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Breakfast at Fry's

A quick remark:

I found this years ago at "Ad Nauseam", a semi-regular column back in the mid 90's: a hilarious take on Fry's Electronics (mostly found on the West Coast).  The site hadn't been updated in eons, and Ad Nauseam itself  (http://www.crl.com/~jnelson/nauseam/) seems to have finally vanished (guess the web admin finally did some spring cleaning).   So I place this article here for posterity.  Enjoy!

-WGS

Breakfast at Fry's

If you enjoyed this article, check out Ad Nauseam's home page.

Fry's Electronics is a major computer and electronic reseller in Silicon Valley. They are renown for their lack of service, blowout sales, and strange architectural themes. As background, Fry's originally was a supermarket chain, carrying groceries, fruits, vegetables, etc. In the Eighties, two sons of the owner decided to carry the chain into the electronics business, using the same horsesense that made their father rich. Since then, Fry's Supermarkets have been sold to a larger chain, and the business dissolved. All that's left is the electronic superstores.

Did I say "horsesense"? I meant horseshit...

Silicon Valley's roadside kitsch

or, don't they have zoning laws against this?

There's just that certain something about shopping at Fry's ... it must be something, otherwise no one would come back. 

First things first. There are four Fry's superstores in California: Campbell, Fremont, Sunnyvale, and Palo Alto. Each store has a unique theme, kind of like each particular district in Disneyland. I'm waiting for them to build one resembling Never-Never Land; it would be the place where the competent and friendly salespeople worked.

Campbell Storefront Campbell Storefront #2
The Campbell store is built to resemble an Egyptian pyramid. Note the walkway up to the front entrance. This is actually a flatbed escalator. I think the idea is that as people stand on it, it appears that they are being magically drawn upwards to the temple's doors, bringing live sacrifice of cash and credit for Fry, the great electronic god of consumption and ignorance. (On the right, note the beautiful capture of the author's photogenic hand masterfully blocking a good percentage of the moment.)

When you first walk into any of the stores, you'll first immediately notice how utterly cramped the store is, considering it's overall size. Rows and rows of software and hardware, racks of magazines, and people friggin' everywhere. The place is a zoo, constantly. I've been there at 9:30 PM and the place looked like they'd herded the entire staff of Hewlett-Packard into an 18-wheeler and unloaded them all between aisles eight and ten.

In each store, the doors open into the Return department, where people wait for half an hour to return something they waited an hour to purchase in the first place. Fry's has a liberal return policy; if not satisfied after thirty days, return for a full refund. Honest ... a friend once asked a clerk if such-and-such CD-ROM game was any good. The clerk just shrugged and said conspiratorially "try it out, play it for a month, and if you don't like it bring it back for a refund." As you can see, the employees are acutely concerned with the financial well-being of their store.

Move through the turnstiles and into the maw of the giant. Acres and acres of software, hardware, cables, modems, joysticks ... on and on and on. Plus, you can get junk food, cases of soft drinks, candy, stereos, televisions, camcorders, test equipment ... it's all there. The magazine rack is the largest I've seen, outside of a national bookstore chain. There's a huge selection of "new bride" and soap opera magazines, and sure enough, you'll find a small gathering of women standing and reading, presumably waiting for their significant others to quit oogling at C++ books and adult CD-ROMs.

Speaking of ... there's porn a-plenty. A hefty chunk of the magazine rack is partially covered by smoked plastic, hiding Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, and all sorts of little books, Reader Digest sized, which contains who knows what. I won't stand in a Circle-K reading a Playboy, but for some reason, it feels perfectly comfortable to walk up and sneak a peek at this month's sweetheart at Fry's. It's even the more bizarre because, while the Circle-K might be relatively abandoned, Fry's is always filled to capacity.

It becomes apparent that Fry's is basically one-stop shopping for a good segment of the nerd population in the area. The entire weekly list can be fulfilled: Ruffles, Pepsi, software, hardware, programming books, voltage meters, Walkman, Penthouse, music CDs, shaving cream, deodorant, paper towels, t-shirts, and sweats. Everything else in life is, after all, optional.

Customer service, however, is downright atrocious. When you need help with something, finding a clerk turns into a quest of epic proportions. And when you do track one down, getting any sort of accurate or useful information out of them is like negotiating with a four-year old.

