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.

Summer Conference Gadget Guide: 2019 Edition ft. Aer SF, Vapur, RAVpower, Anker, ZMI, Native Union, and more

For the last couple of years I’ve brought you recommendations for preparing for your summer conference season. For the first time since 2013 I will not be at Cisco Live, but I will be back at Interop in Las Vegas in May, and will probably have a late August visit for the Cisco sales kickoff.

Items that I discuss here may have referral or affiliate links. These usually provide a modest monetary benefit to me, which (perhaps obviously) goes back into items to review for the blogs here and at rsts11travel.com. You can also check out the “support” page to see other ways to support rsts11.

Personal comforts

A couple of perennial tips that have saved me a lot of inconvenience outside of the technical side of things may help you too.

First, break in your shoes in advance. I often think about new shoes before an event that will involve a lot of walking. Having learned the hard way, I now start buying, and breaking in, new shoes at least a couple of weeks ahead of an event. Your feet will be much more comfortable with a few 5000-10000 step days rather than days at a trade show where you might break 5000 steps in an hour. While you’re at it, make sure you have a spare charger for your fitness tracker, and put it in your laptop bag now.

Second, bring a sturdy but convenient-to-carry water bottle (or buy one once you get there). There will be water everywhere you go, but those little 8 ounce plastic cups only go so far, especially if you stroll down the Las Vegas strip. Whether you choose something like the metal H2GO FORCE 17oz ($20ish at Amazon, a personal favorite since it fits in my Saturn Sky’s DDMWorks cupholders), the Vapur Element roll-up water bottles (from $12 at Amazon), or Nomader’s collapsible reinforced water bottle ($25 at Amazon), you’ll be prepared to refill and stay hydrated indoors or out. Many of the Strip hotels sell the H2GO Force or one like it in their gift shops for around $25 (I have one from Delano, and one from a Ritz-Carlton outside Vegas).

You can also choose to reuse a substantial bottle. On my last three-day trip I bought a $5 bottle of Evian in an airport shop and just refilled it along my journey. It fit nicely in my backpack bottle sleeve, and I recycled it when I got home.

Third, if you’re planning to get a lot of swag at the trade show or conference, consider printing a prepaid label and bringing a USPS flat rate box. You can get the boxes free at most US Postal Service post offices, or from their website. You can even get postage for the flat rate box at the post office if you prefer not to print at home. Maybe do two, and if you don’t need both, you can cancel for a (delayed) refund when you get home.

And fourth, consider bringing (or buying on site) some portable relatively-weatherpoof snacks and beverage additives if you’re into those things. Some granola or cereal bars, instant beverages, or even an electrolyte like Drinkwel’s LyteShow (which I use along with LyteCaps when traveling as well as at home).

Power to the People

The most important thing for me during a conference is power. I usually have a laptop, a phone, and a tablet, and sometimes more than one of each, but I’m rarely seated near a wall outlet. I generally carry an enhanced extension cord and a battery pack to support my device needs.

Last year I recommended the Anker 26800 USB-C Power Delivery Battery Pack ($120 at Amazon with USB-PD wall charger and cables plus travel pouch included) and the ZMI 20000 USB-C Power Delivery Battery Pack ($70 at Amazon with cables and storage pouch included, rapid charger currently $20 at Amazon). I also suggested the Native Union SMART HUB BRIDGE extension cord which gives two AC outlets and 5.4V of USB charging across four ports, up to 3A per port, including 15W USB-C ($55 at Amazon).

Any of those would still be a good choice this year, and the prices have remained consistent. But this year I have two devices to suggest in addition.

If you have a Macbook, a USB-C Chromebook, or another small Ultrabook other than Dell, the two packs and the charger above will charge your device nicely. Unfortunately, Dell has quirky power delivery support, so the Anker will not charge at all, and the ZMI will give a slow charge warning. Better than nothing, but I’ve found some new options.

The RAVpower PD Pioneer 20100mAh battery pack, currently $56 at Amazon before a $4 instant coupon, provides 45W of power over USB-C Power Delivery, as well as supporting 18W quick charge on the USB-A port. I’ve tested it with my XPS 13 9370, and it charges nicely. It also rapid-charges my iPad Pro 12.9 (2015) at ~28W, which is excellent as well. If you’re charging a laptop with USB-C, you won’t have use of the USB-A charging port, but for smaller devices you can double-up. Charging input on USB-C is 30W, which means you can recharge in 3.5 hours. [Disclosure: RAVpower provided me with a free unit of this pack to test, and I reviewed it on their Facebook group May 8.]

I’ve also added the Anker PowerStrip Pad and PowerPort Cube to my travel complement. Neither of these will charge the XPS laptops, but they have AC outlets for the Dell charger.

The PowerStrip Pad ($36 at Amazon) has a 5 foot attached cord, two AC outlets, 2 switchable USB-A “IQ” 12W (5V 2.4A) smart charging ports, and a USB-C Power Delivery port that offers 30W (20V 1.5A or 15V 2A). The USB-C port will rapid charge iPhone 8 and later.

The PowerPort Cube ($26 at Amazon) offers a 5 foot attached cord, three AC outlets, and three 18W (5V 3.6A) max USB-A ports. For the newer Apple devices or your computers, you’d want to use an AC charger with this one, but you’ll have room away from the wall to plug in with either of these extension options.

