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Ed Driscoll

‘I’m Going to Miss Shopping’

January 23rd, 2013 - 8:50 pm

I love the Internet and shopping online at Amazon, and while I’d prefer the aesthetics of the Mad Men era, technology-wise I’m very happy to be living in the 21st century.

But.

On Monday, James Lileks visited his local Best Buy to purchase a low-end portable computer. Or as he put it, “My wife said she needed a laptop so she could work at home in the evening without bringing the office laptop The clerk asked if he could help, and I said I was looking for a cheap virus-magnet laptop loaded with crapware.”

Afterwards, Lileks visited a competing chain, Micro Center:

Drove on to MicroCenter, or whatever it’s called — a junky computer store in an old grocery-store building, aisles of geek detritus. Always packed. Good prices. A hard drive or a legacy cable. The internet won’t kill it because there are many of us who need these things now and like to go to a place where these things are.

The Internet couldn’t kill it, but the craptacular California economy could. From about 1998 or so, until last year, there was a Micro Center in Santa Clara, about 10 miles from my house. Its primary competition wasn’t really with Best Buy, but with Fry’s Electronics. Fry’s is a regional chain with Silicon Valley origins that has a huge selection of electronic products, giant big box stores with the overall room tone of a pachinko palace — and is notorious for the worst customer service around. If you’re a geek and really know what you’re doing, Fry’s is probably great – in the old days, you could pick up a new CPU, motherboard, computer case, hard drive, sticks of RAM, a case of Diet Coke, a box of Twinkies, the skin mag of your choice, and you were good to go for the weekend.

But, heaven forfend, as Lileks would say, if you need to return something. Fry’s salesmen seem like a cross between the Soup Nazi and ex-members of Saddam’s Republican Guard. Its customer service department was the likely inspiration for the TSA. You’ll need your driver’s license, social security card, high school diploma, and every scrap of paper that came with the product you purchased. If your router came with a subscription card for PC World, it had better be there, or NO REFUND FOR YOU. NEXT! (My wife’s theory, and I think she’s onto something, is that the worse the customer service, the better the bargain the customer think he’s receiving. Or as a 1997 Forbes article noted in its headline, “The customer is always right? Not at Fry’s.”)

In contrast, Micro Center’s clerks seemed surprisingly friendly and interactive; they knew their products, and their return policies were remarkably liberal, in the old sense of the word. Which encouraged a certain amount of experimentation: If you’re not sure which product you need, this was the place to go. And a result, our LAN hubs and cables, routers, RAM sticks, power filters, and all of the nuts and bolts products we needed to run two businesses out of our house and setup our home theater came from Micro Center. (Not to mention, the store stocked a number of the electronics and gadget magazines I wrote for during my pre-Blogosphere days.)

The local Micro Center was always crowded whenever I went in there, but evidently it wasn’t enough to sustain it. As the (former) store’s Webpage notes,  it is “very difficult to announce that our Santa Clara store closed for normal business on Monday, July 23rd [2012]. We are very disappointed with the unsuccessful attempts to negotiate an economically viable extension of our store lease, and we deeply regret not being able to fully serve you going forward.”

If you can’t sustain a computer store in the heart of Silicon Valley, where can you sustain it? As Lileks adds in his post, regarding Best Buy:

I’m going to miss shopping and looking and touching, I really am. I hope my daughter remembers running up and down the aisles, looking at movies and Nintendo games and marveling at the volume of things to see and hear and play. You never get that sense from internet shopping. On the internet everything is presented individually, a page at a time, like a clerk is bringing out a shoe for Madame to consider.

Whatever the future for America’s retail economy holds, it likely won’t resemble the one envisioned by the architect whose daughter’s documentary Lileks links to later in his post, an unbelievably depressing look at a guy who apparently thought that From Bauhaus to Our House was a how-to guide and not a warning, and missed every lesson about the organic nature of civilization, the culture, and the importance of the street, the sidewalk and the stoop taught by Jane Jacobs, and that it was his mission to hit the CTL-ALT-DLT keys on the way mankind lives. What could go wrong, this time?

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