For example, I once wanted to buy a compiler at Fry's. The one I was looking at was a little thin and I couldn't tell from the box if it had certain documentation or not. A clerk was walking by, and I asked if they had an open box I could look through. No. Taking a long shot, I asked if I could open the box and look inside. A little too much to ask? Compare that to his response: "You want to open the box?" He turned to another customer, who was looking at a different package: "Hey, you want to open that up and take a look? Why not. Let's just let everyone open up the software and play with the stuff inside." Smart-ass minimum-wage fuck.

Or, for example, when my friend was looking for a digital camera for his PC. He could find a Mac version of the product, but not the PC version. Three clerks gave him three answers:

  1. They don't make that for the PC.
  2. We won't be carrying that, check the Sunnyvale store.
  3. We'll be re-stocking it next week.

Basically, if you need real help inside a Fry's store, you're on your own. The thing that sucks is that Fry's has the selection, and sometimes the prices, to make you swallow your pride and go back for more abuse. I've sworn off buying at Fry's several times, and a week or so later, I'm back. It's a common syndrome, actually.

"Hello, I'm Jim N., and I shop at Fry's twice a week."

(In unison): "Hello, Jim!"

Adam Smith meets Karl Marx

or, have your credit card ready, comrade

Once your shopping cart is filled with all the goodies you don't really need but (dammit) gotta have, you head to the checkout line. After all the abuse, the parking nightmare, the insolent employees, the screaming kids and push-came-to-shove-a-long-time-ago fatboy hackers, I've walked to the checkout line, realized how long the wait was, muttered "screw this" and walked out, with nothing to show for all that well-spent time. The lines at Disneyland are like the autobahn compared to the ones a t Fry's.

In one way, Fry's is a kind of karmic justice for all those years of America thumbing its nose at the Soviet Union and its shortages and long lines while we basted in our self-contained paradise-like Land O' Plenty. Well, no more. The pedagogues on-high preaching that capitalism will never spawn the hell-demon of "market failure" would cover their eyes and run for the hills screaming after taking one step into Fry's air-conditioned asylum. For years afterwards, parents would tuck their children into bed and warn them to be good else be fed to the evil econo-hermits living amid the redwoods and ferns in the upper Santa Cruz mountains.

Fremont storefront
The Fry's in Fremont is modeled after a space station. No, really, that's a space station. Inside, the walls have murals of aliens and robots, but its so cartoonish you'd think they had hired artists from Marvel Comics to paint the cantina scene from Star Wars, and the artists kinda rushed it.

The paradox is that market demands cannot meet supply, and yet consumer recognition of competitive forces never materializes. Which is why you have people in line at Fry's, Visa Gold cards in hand, waiting an hour to get to a clerk eager to pay and pay and pay for shrink-wrapped products of identical quality and pricing to be found elsewhere.

There's even punishment for shopping at Fry's, and its administered each and every time you purchase an item. Basically, just after you've signed the credit slip and are walking away from the checkout with your bag of goodies, you run into the cavity check station. Now, Fry's doesn't call it a "cavity check", but its pretty damn close considering you just forked over a nice piece of change for your goodies. The frau at the station looks over your receipt and bag of stuff and checks if there's any discrepancies between the two. You get a soothing pink checkmark on your receipt if everything is okay. If not ... well, "cavity check" isn't too much of an exaggeration after all.

Its capitalism meets communism. All the waste and redundancy of a free market with all the waste and monotony of a command economy. Neither Adam Smith or Karl Marx, ideological brawlers, would be one of those econo-hermits in the Santa Cruz hills. For once, rather than begin another round in their post-mortem debate, they could each shake hands and call it even, under the faux pyramid of Silicon Valley.

Everyone's got a story

or, I'm not the only person sick of this shit

When I was working on this article, I mentioned Fry's at a small get-together with some friends. Immediately the conversation turned into a Fry's shake-and-bake. Everyone's got a story.

My girlfriend, we'll call her "Wendy" (because that's her real name), had a pretty aggravating time returning a FAX machine for servicing. The machine, not more than two weeks old, went kaput and she drew short straw in the office pool. She was stuck having to return it to Fry's.

Fry's return policy is quite liberal and quite infuriating. You stand in line at the Return counter for half an hour waiting, only to argue with the return personnel about why they need to take the merchandise back. In Wendy's case, she threw them for a real loop ... she wanted a replacement while they serviced their current machine. One-for-one trade, same machine and model until they fixed the faulty unit. This of course is quite confusing and higher levels of management were called in to figure out what the hell this crazy woman was really asking for.

After the run-around with the top brass, the trade was authorized, but only if Wendy would give them her credit-card number, as collateral in case the replacement was broken or lost while servicing the original. Wendy wasn't real hip on giving Fry's carte blanche with her Mastercard, but there was no way around it, and the office needed the FAX machine.

