Sunday, January 08, 2006

Is retail doomed?

I just lost two hours of my life fruitlessly attempting to exchange some of my money to Comp USA in exchange for a product. It was very frustrating.

For a while now I've had my eyes on a sweet drive: a 300GB Seagate internal hard drive. I actually managed to fill up the 120GB drive on my media PC a few months ago, and while I was in good shape once I culled the obviously unnecessary videos on there, I'm steadily filling it up once again. I've been very happy with the Seagate brand; in my experience they're quieter than the other drives I've tried (Maxtor, Western Digital), and none has every crashed on me. 300GB seems to be the sweet spot now for price, plus it's about the largest size available for IDE, which is my only option in my pre-SATA media PC.

Yesterday I saw that Tiger Direct had them on sale for 99.99 after rebates. That price is good through the end of January, so I decided to wait until the circulars came out today to see if any brick and mortar stores nearby could beat them.

Well, I saw that Comp USA had the exact same drive on sale for the exact same price. Now, paying tax there would mean a few dollars more than the shipping charges from TD, but that would let me get everything switched over today and give me a fun afternoon activity.

Things went wrong almost immediately. First, I had trouble locating the danged place, though that was largely my fault as I was looking for it on the wrong size of Stevens Creek. Still, it would take almost no effort for web sites to provide some basic information regarding what side of a street (North, South, East, West) a store is on instead of just giving you a link to Mapquest, and would have saved me a parcel of U-turns.

Once I got there, I found that contrary to what the web site had claimed, on Sundays it didn't open until 11AM. That gave me half an hour to kill. (I'll accept this as penance for sleeping in and missing church.) So I drove back home and futzed around before heading out again.

The really annoying part, though, came when I went in and started looking for it. They had several display cases and rows of hard drives, but not the one I desired. The clerks were busy with the 11AM rush, so I waited a few minutes before asking for help. He, of course, looked everywhere I did, then checked the computer, which claimed they had 12 items in stock. He asked if he could get back to me after he finished assisting another customer.

I said OK since, you know, I'm a good guy. I spent the next twenty minutes wandering their okay-but-not-great selection. At the end of the time he came up, checked the cases again, talked with some other clerks, then headed to their backroom.

He came back, but with a 200GB drive. Then he returned, but with the SATA drive. He said there was nothing else back there. I thanked him for the time and returned home, quietly fuming. I returned a bit before noon, having spent almost two hours in pusuit with nothing to show for it. I then spent two minutes and just bought it from Tiger Direct.

I definitely don't blame the clerk; he was doing his best to help me and nobody else there seemed to know what was happening either. But it was especially frustrating because all the OTHER hard drives which were advertised were on display with special signs indicating the sale prices. So someone must have gone through and done the drives, which means they should have known some drives had gone AWOL, which means there was information which needed to be, and failed to be, disseminated. I wouldn't feel nearly as upset now if there was just a little sign saying "Seagate 300GB Internal HDD: Out of Stock", or the clerk had known early on that something was amiss.

This wouldn't have even been an issue a few years ago because I never would have thought of going to a store to buy it. I've been happily buying things online since 1999, tempted by the low prices and convenience of shipping (not having a car when I was in college helped too). It feels a little odd, but I started shopping at retail more often after I graduated simply because it became less important to save a few dollars. It's actually gone up even more since I moved to California because I'm within a few minutes of Fry's, an awesome electronics store that sits right on my commute to work, and it's just too tempting to pick something up RIGHT NOW. My tolerance seems to be about 20% of the online price... if I can buy something online for $100, I'll consider buying it retail at up to $120.

After this latest annoyance, though, I may dial it back down. Especially since shipping is going to be way more convenient. Back when I was working at Cerner, the single most aggravating thing they did was forbid us from shipping items to our work address. That means I had to ship everything home, and since I was always at Cerner, would always need to wait until the next Saturday morning to pick up my parcel. Anyways, Rocket Mobile is much cooler and lets me ship there, so I'm only looking at a few days' delay.

In the long run, can retail survive? Yeah, but it's going to become a far smaller and more specialized presence. The economics of selling things like hard drives and CDs and screwdrivers become increasingly impractical. In retail settings they demand storage and display space and clerk knowledge and all sorts of overhead, while online just requires a warehouse and a true computerized inventory system (not "we have 12 items", but every location specified so they can be automatically gathered).

There will always be people who want to see things and touch them before they buy. I don't see many serious people buying home entertainment gear without at least visiting a store first. Even there, though, there will probably be room for improvement. Imagine a store that can display 100 screens instead of 10 because they don't keep their inventory on hand. You'll go in and select a TV, and it will be delivered to your home that same day.

And as another counter-example, I'll probably be buying a new bike in the next month or two, but I'm not even thinking of buying it online. I'll visit a bike shop and talk with the clerks and try some out and buy it there and have them set it up for me. Partly because it's new territory for me and I'll be relying on their expertise, but also because it will be serving as my maintenance and repair shop for years to come, and I want to establish that relationship.

So, in conclusion, retail isn't doomed, but CompUSA is.


  1. I was gonna make some snide comment about CompUSA (OK, I'm entitled, the last time I bought something there the clerks were antisocial idiots, set me up with crap I neither wanted nor needed, and took forever to do so) but man, I've been through that "Oh, we have twelve. Oh, they're nowhere. Oh, I'm also helping five people" thing. Basically the issue there, in my experience, is that anybody who gets a Best Buy job and gets placed in the warehouse is by default somebody they don't want on the floor. So they tend to be either stupid or maladjusted. And product goes all sorts of interesting places. ("Seagate hard drive? That goes by CD players!") On top of which, the company's planogram is inept and thoughtless -- hard drives? Let's organize them neither by size nor by manufacturer, and let's only loosely separate external from internal.

    Anyways, retail can survive, but the bigger the box, the worse the experience is gonna be. Oh well! That's why we're all quit the jobs!

  2. Heh, thanks. I appreciate your inside perspective on this, though it saddens me that the problem is institutional and not just with this particular store. And yeah, even on the floor there's no logical organization of drives - manufacturers, sizes, interfaces, enclosure types all thrown together willy-nilly. Which might be designed that way on purpose ("Wow, I had no idea Maxtor made a 30GB ATA100 drive! I'll impulse-buy this one in addition to the Seagate 200GB SATA drive I'm looking for!"), but why they would organize their warehouses that way is beyond me.

    Man oh man... wouldn't it be awesome if, right before you quit your job, you organized a union? That would rule. You'd go down in history, man.