Fry's and The Future of Retail
There's a customer service thread over in hardware, but this isn't really about hardware. It's not really about Fry's either, or I'd resurrect that two-year-old ScrewCompUSA thread where we complained about Fry's. I suppose I could dump it in the CompUSA-going-out-of-business thread(s) too...but I'm not going to.
This is more about how brick and mortar retail is going to survive, specifically stores that deal in tech and entertainment.
I went to Fry's the other day. I really do love going there. The possibilities seem endless when you enter. I went in for an admittedly dopey purchase: one of those aquarium dvds. My toddler loves watching the aquarium screensaver. I thought I'd get a dvd version so I didn't have to chase him into (and out of) the office twelve times a day.
After checking on a thumb drive from their ad...great deal...gone...I moved on to get the dvd. I figured it would be in the Special Interest section of the dvd area. I looked through that packed section for about ten minutes as my two-year-old got more and more restless. Shopping with a toddler is impossible unless you know the exact--and by "exact" I mean model number, SKU code, etc.--item you want to get. Feel like comparing the specs of differing products while in the store? Forget it.
So I went to find help. I KNOW. Seeking help in Fry's is a fool's errand. I KNOW THIS. But I just wanted to find out if I was even in the right ballpark. Found a reasonably nice employee. She confirmed I was in the right section. "They're here somewhere," she said eventually, shrugging and leaving.
I looked for about ten more minutes, realizing I would have to go title by title through the entire section to find what I was looking for. My boy was a real trooper, but there's only so much you can ask of a toddler in an Alice in Wonderland themed store. Finally I decided, "Fuck it. I'll just get it from Amazon." (NOTE: I did not say "fuck it" out loud.)
Oh...one employee did approach me--of her own volition! This is the first time this has ever happened to me in Fry's. Here I am, in the very back of the dvd section, hunting for a dvd, corralling a two-year-old, and she stops to ask me a question. "What?" I say, surprised. "Oh...would you like to apply for a Fry's credit card?"
She almost got two National Geographic dvds shoved down her throat.
All of this is to say, it's just become so much easier for me to shop for stuff like this online. I get almost all my books and dvds online. Most of my computer components. Many gifts. Brick and Mortar places must be aware of this trend...so why aren't they making our shopping experiences easier?
I know I'm being Captain Obvious here, but the absurdity of this really struck me in the moment. I was in their store. Ready to make a purchase. And I decided it would be more convenient to go back home and browse an internet store for my purchases.
That's fucked up.
"Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation."
I like Frys better than, say ... Best Buy. Fry's was started by the children of the people who founded the grocery store Fry's, and it has the same basic concept, aisles full of stuff, lots of cashiers, and not too much in the way of real help. If you're looking for hardware, it's great. But if you're looking for software or a movie or something, it's not all that great.
Fry's offers a lot of things that Amazon doesn't. Most importantly, instant gratification. That's a big deal to me and probably many people. If I've decided to buy a new videocard, all things being equal I'd rather install it an hour from now than four days from now. Even more so with other purchases, like new games.
They also offer easier browsing. I like to go to Fry's and walk through the DVD section and see if any movies I like are on sale for $5-10. Theoretically you can do that at Amazon as well, but it's just easier at a regular store. Especially if you don't really know what's available or what you want. It's a lot easier to go to Fry's and see all the tax software in a big display, and hold the different programs in all their different versions to compare them, than to try and do that online.
Bit of a tangent, but this is far and away the worst part of shopping for groceries online. I tried that out for a while, and despite the convenience, there is just no substitute for being in the grocery store and picking out the food you're going to buy. Trying to find the kind of cereal you like from their giant list of cereal is just not nearly as intuitive.
Obviously, online retailers have their own advantages. Returning to the videocard example, the last one I got I ordered online. Although I'd prefer to have the card right away, the selection and price advantage for an online purchase outweighed that, and it was actually EASIER to compare products online than in a store, in the sense that I could call up reviews from Anand or Extremetech at the same time I was shopping.
So they each have advantages and disadvantages, but there is definitely a place for Fry's.
Fry's is not to shop it, but not so great to buy in. Like you said, "the possibilities seem endless."
But then you realize you can get most things there cheaper online and you can avoid the Gauntlet of Buy Me Now I'm Cheap!
Fry's is great when you know what you want, and they have it on sale (and in stock). Otherwise, the only real things Fry's has going for it is the selection. The prices are average, and the service is still abysmal. That said, at least Fry's is merely negligent (instead of malevolent).