Now, although this is an unusual case, the return procedure is the same. You stand in line to buy the product. You wait. You buy. Product fails or is otherwise inadequate. You return to Fryski's and stand in line to return product. You wait. You argue and haggle with comrade personnel. You obtain necessary refund authorization. You stand in another line to get your money back. You wait. You give return authorization to checkout clerk. There is natural delay, because the internal forms from the return counter haven't been walked over to the refund counter. (This is in a computer store.) You wait. Forms are transferred. You sign, money is refunded, and you leave.  (Now do you believe the Smith-Marx angle?)

Wendy had to go through the same rigmarole, except instead of a refund she was handing over her credit-card and signing triplicates to keep the replacement FAX in perfect working condition or lose custody of her first-born. After signing and signing, she left with the replacement.

Sunnyvale storefront
Parking is never a problem at Fry's, if you walk. The lots are always filled, and the make of cars indicates Fry's impressive clientele: BMW, Mercedes, Lexus (corporate CEO); American mid-sized cars (Joe Programmer on the usual shoestring budget); Volkswagen Bugs (hobbyist stuck behind the counter at McDonald's); camouflage-painted trucks with matching camper shell (poseur militants).

When she got back to the office, she called Mastercard and had the credit card cancelled. No way was Fry's going to go shopping on that piece of plastic.

The replacement worked, and as with all things in the office, when something actually works and performs and does the job, it gets absolutely no attention or respect. However, ten months later, Wendy gets a call from Fry's service department: "your FAX machine is fixed, come on in and pick it up." Yup. Needless to say, after Wendy finished laughing in the clerk's ear, she told them exactly where to install the old machine.

Once, I was doing a favor and helping set up some computers for a small company. It entailed buying a lot of Ethernet cable, interface cards, software, etc. I had the shopping cart pretty well filled up, except that there were only four network cards of a particular type on the shelf, and I needed two more. I asked the sales clerk if there were any more in the back room. His eyes scanned the cart and then bulged from their sockets. He said he'd get them from the back room.

When he returned with the cards, he explained that he could save me a lot of time at the checkout by punching the items into the computer system back at a sales station. I let him input everything, and he handed me a printout. This, he said, was my guarantee to speedier service. He told me to just give it to the checkout clerk and I'd be on my way. He then left in a hurry.

It was easy to put two and two together. The slip was a system estimate, something the sales guys use when people are purchasing entire desktop systems or stereos. Because the sales guy filled in the estimate, he gets to claim a commission of the total sale. In other words, I did all the hard work of finding all the supplies and he fetches a couple of cards and picks up five percent of my money. Fat chance, slimeball. That sales estimate was appropriately placed in a nearby round file.

Or, the time I was trying to find a null modem. On this huge rack of cabling and connectors, I simply could not find the type I needed. I finally grabbed a clerk and had him help me. No dice. He got another clerk, and they both searched. Finally, they discovered an empty hanger with a reorder slip hanging in the back.

I asked when they would get another shipment. Neither had a clue. I asked if they could possibly strain their touch-typing skills and look it up in the computer. Before I could retract the question or stop their vocal cords from answering came the response I absolutely did not want to hear: "we don't keep the inventory on computer." Of course not. Why the hell would this place use a computer? An information system might improve things, and that would muck with their fine-tuned mix of ignorance and sloth.

A friend of mine, Paul, returned a laser printer for a refund. After the standing-in-line routine, he found himself dealing with a novice checkout clerk who had no clue about the drill. The newbie kept calling for a senior manager to help him out, step by step. Finally, after twenty minutes or so, they got to the juicy part of actually refunding the money to the customer. He punched "no charge" on the cash register and started counting out eight hundred dollars with twenty dollar bills. Paul began to salivate; he had paid for the printer on a credit card, and the bill wasn't due for another thirty days. Fry's was going to give him a fat interest-free loan.

After some strenuous finger-and-toe numerics, the clerk called for the senior manager again. The problem: he was out of twenty dollar bills, could he get more from the safe? The manager almost slapped the clerk across the room. The twenties were replaced and Paul's card was credited the amount.

How to get kick ass service at Fry's

or, how to get your ass kicked at Fry's

When I first started getting photographs for this article, I definitely wanted to get some from the inside of each store. I knew that Fry's wouldn't give me the grand tour while I snapped away like Peter Parker, so I decided up front to do it discreetly, 007-style.

