History of Silicon Valley Indeed: Is Fry’s Electronics Dying?

As most of my readers know, Fry’s Electronics has been a mainstay in Silicon Valley culture since the mid-1980s. It’s spread around the country, from southern California to Texas and Arizona and the Midwest and probably locations I don’t even know about. There’s even one in Las Vegas.

The stores have themes, running from the Wild West theme of the Palo Alto location (the oldest continuously operating Fry’s store), to Las Vegas’s obvious Las Vegas Strip theme. The current (and third) Sunnyvale location is themed History of Silicon Valley, with an oscillator on the front, huge sepia photos of the founding people and events of Silicon Valley, and more.

But perhaps, like Halted and Weird Stuff in the past two years, this piece of Silicon Valley history may be coming to an end.

The first store opened in Sunnyvale in 1985, near the current location of Faultline Brewing (just off 101 and Lawrence Expressway). When I came to California just over 10 years later, it had moved to the “chip” themed building on Kern and Lawrence (white walls with black marks like an integrated circuit; the building is now a Sports Basement). Sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s they built a new, enormous store at Arques and Santa Trinita, just a block or so from the Kern location. It had parking for hundreds of cars, almost a hundred cash registers, a cafe in the middle of the store, auto electronics installation bays on the side, and all in all it was a formidable experience.

I’ve never seen more than half of the registers in operation, but it’s often been crowded, and I’ve occasionally run into old friends and former colleagues… even those who had long since moved out of the area would come back like pilgrims.

Lately the parking lot has seemed impressively sparse, and fewer shoppers on most visits (except around the holidays and major TV-inducing sporting events). The shelves were usually well stocked, and things were often where you expected them.

But things keep changing.

A Sad Sunnyvale Visit

I went to Fry’s in Sunnyvale last Friday to look for a water filter cartridge. Didn’t think to check stock online first, but once I walked in, I knew I wasn’t going to find it.

The parking lot was the typical empty for a Friday afternoon, maybe a bit more. There were more old guys in the cafe than shoppers in the rest of the store. Lots and lots of empty shelves, far fewer staff than usual, felt like the last days of Orchard Supply Hardware but with fewer people and 10 times the space.

As I walked around, seeing what was left, I got the feeling that they could probably carve the store up… block off half of it and build a new entrance, for an entire second store… and still have plenty of room.

I ended up not finding my water filter cartridge. I did pick up a USB hub and a model train magazine though.

And maybe the strangest thing… As far as I can remember, for the first time in my 22+ years of going to Fry’s (since my friend Ray took me there in 1996 or maybe early 1997), there was nobody at the exit to check my receipt.

What happened to Fry’s?

There’s been a lot of media coverage of this, mostly columnists not entirely unlike me, looking at how the world has changed in the last ten years or so. You usually didn’t go to Fry’s for knowledgeable sales staff (although they’d be happy to read the box to you). Warm inviting environments were not their forte, and the “Fry’s Lending Library” (where you’d buy something to use for a day, or test out something else, before returning it) was definitely not part of their marketing, but a lot of people used that function of their stores, despite the long and drawn-out return process.

You went to Fry’s because if you needed almost anything, from a cable to a capacitor to a chair to a computer to a Coke to a charcoal grill, you could find a variety to choose from. You could pick up a magazine and a candy bar and a soda and a pack of batteries in the long check-out line. And it was almost always good for those things.

The biggest thing that happened to Fry’s was Amazon. And I’d say they started adjusting to Amazon about five years too late.

They acquired Cyberian Outpost in 2002 to build out their e-commerce business, and that went sluggishly. They started doing price-matching to local stores and online stores, but either trained their staff wrong or didn’t train them at all, which meant that even if a 4-port KVM switch was available and in stock 10 miles away, they’d try to match it to an 8-port switch and deny the match (happened to me, and I ended up taking the 10 mile trek).

As time went by, they merged outpost.com into frys.com and made it a better experience, including in-store inventory checking and in-store pickup. They’ve started doing price-matching smoothly and accurately, even to Amazon and Best Buy and Newegg. They even introduced same-day home/office delivery recently.

But the parking lots are more empty than not, the stores are hollow echoes of their past glory, and experts as well as fellow customers are having trouble seeing hope for Fry’s Electronics’s future.

Where do they go from here?