What exactly would brick and mortar need to do? It seems to me that you are asking for lots of knowledgeable, friendly employees. But those cost money, usually more than minimum wage. So you add that to the other brick and mortar costs that a website doesn't have, such as the cost of retail space (hundreds or thousands of dollars per square foot rent/lease, administrative/management support, etc.) and then you find that brick and mortar can't compete on price. So, brick and mortars have to make a choice - good customer service but a higher price or a competitve price but not so good customer service and some aggressive sales tactics.
A few brick and mortars are trying the customer service approach, but it's only been marginally successful. People aren't willing to pay for that.
I think Borders has it right in their business segment because they offer the best of both worlds. I love going there just to browse, looking at the shelves of new releases, new paperbacks, employee recommendations, etc. But if I'm looking for something specific I can either try my luck at the big "Information" desk, or better yet just walk up to one of those kiosks where I type in my search terms and the computer tells me where to find what I want. Maybe it'd be harder to do with constantly rotating stock like at Fry's, but it sure would be nice.
The only reason I ever go to Frys is emergency situations where I need something *right now*. Otherwise I buy on Newegg or Amazon or whatever other online store. Instant gratification was a factor for me when I was younger, but these days I don't mind waiting to get my items in a day or two (the fact that most things I order from Newegg arrive next-day even when I buy them regular UPS helps here). The hassle of going to a store that may or may not even have what I want (or calling and navigating 10 layers of automated menus to ask someone before I head there) plus all of the annoyances referenced in the original post make waiting a little bit so much more appealing than shopping at a B&M store.
Pretty much the only things I regularly buy in person anymore are groceries and clothes.
I only shop at Fry's, Best Buy or Circuit City when they have something on sale that I know I want. All three stores have so much in common: High "normal" prices, low quantities of sale items, poor layout and design and terrible customer service. My visits to all three are always surgical strikes. Get in, get what you came for, no browsing, get out.
If I need a part for a PC or want to comparison shop for media, it's NewEgg and Amazon all the way. Then I'll check to make sure the local retailers don't have it cheaper. If I need an emergency same-day PC part, Micro Center gets the nod.
This is how I shop for everything anymore though. With small kids and limited time I really can't afford the luxury of wandering around a store or a mall browsing. I have to research what I need at home, make a plan to hit the stores I need to get everything, and then execute. It's a thing of beauty when it comes together.
World's End Supernova
It's interesting that you lump books in here, because the big chain bookstores (Barnes and Noble and Borders) are one of the few bastions of great customer service in large-volume retail, IMHO. It's one of the few stores of this type where you can go and hang out for an hour browsing or reading and not have salespeople bugging you constantly. There are plenty of them there, available if you need them, but I've never, ever had a salesperson in Borders walk up to me and try to sell me a credit card, or push merchandise on me, or whatever. They pretty much just let you browse. The one exception is that every once in a while the cafe will send people out with a tray of free coffee drinks that they will offer to people browsing. Obviously, they are advertising the cafe with that, but it's a whole lot less irritating when they put it in the context of "Would you like a free coffee while you browse?"
Originally Posted by XtienMurawski
I buy some books online, but not many. The ability to page through a book before I buy is an huge advantage that online lacks (Amazon's "Look Inside" feature is a very poor substitute even when it's available, which is not often).
I'd agree about bookstores having great customer service, at least the ones around here. The local B&N stores fit the mold you describe, even to the point where they have comfy chairs strewn about the store so you can just loaf around and read their books at your leisure. The killer for me with these bookstores is that the selection is just soooo limited compared to online stores.
I can't really fault them for this, there is no way a "real" store can compete with a website front-end for a giant warehouse full of books, but when I'm looking for a specific book, especially a tech/programming book (but also fiction, if it isn't bestseller or brand new) they often do not have it, so I find myself ordering books online more often than not, despite the fact that I respect the way the brick & mortar bookstores treat their customers.
I have a buddy who shops at Fry's for regular stuff, sales tax be damned, because:
a. he likes having quick turnaround when he gets DOA items
b. he likes stuff now now now
Frys is awesome for adventure games also. I swear the one in Sacramento has an entire AISLE dedicated to adventure games, even though it's fairly sparse because of the dearth of titles. But still, you can buy just about anything made by the adventure game company there.
Working in a bookstore can be seen from the outside as a highly prized, low entry skill required, self-identification type of job. "I work in a bookstore, so I can tell right away that this.... this short story?...It's motel art"
Originally Posted by Ben Sones
I would say that these bookstores can get employees who are passionate about books to work at the same price as other retail jobs, but with higher quality of service. Almost in a High Fidelity type of way.
