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

Updated 12/23/2019 and 12/27/2019 – see end of article.

Revisited 11/1/2020 – see Revisiting Fry’s Electronics a year later

It’s worse than that, they’re dead, Jim – Fry’s Electronics is dead

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.

2019-12-22 13.59.06

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.

December update 1 (Sunnyvale)

With the predictions of increasing stock and even a Black Friday extravaganza, I went back to Fry’s on Black Friday (November 29, pictured above) in the hopes of more signs of life. There were over 20 customers in the store, which is more than my previous visit showed, and I believe they had about 5 registers open (out of 64?).
The fryshelp Twitter account continued to respond promising conversion to the consignment model, and more stock “soon,” but it wasn’t looking promising. And the one item I needed that day, canned compressed air, was nowhere to be found.
I returned the weekend before Christmas, which in years long past would’ve been a crowded experience. I found fewer than 20 patrons, probably half walking out empty-handed.

2019-11-29 10.39.31

They had consistent stock on shopping baskets with trash bags, used to capture rainwater from roof leaks, and a few things were abundant (gaming chairs, signs for their “no credit required” leasing partner), but otherwise it didn’t seem much different. The computer/monitor/printer section was decimated, networking aisle was barren, and there was no sign of change otherwise.
And the Fry’s twitter accounts were slightly more pragmatic but still not really giving hope.
20191222 fryshelp
I’ve heard from friends that this is still happening in other locations around the country, so we’ll have to see if anything changes in 2020.

December Update 2 (San Jose)

After Christmas I went out to check on the Brokaw (San Jose) store, having seen a photo on Instagram that looked less despondent. Initially it didn’t feel as empty, but once I got walking around, it was.

The Apple section had one machine. The computers/monitors/printers section was mostly barren. And lots of shelves were empty. The cafe had an empty (and apparently unplugged) cooler case and one worker. Two registers were open, and they were moving fairly quickly although there was a short line waiting for them.

In Praise Of Microsoft Store, or, To QHD And Back Again (Another Laptop Journey)

There are two pieces of information that will inform this article, and I’ll get them out there first.

One, I’m not a Microsoft fanboy. My favorite MS products are still the 16KB expansion card for the Apple ][+ and a selection of their keyboard and mouse options. I liked Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows 7, and when each was current it was my daily driver OS for the most part. But I’m usually no more likely to advocate them than I am any other jumbo company.

Two, I probably buy more laptops than you do. As in, personally purchasing out of my own pocket (not IT department purchases). Probably twenty in the last 14 months. These ranged from old HP “thin client” laptops to play with, to my current daily driver, the ASUS Zenbook UX32VD I talked about in my Pitfalls blog post last August (more toward the cheaper side of course). I’ve agonized over details of some (like the Zenbook) and just thrown the cash down on others (like the thin clients or some other cheaper ones). So I’ve been through the process before.

You already want another laptop? And what’s QHD?

So I’ve been thinking about upgrading the daily driver role again. I went from a very heavy but very powerful Sony VAIO with 16GB ram, 4c/8t, 1080p display, USB3… to the Zenbook with 10GB ram, 2c/4t, 1080p display, USB3, and about half the mass/weight. But I’d like to get that memory back up there, and add some real estate, and get rid of the proprietary third display connector while keeping discrete graphics. Getting a 1920×1200 (WUXGA+) display requires 17″ LCD and/or Core2 processor, neither of which is optimal, so I have to look larger. I did pick up a 1920×1200 Macbook Pro last year, but it’s limited to 6-8GB of RAM and has a Core 2 processor.

QHD, for those among you not familiar, is “quad high definition,” generally 2560×1440, WQHD, or 4x 720p. There’s WQXGA+, which is 3200×1800, which also gets called QHD or QHD+, which is 4x 1600×900. Don’t confuse this with lower-case-q qHD, which is a 960×540 standard, a quarter of 1080p resolution. I’m okay with 2560×1440 or 3200×1800 or anything in that range, to be honest.

QHD? Could you spell that?

As an aside, I go to Fry’s a couple of times a week, as I live a mile from one store and work 3 blocks from another, so I just do. One time I wandered around looking at laptops and one of the helpful but useless sales associates asked if he could help. “Yes,” I said, “I’m looking for a QHD laptop, you know, 2600×1800 or so resolution?” He scrambled for a piece of paper to write on, asking me to spell Q-H-D, and then handing me off to another sales associate who told me what I’d already discovered–they didn’t carry any such devices.

So I’ve been browsing the web every so often, searching eBay for Precision M6500 (17″ 1920×1200 with 32GB capacity and first gen i7 processors), looking at other retailers when I’m in their laptop sections, and pondering what to do when the urge to upgrade finally takes over. I don’t really have to explain the decision to my significant other, although she wonders why I need a new laptop in less than five years.

The first three I found online were

  • Fujitsu Lifebook u904, an i7-4600U with 14″ 3200×1800 display, 10GB max RAM like my current ultrabook, 802.11abgn; $2154 with 4GB RAM from shopfujitsu.com.
  • Dell XPS15 6842sLV, which has an i7-4702HQ, 15.6″ 3200×1880  display, 802.11ac, and 16GB max RAM; $1766 used with 16GB RAM from Amazon.com
  • IBMLenovo Thinkpad W540 with i7-4700MQ, 15.5″ 2880×1620, 802.11ac, and support for 32GB on the quad-core models. $1830 with 16GB from lenovo.com

Yeah, that’s kinda pricy, but I’m looking for what turns out to be workstation-class hardware, not pure 720p ultrabook.

