to get the real thing home NOW, not in 7-10 shipping days.
Bad Service and Selection
And when it comes to customer service and selection, Best Buy (in particular) just got worse and worse as time went on. Every six months led to fewer products in stock; they typically began by weeding out the things you actually wanted, followed by the things that you needed, and ultimately you’re now lucky if you can even track down one of the barely sufficient last-call Plan B options.
The employees got pushier, but also less informed about their products; and let’s face it, if you’re any sort of self-respecting geek, you ALWAYS knew more about what you were looking at. And all other things being equal, I suffer far less existential distress from having to say no to Newegg and Amazon’s offers for membership cards, branded credit cards, extended warranties, and accessories. Plus, I’ll happily trade inefficient and dismissive ‘real human’ interaction for an online company that takes steps to keep me satisfied and coming back.
Big Box and Department Stores
In addition to the online stores, big box stores and department stores share in the blame of killing the consumer electronics superstores. They all offer a somewhat compelling albeit smaller-scale electronics department ‘experience’ of their own. All of the 21st Century WalMarts, Costcos, and Targets include a department with some semblance of that electronics wonderland quality (and some good deals, as well).
When it comes to the electronics shopping ‘experience’, I have to mention Apple Stores. The growing trend toward single-brand integrated manufacturer retail may make perfect business sense; just watch Google and Amazon snap up vacated Best Buy lots in a year or so. However, it’s kinda boring to be browsing a more limited selection, all sharing a single aesthetic (no matter how sleek and modern it may be). On top of that, the Apple Store vibe creeps me out in a way that even the most gung-ho Geek Squad team never did. Maybe it’s just my overactive imagination, but it always feels like I’m walking into a cult compound, as if the fun products are a lure to convert me to a Jobs-worshipping True Believer.
Despite the onrushing demise of Best Buy, those wonderful days of superstores aren’t completely gone and forgotten. One of the best of the electronics superstore chains, Fry’s Electronics, is still alive and doing relatively well. I still get the geeky thrill from Fry’s, and I’ve never encountered any significant issues with price, inventory, or selection. Okay, so the employees are still generally uninformed and unhelpful, but they’re mostly confined to their checkout cages where they have limited power to infuriate the shoppers. Unfortunately, Fry’s has fewer than 40 stores total; less than the number of stores that Best Buy has closed over the past few months. However, some of them are former Incredible Universe stores, and in many cases the fun and unique IU atmosphere was largely preserved after the takeover.
The pure persistence award has to go to good old (and I mean OLD) Radio Shack. Before the dawn of the big box electronic store era, the Shack was one of the truly geeky electronic hangouts. Sure, they’re smaller; often nothing more than a narrow mall stall. And they’re typically split between an ultra-geeky collection of cables and components in the rear half and the more consumer-oriented front space, which can’t even begin to compare with the electronics section at the average Wal-Mart. Despite a self-conscious determination to gain some cutting-edge credibility, The Shack is still mainly a place where misguided grandparents can purchase ‘high-tech’ Christmas gifts. Oh well, at least some things never change.
==== About the Author ====
Tagg writes on behalf of CableTV.com. He typically writes about technology and finance. When he’s not preoccupied with the latest gadget, he’s an avid hiker and kayaker. You can follow him on Twitter. @CableTVcom