They just want to share what they know and enjoy, so providing competent customer service is less expensive than say a Best Buy. But I could also be talking out of my ass, so you know.
As has already been mentioned, the key to shopping at Fry's is knowing what you're getting into before walking through the door.
I enjoy shopping at Fry's for things on sale and some computer accessories. I actually prefer shopping at smaller shops for most of my computer stuff because I know that I can just walk in with the case and say, "It's not working" and immediately receive help.
The only time I ask for help at Fry's is to locate the stuff that's on sale.
First I'd say that working a B&N is simply a more respectable job than working a Best Buy. If I hear that someone works at a Best Buy the first thing I think of is "Unwashed Mouthbreather." Not so with B&N or Borders.
Also, the people who shop at tech/gadget stores are the people who know all about internet shopping. Your average B&N customer knows that Amazon exists, but probably has never bought anything from there.
Books are a mixed bag for me. Most B&Ns, and Borders are awesome places that, as said above, have awesome customer service. At the same time, pricing differences between books online and books in a store are greater than almost anywhere else.
In San Diego we have a small sci fi/fantasy/mystery bookstore called Mysterious Galaxy. Knowledgable people, constant author signings, etc. Still, I payed $18 bucks for a paperback that I could have gotten on amazon for $4 and shipping. So $7 versus $18? No contest.
Very true. Just this weekend I bought a SATA RAID card for my file server from Fry's. Turns out the card works fine, but for some reason it is not happy in this machine. It is happy in others, but that doesn't help me. So I am taking it back today for a full refund. If I had bought it online, I would now either be eating the cost of the card, or dealing with a return and more than likely paying the shipping back out of my pocket. Fry's FTW!
Originally Posted by Roger Wong
A friend of mine has a fun Fry's trick. He buys something expensive like a video card. He takes it back a few days later for full refund. It goes back on the shelf as an open box item for cheaper. He then goes and buys it *again* for the discount. Insane, but I guess if you have the time and desire....
What the fuck? What the fuck.
Originally Posted by CounterMeasure
Books are a special case depending on what I'm buying. I'll buy children's books for my kids from the brick and mortar places like B&N because I can leaf through them in store and they seem to have very similar prices to Amazon on most items, sometimes even cheaper on the sale stuff.
Books for me almost always come from two places, Amazon because they actually have what I'm looking for at a decent price, or Half Price Books because I can't seem to leave that damn store without buying something. Unlike the children's books, regular books seem to always be more expensive at the brick and mortar places around here (Half-Price Books excepted). What ends up happening is that I'll find a new author or series I like at Half Price Books, then end up buying more books from that author or series online at Amazon because they're either not in stock at Half Price or too new to have hit the used shelves yet.
Oddly, when it comes to games, I almost always buy from the stores and not online. I refuse to pay $50+ for a game, so I almost always end up waiting until a couple of weeks after a games release when Best Buy or Circuit City will discount it to move the remaining stock. By timing these "inventory reduction" purchases just right, I've gotten stuff like Company of Heroes, Neverwinter Nights 2 and Medieval TW:2 within a month of release for $20-$25 each.
At that point you might as well do The Swap: returning your high-priced item's box with a lower-priced item inside. This is how I got my first and second Voodoo cards, back when I was a jerk. The teenage girl working the returns counter will know the difference between a piece of hardware and a brick, but she probably won't know the difference between two video cards.
Originally Posted by CounterMeasure
I worked at Borders when they opened up their first big store in Dallas, store #32. One of the very first *large* stores for them. The Borders brothers still owned the company (and paid themselves meagerly). They flew in about a dozen trainers from other stores for the month or so it takes to prep and stock a store from zero to open, plus train the staff.
Originally Posted by Thrrrpptt!
There was a test to become a book seller that covered literature, music and art (they weren't selling VHS tapes yet). Even though I was starting in the Espresso bar, everyone went through the complete training. And it wasn't just POS procedures - it was "handselling" - the idea that when someone is looking for a specific book, you put it in their hands. That was taught as skill, including aspects of how to research for titles (including using microfiche - library skills FTW!), but also things like remembering customers. Lots of staff kept little index cards on regular customers, who often would want a recommendation for something in general, or specifically. You could set aside a copy of a new title because you were confident that one of your regulars would want it.
The slogan used to be "I didn't know the title, I didn't know the author, I found it at Borders."
This was late 1992 and the starting wage was about $8/hour, well over minimum wage, and there was an excellent profit sharing system in place.