 

By the way, If you’re traveling with an IOS device like the iPhone 8 or anything newer,  by the way, I highly recommend Anker’s PowerLine II USB-C to Lightning charging cables. The 3ft version is $16 on Amazon, available in black or white, and sturdier than the Apple cable while still being MFI certified and ready to rapid-charge even your largest iPad Pro. The 6ft version is coming in June for about $20, and gives the same sturdiness and power potential with twice the length.

If you’re looking for a wall charger to supplement the above extensions (and charge up the batteries and your devices), check out my review of the Anker PowerLine II cable. There are six adapters listed there that I’ve personally used. You might have one or more already, and that post may give you an idea of what to look for if you choose to get something else.

With current prices, those six suggested power adapters are:

Where Do I Put All This Stuff?

I have no shortage of luggage, from a Waterford Executive Folio (from $89 direct from the maker) for my iPad, to my checked-bag Samsonite 8-wheelers. But I’m finding that my regular travel fits well with a couple of pretty easy choices.

First, for a laptop bag I’m still liking the Solo Duane 15.6 Hybrid. It’s a briefcase-style bag that holds 15.6″ laptops (including my Thinkpad P51 juggernaut) along with an iPad (like the 12.9 I use as a daily driver with a keyboard case) and power adapters, chargers, magazines, and other gadgets. It converts from briefcase to messenger bag (with detachable strap) to backpack (with stowable straps) and fits under most airline seats. I have the slate one ($50 at Amazon) but the gray one is only $37 as I write this.

My sub-1-week preference remains the AER SF Travel Pack. The new version (Travel Pack 2, $230 direct from the maker) has some additional features, but I still find the original to be great for up to a week of carefully curated clothing and toiletries. There’s a laundry or shoe pocket in the bottom, laptop sleeve that easily handles even the Thinkpad mentioned above, a lot of useful pockets, and straps to keep everything together.

Where do we go from here?

Off to a conference, of course!

If you’re looking for an accessory suggestion that’s not covered above, leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do.

And by way of additional disclosure, while I do get a commission from Amazon on many of the items above (unless mentioned as “from the maker”), I am not recommending anything I have not personally purchased (or otherwise received) and used for travel purposes. Also, no vendor has paid for, previewed, or requested inclusion in this post. It’s all based on what will be in my luggage (or what will be my luggage) this summer and fall.

Happy 8th Birthday to rsts11

rsts11 turns 8 today. Not the operating system, which is older than your host, of course.

Eight years ago today, inspired in part by Stephen Foskett and the Tech Field Day crew, I started what was probably my third attempt at blogging. Two weeks later I wrote a post loosely based on Tech Field Day 5 (which I attended a small part of–mostly the party), and a happy post about getting a 48 port 3COM switch and going back to Windows XP to upgrade its firmware.

Today I’m back to attending the TFD parties only; after 5 stints as a full delegate and 7 of what’s now called TFD Extra, I went over to the dark side in 2014, working for a vendor, and my delegate page progress is on hold for now.

As you may know, I branched out into the royal plural on the travel blog just over two years ago; rsts11travel still hasn’t found a better name, and I haven’t gone Sinclair on rsts11 itself either.

I have a modest backlog of posts for rsts11 this year, as well as a couple of recent eBay acquisitions to write about (including a whole new home network infrastructure), so despite working for a Fortune 50 company that makes a lot of the hardware I would have written about in the past, there’s still a lot to cover.

Stay tuned in 2019 for more coverage of tech new and old, continuation of the POHO (Psycho Overkill Home Office) theme that’s driven the blog for eight years now, and some more quick takes and soft topics to push us along into what may be the Year of VDI, the Year of the Linux Desktop, or the Year that Marketing Listens To Tech.

Looking ahead into 2019 with rsts11

This is becoming somewhat of a tradition… I’ll point you toward a Tom Hollingsworth post and then figure out what I want to look back on a year from now. As long as Tom’s okay with that, I am too.

This year, Tom’s New Year’s post is about content. He seems to think 2019 is the King of Content. I’m not really sure what that means, but seeing as my blogs seem to be alternately seasonal (with most rsts11 content in the winter/spring and rsts11travel in the summer/fall), I’m hoping to get a more balanced content load out there for you this year on both blogs.

You can see the new year’s post for rsts11travel, my travel-themed blog, over on rsts11travel of course.

Looking back on 2018

Looking back on rsts11 for 2018, our top-viewed posts were a bit surprising to me.

Continue reading

Restaurant surcharges and hotel resort fees – disingenuity in action (via rsts11travel)

[Your author Robert here… I was pondering whether this was more soft topics for my tech blog, or travel. I’ll crosspost, since I think it applies to both. And it sat around in my draft folder for about six months, but it’s still valid today.]

I recently dined with my honey at a local chain steakhouse. I’ve been going there as often as weekly for over a decade. We’ve gone less frequently in the last couple of years thanks to Nom Burger, but still once a month give or take.

Their prices have been sneaking up over the years. The dinner for two combo they have has gone from under $40 to $65 as I recall, although coupons still bring it down. Some of the choices have become added-cost items, so if you want a wedge salad, that’s an extra buck, and if you’re lucky it won’t be smaller than it was last month.

But the thing that annoyed me was the 3% “minimum wage surcharge” that was stickered onto the menu and was slapped on the bill.

Read the rest at rsts11travel.com here.