The Fry’s Era – Monday Note

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Throughout the 90’s and aughts, Fry’s Electronics was a Silicon Valley institution, a truly aboriginal techie bazaar where geeks could find everything they needed to live in autarky, from logic boards to voltmeters, dried noodles to “nice” clothes for a job interview, magazines, energy bars, mini-fridges… A quarter century later, Fry’s stores have become sad, pale shadows of their glorious past.

“Jean-Louis? You work here?”

It’s Spring 1991. A startled Apple employee finds me behind a cash register at the huge Fry’s Electronics store in Sunnyvale.

“Well, you know…I just got fired…have to make ends meet.”

I’d been working as a cashier at Fry’s for about two weeks, during which time I startled a number of ex-colleagues. But I wasn’t there out of necessity; I was driven by curiosity and genuine pleasure: I’ve always loved retail, and it loved me back.

My “release” from Apple had been a noisy affair that attracted the attention of John Fry, one of the founders (with other family members) of the eponymous Fry’s Electronics. We meet and quite literally talk shop. I tell tales of Apple France, how the benevolent laissez-faire of an otherwise preoccupied senior management gives my unusually capable team the freedom to take care of Apple retailers in creative and effective ways. Our retail marketing and distribution organization quickly becomes the most prosperous outside the US. (More than three decades later, I still get hugs, a relative French rarity, from surviving independent retailers.)

After a few such exchanges, John wonders aloud if I ought to open a Fry’s business in France. I explain that I’m putting together my own startup here in the Valley…but I’d be happy to work at one of his stores while our product is still gestating and fund raising tribulations are yet to start. John smiles and offers to take me on as a cashier at the newly opened Sunnyvale store.

My stint at Fry’s increases my respect for John’s business. Details are meticulously planned and executed, down to the proper way to stack banknotes. Employees are trained in the delicate art of watching for suspicious transactions, how to diffuse the situation when some poor lost soul tries to use a stolen credit card to pay for small, expensive articles such as cordless phones, easily traded for substances.

Besides its unusual product mix and the customers it attracted, Fry’s had an unusual (and occasionally controversial) return policy. I personally witnessed a customer service person help a customer return a GPS device. No receipt? What else did you get with that purchase? Gum? The computer finds the transaction, prints a copy of the missing receipt, and the purchase is refunded, much to the surprise of the visiting French customer. Try that in Paris…

Over the next 20 years, Fry’s becomes a phenomenon. Store openings around the Valley, into Southern California, and across the country are media events, each outlet with a particular theme ranging from Ancient Rome (Fountain Valley) to Live Music (Austin), to the Old West (Palo Alto). Going to a Fry’s store is entertainment in itself; for a geek, it could be recuperative. Straight out of Stanford Hospital where surgeons had stitched my carotid artery in 1993, I asked my spouse to take me to Fry’s for a refreshing breath of logic board smell. People I knew did a double take when they saw me, disheveled with Frankenstein metal clips holding the scar on my neck.

But that was a long time ago.

A couple of weeks back, I went to the Palo Alto Fry’s to buy a Microsoft mouse for my 11” iPad Pro (as recounted in the July 21st Monday Note). First surprise, the store that I expected to be active at 8am for its hard-working tech clientèle didn’t open its doors until 10. Worse, what this lover of retail saw inside the store was frightening: bare and half-empty shelves. In the trade, this is a non-no. A store must radiate a happy image of abundance, not one of sad poverty.

A little later, I saw stories in the local press about the upcoming closing of Palo Alto’s Fry’s. I visited the Sunnyvale store where I once worked; it has fared no better: Empty parking lot, empty shelves, bored employees, two customers. The Palo Alto store is no accident, Fry’s has been in serious decline for a while.

What happened? Amazon.

Fry’s rose to its stellar success because it understood and served the tech population. Amazon now does the same job for an enormously broader population and offers a much richer assortment of choices. Type “voltmeter” in Amazon’s search field and you’ll see Fry’s beaten at every rung of the price scale, from $11.88 to hundreds for truly professional Fluke instruments.

There’s another, smaller factor at work: smartphones are the new PCs. An exaggeration, but not by much. Much of the time we used to spend with our PCs a couple of decades ago is now spent with our pocket supercomputers. Some of us, yours truly included, liked to assemble their own PC from parts; no such joy with a smartphone. The shift from PCs to smartphones hasn’t helped Fry’s business.

In the meantime, John Fry was never just about business success. When he saw I had an early edition of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, he opened a safe in his office and showed his collection of original letters from Georg Ohm to Einstein. He told me of his plans to found an American Institute of Mathematics which he wanted to house in a replica of Granada’s Alhambra palace. John hosted a reception at Stanford for Andrew Wiles, best known for finally proving Fermat’s Last Theorem.

About 20 years ago, John took me to visit Dr Amar Bose, founder of the eponymous company in Framingham. After briefly mistaking us for a couple of boring Bose retailers he had to glad-hand, Dr. Bose realized that this was the John Fry, who’s interest in mathematics preceded him. Bose cleared his calendar for the day and took us through a detailed visit of his labs and demos of the technologies he was working on — including suspension development for a German automaker. There were other such trips, including an amusing episode in Tokyo’s Akihabara, a city district best known for its delirious dedication to all forms of electronic vices.

The affectionate memories still glow.

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