Then Kmart bought it, expanded it to the bajeezus, stripped out the profit sharing, but ended up taking it public and selling it's controlling stake after the Kmart shareholders got pissed at the management who was milking Borders' profits to prop up failing Kmart discount stores. Which was, weird.
I learned a lot working there. Excellent customer service training. I don't know if they still do that, or reward their employees as much as they used to. But I haven't seen any company aspire to the level of customer service that Borders had under the original management.
Sort of back on topic: I recall in the late 90s that if you searched for Frys online, the only website with Frys in the title was about how much Fry's sucked. That went on for years.
I do have to say that one of my best CS experiences was at a Fry's. I was in the Concord one to buy a new car stereo since my old one had been stolen, and wanted to get an ipod hookup as well as a sirius one. The guy who helped me, in his early 20s, was awesome, and even made a side deal with me to come over to my apartment to install it, since the Fry's installation dudes were backed up for weeks.
I paid him like $50 I think, and he installed everything as professionally as any installer, as he had all the right tools and stuff. Liked to do that sort of thing on the side, and the installation place pays peanuts compared to on the sales floor. He also showed me some pics of his kid's Powerwheels that he had modded and done some "Pimp my Ride" kinda stuff to. Awesome guy.
Because 95/100 people would see that the DVD cost $4 more than it did on Amazon (because it must in order to actually pay staff that is going to care enough to provide decent service) and leave and go home and buy it on Amazon anyway.
Originally Posted by XtienMurawski
People want service for free. Good service isn't free. People seem more willing to put up with bad service than increased prices. Therefore, since you can't have something for nothing, stores drop service to keep the prices competitive. You yourself admit you already understand this relationship by the incredulous nature with which you reference the idea of asking for help in Fry's. (Note: I've never lived near a Fry's. But I'm sure Best Buy will pinch hit for crappy service. Unless of course you're looking at high profit margin products, in which case suddenly people seem to actually care if you have questions. Go figure.)
Geezus, Joel, why didn't you just stick the Voodoo card in your coat and steal it? At least then some poor idiot wouldn't end up buying your old Mach 64 card when the retailer restocked it, and the moral outcome is the same. At least what Countermeasure's friend did wasn't (1) outright theft, and (2) possibly going to screw someone else buying the card.
When I was about 12 I got a Sound Blaster 16 for Christmas. In the box was a used parallel port addin card. I didn't recognize it, but my dad did and we took it back to Sam's the next day. Shortly afterwards, I fired up one of the Space Quest games and rocked out to some serious MIDI action for the first time ever.
Another favorite Fry's return trick is returning the hardware but keeping the bundled software.
I don't buy returned anything from Fry's anymore.
This is like mugging someone: you're risking a serious criminal conviction to get $50. So moral issues aside (and I totally agree with Denny: you're an asshole), you're an idiot. Actually, it's even dumber than mugging someone, since you presumably leave some sort of paper trail with your return.
Originally Posted by Joel
Make searching and finding stuff easier. If they don't want to do it with personnel, then do it with technology, as Borders does (which I think Thrrrppt! mentions in the post after yours...did I put enough r's in there?). I most often hit Fry's after the Friday four-page ad comes out (my favorite part of the paper). If I could just go up to a computer terminal, type in the model number of the thing in the ad that I want, and use GoogleEarth to locate it (GoogleFry's?), I'd buy a heck of a lot more stuff there.
Originally Posted by Sarkus
I used to always prefer getting my computer stuff there because I wanted to avoid shipping fees on returns. But then I fell for Newegg.
As for knowledgeable, friendly employees costing more, all I'm saying is that if the woman who tried to help me had simply been able to point out the aquarium dvds, I would have bought one or more then and there. Because she couldn't, I didn't. So not having those kind of employees is costing them money too.
Not sure what the cost/benefit breakdown is on that, and where paying more for good service stops paying off, but somebody must have an equation for it.
Starbucks trains their employees with the intention of having them give stellar service. They intend for them to be uber-knowledgeable about all their products, passionate about those products, able to make personal contact with each customer and even start conversations with them. But they've gotten so big so fast a lot of that just goes out the window.
Good points about bookstores. I almost always get good service at Borders, and like to get books for my son there because we can go into the kids' section together and goof around and read for awhile and he can pick stuff out. I buy most books for myself at Amazon because I like getting stuff in the mail.
Morally, perhaps, but I'm sure the buy, return, buy-cheaper method is more legal at least. Though also more prone to failure due to cases where someone else snaps the item up faster.
Originally Posted by Joel