In the age of Amazon, and the get-what-you-want-now mentality of online shopping, there are certainly still plenty of people who seek out a brick-and-mortar retail experience. Stocking shelves and staffing locations might be considered a key component to keeping those customers coming back.
At Fry’s Electronics, the big-box chain with a single Washington location south of Seattle in Renton, the cavernous store looks like it’s days away from going out of business. Display shelves are bare across departments, from personal computers to office furniture to software and beyond.
Founded in 1985 in Sunnyvale, Calif., Fry’s has been an electronics institution for decades, boasting on its website that it caters to the high-tech professional and sells more than 50,000 electronic items in its 34 stores, spread across nine states.
But visitors to various locations in California and elsewhere started to see what appeared to be signs of trouble, posting comments and images in online forums such as Yelp and The Layoff. “Fry’s has to be circling the drain,” one person wrote. “There was no way we felt comfortable purchasing something there as the store looks like it could close any day,” another said.
A video on the YouTube channel Retail Archaeology called out a similar situation in August at the Fry’s in Phoenix.
In September, VentureBeat reported on near-empty shelves in numerous stores, and theorized that competition with Amazon was taking its toll on the business. Despite the empty parking lots and empty store shelves, a spokesman for Fry’s told the website that closure is not imminent.
“We are in the process of re-ordering product and restocking shelves,” said Manuel Valerio, community relations manager for the company. “More product in all stores in next few weeks. Fry’s is not liquidating. And products ordered online are now shipped to customers directly from their local stores. Fry’s is not going out of business or closing any stores.”
Valerio added that one store is closing, in Palo Alto, Calif., in January, but that’s because of a lease expiration. GeekWire attempted to reach Valerio for comment on Tuesday, but did not hear back.
He told VentureBeat that Fry’s is “responding to the competitive retail market, and are working to deliver popular, in-demand products to our customers in a timely manner. Thus restructuring our inventory and staffing adjustments in order to be agile and prepared for upcoming holiday shopping.”
In Renton, the 152,000-square-foot Fry’s at 800 Garden Ave. N. opened in 2003 on the site of a former Boeing parking lot. The store was mostly empty on Tuesday afternoon. There were maybe a dozen cars in the massive parking lot, located across the blacktop expanse from a Lowe’s store. Just blocks away is Southport, an impressive development aimed at attracting tech companies, located next door to Boeing’s factory on the shores of Lake Washington.
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“We match internet prices,” read a giant banner hung on the front of the store.
Inside, the store looked every bit the part of what would be left if a giant tech company sold all of the same stuff online and delivered it to your house in a day or two.
Reviews online said the lack of customers and inventory was also evident on normally bustling weekend days. Red-shirted customer service reps were tough to find from one end of the store to another. A manager was too busy to talk to a reporter, and in a call to the store later, I was told the manager was at lunch.
Customer Marcel Townsel of Renton put a positive spin on the empty shelves. He was browsing the aisles while a friend he was with did some shopping. A Fry’s customer for about five years, he wasn’t looking for anything specific, and it was his opinion that the store shelves were so bare because stuff is selling so well.
Townsel said he does almost no internet shopping — “that was my late grandmother’s thing,” he said. He looked at a single $600 drone on a shelf where he said more were stocked just recently. He pointed out some high, empty shelving that he figured was being set up to get ready for more new merchandise.
“I want to get a 100-inch TV,” Townsel said happily as he walked past the home theater department.
Closer to the front of the store, Jordan Jones was thumbing through cables in the networking department. He drove about 30 minutes north from University Place near Tacoma, specifically to shop at Fry’s. A student, Jones buys used desktop PCs off sites like Craigslist and OfferUp, refurbishes them and resells them.
Holding an extension cable to power a CPU in a machine he was fixing, Jones called Fry’s “the last bastion of hardware shopping” and said the empty shelves were a scary sign for brick-and-mortar retail in general. “They used to have all these computer boxes stacked,” he said, waving his arm from floor to ceiling at scattered boxes on shelves nearby.
Jones was willing to use his time and gas to make the drive in heavy traffic because he said it’s a “crapshoot” with Amazon and whether what he’s looking for online will qualify for speedy Prime shipping.
“They save my ass if I can’t wait for shipping,” Jones said of Fry’s. Cable in hand, he headed toward a cafe situated in the center of the store. He wanted to get a coffee so he could avoid going to Starbucks nearby. The Fry’s cafe wasn’t staffed. “Guess it’s Starbucks,” Jones shrugged.
In the parking lot, a few customers came and went. A woman entering the store who declined to share her name said she was looking for a drone that she needed that day. She’d already tried Best Buy and figured she’d give the Renton Fry’s a shot.
“I’ll be surprised if they have it,” she said, when told that inventory was looking a little thin inside.