We know the Palo Alto store is closing (due to a lease not being renewed), and there are reports of low stock and low staff around the country leaving many fans and shoppers dubious.

Aside from that, spokesmen for Fry’s say they are rebalancing, restocking for the holidays, adjusting inventory, and otherwise laying in for the long haul. It is true that, from Thanksgiving night through Epiphany, Fry’s does tend to pick up in pace, so it’s entirely possible that the next month will see a restructuring and new life.

At this point, we’ll have to wait and see if Santa brings a new life to Fry’s Electronics this Christmas season.

Where can we go from here?

On the upside, two other mainstays are holding up fairly well.

After an early morning fire in April 2019 destroyed their Sunnyvale location on El Camino, Central Computer (another 1985 Silicon Valley classic) is opening a new Sunnyvale store over near where HRO (and Disk Drive Depot and Action Surplus and the original Fry’s store) used to be. Signage and social media say it should be open by the end of the year. In the meantime, they have locations in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Fremont, and San Francisco.

And after formally going out of business in January 2019 after 54 years, Halted/HSC was bought by Excess Solutions, and they’re settling in nicely at the 7th St and Alma location in San Jose. You’ll find classic Halted stock and some of the classic Halted staff alongside the surplus gear, furniture, office supplies, and components that Excess Solutions has been known for.

If you’re looking for a smaller component source, Anchor Electronics is still around  in an industrial part of Santa Clara.

And assuming Fry’s doesn’t close down their Sunnyvale store before then, you can look forward to the return of the Electronics Flea Market on March 14, 2020, in the side parking lot at Fry’s Sunnyvale.

All may not be lost, but it seems like it sometimes.
What do you think about the state of electronics retail in Silicon Valley and beyond? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

HSC Electronics will be halted early next year

Update: The HSC folks were out with a stand at the Electronics Flea Market in Sunnyvale this morning (March 9, 2019). Signs and flyers noted that they’ve sold the store to Excess Solutions of San Jose. Should be interesting to see how the inventory is integrated.

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Update: HSC closed this past Saturday, January 12, 2019. There was an impressive crowd, cake and coffee, and last minute deals. Best wishes to the owners and employees for success in their next stages, whether retirement or different work.

About 8 months ago, I wrote about the closure of Weird Stuff Warehouse in Sunnyvale, California. Well, Halted Electronic Supply/Halted Specialties Company/HSC Electronic Supply will joining Weird Stuff in the history of Silicon Valley in just about 6 weeks.

Halted History

Halted has been in business for 54 years now. The Homebrew Computer Club often visited back in the day (including both Steves). I wasn’t around the Bay Area for most of that time, but got an introduction early in my time here, in the late 90s.

Around the turn of the century, Halted had three locations, with the main one being in Santa Clara on Ryder St, just off Central Expressway and Lawrence Expressway (near the Sunnyvale Frys, the pre-1996 Weird Stuff, St John’s Grill, and Ham Radio Outlet among others). Gradually the remote locations closed, and the Ryder store was left.

Halted was known for components of all sorts, books and magazines for people who made things from those components, antique radios, tools, legacy computer components, and all sorts of other things. It wouldn’t be unusual to find people in the store with ham radio transceivers on, students buying components for an electronics class, people reminiscing about the radios they used to listen to during the war, and random bargain hunters looking for computers and electronics to mess with at home.

They also had a well-known parking lot sale every September, where cases and crates and pallets would come out of the warehouse, hot dogs and donuts would be put out for sale, and you could get some incredible deals on things you’d forgotten you needed. And you could also find them at the Electronics Flea Market sometimes, with a truck full of carts from the store.

The New York Times had a feature on Halted in 2009, revealing and even foretelling the greatest strength and weakness of the business at that point. Continue reading

Quick Take: When your Plantronics Savi headset starts to give out

[This is the first of a category of “quick take” posts that should be shorter and more frequent than the long, drawn-out, deeply detailed posts I usually procrastinate for weeks on. Let me know what you think of this format as a supplement to the usual volumes.]

I’ve used the Plantronics Savi W740/W745 headset on my work phone and PC for almost three years.

The Savi W740 (currently $234 on Amazon) is a three-connection (PC via USB, Cell phone via Bluetooth, Desk phone via various methods) DECT wireless monaural headset with charging station and pretty good range. I can usually get 100-150 feet though the entire depth of our house into the front yard and almost to the street without dropping the headset connection.

