Doc / Punditry / Why I Shop at Fry's

Their sales people are clueless, their ads are tacky, their selection is only so-so. They don't take my preferred credit card, and they want to check your bags as you leave. So why do I continue to shop there? One little phrase: no questions asked.

Buying electronics, especially computers and peripherals, is a crapshoot. Computer manufacturers have gotten better, but when I bought my first PC (an XT clone) I'd guess that dead-on-arrival was more common than not. It took Fry's a week to get mine working, but fix it they did.

More recently, I needed a PCMCIA ethernet adapter for a Linux laptop -- this was back when a 486/75 was hot stuff, and Linux drivers weren't nearly as common as they are now. It took me three tries to find one that worked for me, but Fry's cheerfully let me keep trading until I found it. (It didn't hurt their bottom line that the third time I bought two cards from different manufacturers, both of which worked and both of which I kept. One is still in service.)

Fry's is well-known to Linux users in Silicon Valley: it's practically unheard-of for the packaging of a device to mention Linux at all, let alone tell you which distributions it works reliably with. The hardware compatibility lists are pretty good, but often out of date. Swapping is the only choice sometimes, and Fry's lets us do it.

They're also scrupulous (after getting much flak from unhappy customers) about labeling reshelved items. I've even bought some, knowing that they were quite possibly returned by someone like me. I also appreciate the honesty of their ads, which always list the in-store price (albeit in tiny type) next to the more enticing price after rebates.

Of course, loss-leader prices don't hurt, either. Last week I bought two 10/100 ethernet cards for $1.99 each, and I never pay more than $100 for an IDE disk drive anymore. And even their everyday prices are pretty darned good -- you may do a little better with mail-order, but you can't have a drive go out on a Sunday evening and have a mail-order replacement up and running an hour later. And by the time you add shipping, Fry's can look pretty good. I made that mistake with a UPS once: the blowout price was fantastic, but storage batteries have lead in them...

Fry's gets me into the store with low prices, then walks me past piles of enticing goodies that I sometimes buy from. But they keep me coming back with their honest ads and their ``customer is always right'' return policy. If you're planning to go into retail, it's good to keep these things in mind. The Internet Age has changed a great many things, but the benefits of dealing fairly with your customers aren't among them.

Inspired by a recent column in the San Jose Mercury.

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Stephen R. Savitzky <steve @>