As a side note, when Fry's really gets busy, the cash registers in full swing, one of the the employees will stand at the head of the line on top of a footstool and direct people in line to free checkouts. This was my undoing.

I moved around the store, taking some inside shots of the displays and crowds. I was taking a picture of a monstrous checkout line, when I look up from the viewfinder to see the clerk looking down towards me. He motioned to one of the pit bosses and yelled something about me taking pictures.

Weird Stuff
The legendary Weird Stuff, located directly across the street from Fry's in Sunnyvale, gets the overflow customers. No porn, no candy, no beat-up Taiwanese clones demoing the latest games ... it's literally a large warehouse filled with crap that at one time or another was leading edge. Most interesting find: Software Developer's Kit for IBM's TopView, which was a mid-Eighties piss-poor "multitasking" window-type thingy that really sucked. Weird Stuff's price: ten dollars. Runner-up: an original NeXT monitor, sans black cube and keyboard.

Which was my cue to melt into the crowd of shoppers. I stuffed my camera into my jacket pocket and made a beeline towards the financial software. I weaved up one aisle, made a U-turn and strolled back down an adjacent aisle.

My intention was to make it to the exit and get out alive. Not ten feet from the cavity check station, I get a hand on my shoulder. I turned around face-to-face with a rather large clerk.

"Taking pictures is prohibited in the store."

I shrugged. "Okay, I'll stop."

"I'm afraid you'll have to give us the film. We'll develop it and return the prints and negatives to you, after we've removed the ones of the inside of the store."

Stunned. I thought he was kidding. His hand was still on my shoulder, and I began to vaguely remember something about unwarranted contact being considered assault. He wasn't hurting me, but he wasn't letting go either. So I said "Look, you goddamn peon, I'll take whatever pictures I feel like and there isn't squat you or the owners of this shithole can do about it!" Funny enough, it squeaked out more like "Okay, here's the camera."

Well, I didn't give in that quickly, but the oaf wasn't going to let me leave easily, and within a minute two more guys were over, surrounding me. Seemed a lot of fuss over a couple of snapshots. (What's more, I wasn't using a flash, and some other pictures I took indoors turned out like burnt toast. As you can tell, my day job isn't taking photographs.) I was using a disposable camera, so I just gave them mine for a new one off their shelf. I left a little flustered, swearing I would never shop there again ... you know how that goes.

Afterwards, I realized I had seen Fry's in a completely new light. Never have so many clerks come to the attention of one customer in such a phenomenally short amount of time. The first one to "help" me was actually out of breath a little bit. If Fry's could even take half that energy and attentiveness, and re-direct it towards a positive service experience, their past sins could be forgiven.

And what's the deal with taking pictures in the store? The interiors of each store kinda-sorta-not-really match their exterior themes. For example, the Egyptian Fry's has hieroglyphics on the walls and sarcophaguses holding their demo machines. You'd think with all that ornamentation, they'd want people to take pictures and show their relatives, or put into their family albums, or even put up on a Web page dedicated to listing all the stupid crap that goes on inside their hallowed aisleways.

My guess is that they're afraid of some Johnnie Cochran-type filing a class action suit on piss-poor service on behalf of the entire Bay Area against Fry's.

It seems to me the secret to getting good service at Fry's is to get their attention. Taking photographs seems to do that pretty well. So, try this the next time you can't get any help. Start walking around with an empty camera snapping the shutter. When they pounce, open the camera, show that there's no film, and before they walk off in disgust, grab them by the shoulder (they seem to like that, it conveys concern) and get your business taken care of.

Better yet, once you've gone through a roll of film, keep it in the camera and do the shutterbug inside of Fry's. When they pounce, feign disgruntlement but comply. They'll find no pictures of the store, but you'll have your vacation snapshots professionally developed by Fry's, free of charge.

The Las Vegas School of Business

or, Screw Thy Neighbor Inc.

The metaphors about Fry's have really been flying, and I can see that I'm painting a pretty convoluted picture. What is this institution called "Fry's"? Is it a new Disneyland, only with more stuff to sell and less stuff to ride? Is it a new economic model, a capitalist-communist state with eager consumers standing in line with desensitized shitty grins across their face? Is it an S&M factory, where purchased pleasure is met with the mandatory punishment of an anal examination? In short, what the hell is going on?

It almost seems like one of Dante's planes of hell, where people just can't stand all the crap around them and yet crave more and more of it. What I finally stumbled across while working on this article was the ultimate metaphor.

Las Vegas.

The gambling capital of the world simply must have been the inspiration for Fry's business style.

