August 31, 2009

Fry's Electronics: A Silicon Valley Legend With Legendary Flaws

Despite the fact both retail outlets sell computer equipment, including hardware and software, Fry's Electronics superstores and Apple's retail stores could not be more different. One offers a specialized set of products, and packs its stores to the gills with helpful employees, while giving customers free reign to use their products, and can approve customer purchases through the use of a handheld scanner device. The second offers a dizzying array of products, from vacuums and office chairs to iPod headphones and copper wiring, and its employees haven't won any awards for their product knowledge - while checking out items requires an usher, while your bags are rudely inspected - as if you had the forethought to take on the role of a shoplifter. It's clear which one is which, if you have ever stepped foot in either one - which makes me wonder sometimes why I keep revisiting Fry's, hoping each next experience will trump the last.

Fry's failings are at times comical - including my most recent trip this Saturday. I stopped into the store that afternoon for a simple task, finding Apple's Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard), which had released the day before. I was unsure whether Fry's in Sunnyvale would have it, but if they did, it would be a longer trip down to the Apple Store at the Valley Fair Mall in San Jose.

Upon entering this geek warehouse, I made a beeline for the Mac area, where Apple products are isolated in a special setting that makes the computers seem more like they belong in a zoo than in the jungle of PC parts and widgets just outside the enclosing aisles.

Mac OS X 15.6. From the Future!

To my surprise, there was no banner, or even a sign, announcing Snow Leopard had arrived. I looked to and fro, and didn't see Apple's famous boxes. I asked one employee, who was in the Mac section, for help and she pointed me to a manager, behind a nearby podium. I asked the manager, and she said that she didn't know where Mac OS X 10.6 would be, and maybe her boss would.

After flagging him down, and explaining, he pointed back to his subordinate, saying Mac OS was her department. She said, "Oh! I thought you meant Mapquest!"

Right. Why would I buy software from Mapquest at Fry's?

With renewed vigor around her newly-reminded knowledge, we turned back to the Mac section, and found Snow Leopard cases quietly hiding on the shelf. Below the DVD cases was a simple descriptor: "Mac OS X 15.6 Snow Leopard", for only $27.99. Of course, that would mean the operating system software was five generations into the future, which is outstanding. Or it was a typo. You decide. And that doesn't even go into the label failing to mention it is a DVD install, not a CD-Rom install.

Did Fry's have what I was looking for? Yes. Did it have it at a cheap price? Yes. Was it nearby? Yes. And that's about all I can say in favor of why I continue to return to this geek mecca of annoyance. I know that if I took the time to drive down to the Valley Fair mall, not only would they be posting banners of Mac OS X 10.6's imminent arrival, I would have gotten somebody to help in minutes, scanning me out right away - without trying to upsell me on a warranty, or walking me through an impulse buy section stock full of electric razors and bulk candy.

Fry's is no doubt a mecca for the do it yourself gadget geek. But the contrast between the warehouse mentality shown at Fry's, versus the personal touch felt in Apple Stores has me wondering if next time I'll just make the extra drive and reward their effort.

As for Mac OS X 15.6, I came home disappointed with merely owning Mac OS X 10.6, so I don't get any early adopter cred.