The Savi W745 (pictured above) is a Savi W740 with a battery charging module rather than the headset-only charging module. Oddly it’s about the same price as I write this post, $227 on Amazon, although the prices vary from day to day, or if an accessory like the headset lifter is included. Note that the model W740-M and W745-M are optimized for Microsoft softphones; I don’t use Lync or the like so I didn’t try those.

You can upgrade the W740 to the W745 using the 84601-01 charger, which also comes with an extra battery (currently $35 on Amazon). You can also buy the 84598-01 replacement battery for about $24 on Amazon, or $22 with Subscribe and Save. I replaced mine after two years; your mileage may vary.

The headset unit is the same WH500 unit between the two models.

One thing I really liked about this headset was the “unlimited talk time” when you use a second battery. It takes less than five seconds to change out the battery, and while the headset loses audio, your call doesn’t drop, and can be resumed once the new battery is recognized. With about 4 hours of battery life per battery, you can make it through an entire day of meetings and calls without losing your connection. You might lose your mind, but that’s beyond phone technology to fix.

After using the W745 for almost three years, I started to experience an odd failure in the headset. When I would push the rocker switch “down” to reduce volume, I would get a scratchy sound and the headset connection (not the call) would drop. After about five seconds it would beep and reconnect. Future use of the down switch on the same call would be fine, but on the next call or audio session the first “down” would drop the headset link briefly. This was the case for PC and desk phone connection.

I had an exchange with Plantronics customer support, and while the “try another headset, and then try another base” wasn’t the most efficient troubleshooting, I was able to borrow a headset and found that the problem “went away.”

At this point, I can replace just the headset (with the 83356-01 / WH500 Spare Headset, pictured above right, $120 at Amazon) rather than the entire $200+ assembly.

I do have a couple of used Jabra headsets around that I may give a try to (either a Jabra PRO 9460, $200 on Amazon, or a Jabra PRO 9470, around $240 on Amazon). although I’ll need a new “electronic handset” or EHS cable to let the headset system control the switchhook on the phone. 

Have you had good (or other) experiences with any current multi-connection wireless headsets? Please share them in the comments below.

Disclosure: While my desk phone is manufactured and provided by my employer, and while Plantronics has provided me with two personal headsets at past events (the 5200 in 2017 in a drawing and the 6200 in 2018 as a “trade-up”), the headsets mentioned in this post were purchased by me and paid for out of my own pocket.

 

Weird Stuff Warehouse closed this weekend

I probably should’ve had more of a teaser title, but it’s still a bit of a shock, so you get the bottom line in the title. After 32 years, Weird Stuff Warehouse is closing this Sunday.

Updates at the end. This post has been updated multiple times since publication.

Also see the unfortunate news from Halted here: HSC Electronics will be halted early next year

If this is your first time here, please do take a look around. I’ve written about gear I’ve bought at WeirdStuff, but there’s a lot more here, from system builds and hardware, Psycho Overkill Home Office technology, and then there’s rsts11travel which breaks out my travel and related adventures and discoveries.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-14,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

For techies who’ve lived in or heard of Silicon Valley anytime in the last 30 years, you probably already know Weird Stuff Warehouse very well.

Ars Technica wrote about them in 2013. The Six Fifty posted last year. Atlas Obscura got a post just last month apparently. You can see an archive of people’s Weird Stuff posts on Instagram here.

And over three decades after they opened up, serving businesses that wanted to get rid of no-longer-needed stuff as well as individuals who “needed” that stuff, Weird Stuff Warehouse is closing its doors at the end of business on Sunday, April 8, 2018. Continue reading

Check out the travel section – #rsts11travel has more coming this week!

You’re tuned to rsts11, the tech blog from Robert Novak (Est. 2011). If you’d like to turn to the new travel section, visit rsts11travel.com and see what we’re writing about over there.

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Coming in the next week or two will be a two-part mobile power piece as well as a slightly more detailed hotel review from your host’s birthday escape. Unfortunately, no pina coladas, but fortunately, no getting caught in the rain either.

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rsts11 will continue to roll out tech content,including some hardware reviews and homelab / POHO build travelogues, a bit of big data, and some more economy power-networking options.

Thanks for your support!