Consider the management structure. Its incredibly flat. You've got the floor clerks, the dodos you have to deal with every time you walk in their door. These are the dealers, the people you're stuck having to deal with. Directly above them are the pit bosses. Every "section" of Fry's has a little wooden podium, furnished with a direct-line phone, computer terminal, and a picture of the oaf running the floor ("Your Helpful Fry's Floor Manager for Today: Gomer").

Have you ever dealt directly with the pit boss in Vegas or Atlantic City? Probably not, unless you were using a Newton to count cards or pulling dice out of your pocket. At Fry's the same holds true; you don't deal with these people. They stand and observe. They don't even direct, because there is nothing to direct. (Direction implies a plan and motivation, and there is neither under the Fry's big top.) After the pit bosses, well, I'm not sure, but I would bet a dollar that there is maybe one more layer of management before you make it to the store manager.

Palo Alto storefront
Fry's in Palo Alto delivers a Wild West motif ... its about as convincing as that Star Trek episode in the Old West where the buildings had no walls. This fabricated OK Corral is actually located in -- you guessed it -- a large warehouse. Check out the guy next to the wagon wheel staring into the camera like it was a set of headlights. Better yet, check out the sporty Jaguar (with personalized license plate) enjoying the handicapped parking.

Of course, there are different kinds of floor clerks, just like there are different kinds of dealers. You've got your basic Blackjack dealers. Lots of them, easily trained, easily fired. These guys stock the racks and mope around the floor at Fry's. 

You've got the roulette dealers, which is a pretty casual job. Spin the wheel, launch the ball, and when it clicks into place scoop up the money. Its tough to make a fair comparison to that at Fry's, because while the Fryheads screw around, there is no "relaxing" place inside of Fry's ... except back where the integrated computer systems are sold. A hundred or so computer systems set up, running games and demonstrations. Walk up and fuck with the mouse a bit and a salesperson will glide up: "help you with anything?" Shake your head "no", and they glide away. Totally non-intrusive, totally mellowed compared to the rat's den everywhere else in the store.

But when a sale comes through and someone decides to sign on the dotted line, they're scooping up the money, as if the little white ball just sunk itself into the double-zero cup.

Move on back into the stereo and television department and be sucked into a python pit. I swear Fry's hires sales guys away from used car lots and installs them in the consumer electronic department. You come in and kick the tires, they won't let you leave until you've bought the car, all its accessories, and a comprehensive warranty plan.

Its the only place in the store that's pitch-black dark, which amplifies the quality of the television picture while hiding price tags and warranty information. It is the backroom poker pits of Vegas and elsewhere. You don't go back there unless you want to play. No one enters just to look around, and you certainly don't go in unless you're ready to play hardball.

And when its time to grub down, Frys has the cheapest deals on junk food and drinks for miles around ... almost as complete as the $2.95 buffet you can find anywhere anytime in the gambling capital.

Of course, Las Vegas has been spending inordinate amounts of cash to improve the quality and variety of attractions on the Strip. Camelot, Circus Circus, Caesars', all hotel/casinos using specific themes to get you out of your car and into their domain spending your hard-earned cash. They've even completed Luxor, an Egyptian pyramid ... sound familiar?

And the casinos positively do not allow people to take pictures, movies, or recordings of any kind. When you break that rule, you're face-to-face with the pit bosses. Thank god I've never had that kind of run-in.

They even treat their employees with disdain and suspicion. I found out recently that the cavity check station isn't to prevent shoplifting. Its to prevent employee fraud. For example, I might "buy" a $400 Walkman, but my friend behind the counter rings me up for a Snickers. For fifty cents I've got myself a pretty killer deal. Well, Fry's won't let that happen, and they have no qualms inconveniencing the customer in the process.

Ever notice that, when a dealer is done dealing cards and is going to let a fresh dealer take over, they set down the cards and turn their palms over to show the overhead cameras nothing's up? They do that at Fry's as well; when clerks are leaving for a break, they'll lift up their arms as they exit, so the cavity check person knows they're not walking out with a Pentium multimedia system. Friggin' insane.

Quickie marriage licenses are now available in the cellular phone aisle. Elvis impersonators are starting to roost in the Ethernet section. They had to kick them all out to make room for Frank Sinatra's concert next week.

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Ad Nauseam / http://www.crl.com/~jnelson/nauseam/
Jim Nelson / jnelson@crl.com
All original text, photography, and artwork 1995-96 Jim Nelson.
Duplication permitted only if this copyright notice is present on reproductions.