I suspect I’d do nicely with either of the 15″ displays, but as you might guess, I’m nervous about buying into a product line I’ve never touched or seen in person, especially when it’d set me back $2000.

So I just kept looking, and asked around on Twitter about any Bay Area retail or showcase options. Jake Ludington came up with a good suggestion, just about the time Google found a hint to the same effect.

So, having had an uneventful morning, I headed out to the Microsoft retail store at Valley Fair.

Microsoft Store? What’chu talking about, Willis?

Here’s where I used to be a little bit critical, and some of my friends downright ridiculed the idea. Apple has their retail thing down cold pretty much after 13 years… you can find Apple Stores all over the place and go in and see what they want you to buy.  You can talk to a person whose boss has declared him or her a “Genius(tm),” in much the same sense as some companies declare all their managers “Leaders(tm).” And you can buy one of their preconfigured options for a laptop.

Microsoft started opening up their own retail stores almost five years ago. They’re not quite the same, as Microsoft doesn’t manufacture/brand a whole lot of systems. So instead of the company’s hardware, software, and blessed accessories, you get a lot more partner products. For example, alongside the Surface tablet line you’ll see Nokia and Dell tablets. Next row over, you’ll find laptops and ultrabooks and convertibles from Samsung, Acer, Dell, HP, ASUS, and probably some I forgot about. There’s a corner for XBox (including Disney Infinity), a corner for accessories and gadgets, and a display section for Windows Phone. And you’ll find “Technical Advisors” available to help you… a bit more down-to-earth ranking, I’d say. 

Those of you who were in San Francisco around the turn of the century may remember the Microsoft store on the second floor at Metreon, and the XBox Store on the first floor. It’s like that, but combined and a lot more focused, and there are 60+ of them in North America.

Some people joke that the Apple Store is filled to the gills with customers, whereas the Microsoft Store has 3-5 sales associates for each customer. That was probably true five years ago. But I’d guess the buying-customer to browsing-customer ratio is higher under the four-colored logo. It’s seemed that way each time I’ve been in the Microsoft Store.

So how’d your visit go?

It was actually pretty good. The store has tables set up like the Apple Store, with a couple of demo products on either side. There are stools for you to sit on while you try out the devices, which is a nice touch… unless you use a standing desk you won’t get a feel for the keyboard and display without sitting down and relaxing a bit.

The labeling of the laptops was concise and easily compared. Some models had multiple sample devices out. I tried four models that mostly met my requirements:

  • Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus, a 13.3″ i5 with 8GB RAM/128GB SSD and 802.11n for $1449. The i7 with 256GB SSD is listed on their site for $1599.
  • Acer Aspire S7, a 13.3″ i7 with 8GB RAM/256GB SSD and 802.11n for $1499
  • Dell XPS 15, a 15.6″ i7 with 16GB RAM/512GB SSD and 802.11ac for $2299
  • HP Envy Touch 14, a 14.0″ i5 with 8GB RAM/500GB SATA and 802.11ac as well as 200MB/mo free mobile broadband, for $899

(The links above are to approximate analogues on Amazon; there are a lot of configurations and they don’t always match with what’s in retail locations or microsoftstore.com.)

The machines were all logged in to a regular user account (Device Manager warned me about this on each system), wireless was working, and I was able to check out the details without sales reps acting like I was trying to stick my tongue in the USB ports.

I probably could’ve stayed longer, and there was one idle sales rep of about half a dozen who was available should I have any questions. However, I was fully aware that I wouldn’t be making a purchase today. Even if I were, I’d have done my own research (probably on one one of the sample laptops) before engaging the staff, but they seemed friendly and reachable despite my not befriending or reaching for them.

So I just got the stand-out details tapped into my Evernote client on Android, and even disqualified one of the machines because it had a very weird keyboard (the Aspire S7 has some weird keyboard features including Caps Lock sharing its traditional space with the backtick/tilde key)

Then I wandered around looking at what else was available. There was a Surface Music Kit cover on display which, while not set up with the app, looked pretty cool. Lots of tablets were present, including my 2-in-1 ASUS T100TA and the Dell Venue 8 (Pro, I think).  The staff were smiling but not creepily so, and thanked me for visiting when I left to find some caffeine.

So where do you go from here?

Well… as I mentioned, I am not buying just yet. So I have some time for absurd amounts of research, review-reading, comparison shopping, maybe even looking into fan/rumor sites to see what’s coming out in the next four weeks.

I may head back in to look into any other interests or concerns I have during the research phase; it seems like the odds of the model systems being functional and available are higher there than at most consumer electronics stores I visit (hi Best Buy, Fry’s). And I can give the sales associates a chance to show their chops in terms of customer experience with the QHD laptops.

But assuming the prices aren’t that different from competitors and the specs I want are available, I’d be happy to head back to the Microsoft Store to buy my next laptop.

If you’ve had an experience buying a laptop at a Microsoft Store, or have recommendations or warnings about QHD/WQHD/QHD+ display laptops, feel free to chime in on the comments below. I’m especially interested in anything with 32GB memory capacity, and I’ll be digging deeper into specs in the near future.  I’ll keep you posted as my search progresses.

Disclaimer: I’ve received no consideration or influence from Microsoft on this post. I’ve not yet spent even a penny at a Microsoft Store. Although I wouldn’t turn down promo codes or coupons of course.