Have PC retailers lost the will to live?

Have PC retailers lost the will to live?

Summary: Retail isn't necessarily dying, but electronics and PC retailers don't seem to be willing to bring their "A" game. Other segments of the retail market are knocking it out of the park, but it does sometimes seem like PC retailers have lost their will to live.


You may not know it, but I've known ZDNet bloggers Jason Perlow and Denise Amrich each for almost 20 years. They're also the only two people with whom I ever regularly lose arguments. So, when I had a chance to watch them face off in the latest ZDNet Great Debate, Has e-commerce killed the shopping mall?, I had to watch.

I'm not going to tell you who I think won the debate, because both of their arguments were excellent. Instead, I'm going to recount a short example of a retail visit I did recently, which brought to mind the title of this article: have PC retailers lost the will to live?

Last week, I had the occasion to visit one of my town's local big box office supply stores. I'm not going to tell you its name, except that it partially rhymes with "Home Depot", was not a Mitt Romney investment, and doesn't end in a word sounding like a plurality of Apple computers.

So I walked into this store. I can't remember exactly what I was there for, but I do remember I wasn't going to get to go to the steak restaurant next on the agenda until after I completed this retail visit.

As I walked in, an aisle of screens caught my eye. Sadly, they didn't catch my eye because the display was engaging or exciting, or there was a large array of new technology. Oh, no.

They caught my eye because there was an entire aisle of blue screens:


At first, I thought all these monitors were showing the dreaded Blue Screen of Death. They were, but not the BSOD we're all familiar with. Instead, they were all showing this blue "Activate" screen:


It was disturbing. No one had bothered to hook these things up right, and rather than even just keep the monitors off, they left them on, blue, sad, and clearly untended.

It was clear no one working in the store cared.

The store did stock a pile of tablets and laptops. Many of the laptops were powered up, but their clam shells were all at different angles, and it looked like they hadn't been attended to since the day Windows 8 launched.

The tablets were worse. There was half an aisle of nice, shiny, black sushi trays. All the tablets were off. If you read the shelf talkers, you'd see that some were Android tablets and there was even a Windows 8 RT tablet in there, but since they were all powered off, they looked like just so many polished stones.

This is an area where Microsoft needs to step up to the plate. There's an entire category of service organization that does nothing but go into stores on behalf of its clients, to make sure the shelves are stocked and the products are displayed prominently and competently. Clearly, Microsoft doesn't use such a service, otherwise all these monitors wouldn't appear to be running dead or incompletely installed copies of Windows.

I never did get what I wanted in the store, but I did witness a warranty struggle exactly like Denise described in her Great Debate.

The sales guy, who could barely be bothered to help until being virtually arm-twisted into fetching a tablet from stock, couldn't control himself when it came to selling the warranty.

After the purchaser said "no," he followed her. She politely said no again. He then described the risks of what would happen if she actually used the tablet. He went so far out of his way to tell her how bad things could get if she bought the tablet -- all in service of trying to hawk a warranty plan -- that he came close to making the case that it was better to simply not buy the tablet.

I couldn't help but think that buying a two-year warranty from this chain was risky. After seeing the aisle of blue death, I'm not entirely sure the chain will make it another two years.

I had that experience, by the way, with a large (very large) Sony TV I bought from Circuit City some years before Circuit City went out of business. I happened to actually buy Circuit City's extended warranty. My TV failed after the manufacturers' warranty had run out and into the term of the extended warranty. I found that Circuit City couldn't service the TV because, well, they were completely out of business.

Kudos go to Sony in that instance. I know we tend to badmouth the company, but Sony stepped up and completely repaired my TV, even though it was well out of their original warranty. I'm quite persuasive, but even so, it was a pretty upstanding thing to do and definitely convinced me that I will buy some Sony products in the future. There's a customer service lesson for you, right there!

In any case, back to the debate. Denise makes a strong point when she separates out retailers we geeks would frequent from those of interest to the general public.

My wife likes to frequent craft stores, and the few times I've been stranded inside one waiting for her, I've noticed that these places are a hotbed of activity. Although the displays are sometimes less than well maintained, it's clear that's because a whole pile of crazed crafters swarmed over them during some sale, rather than because the displays were neglected and unloved.

These stores even sell electronics, in the form of high-ticket sewing machines and all sorts of other geegaws that crafters apparently need. They offer classes on a wide array of crafts, and even offer owners' classes on how to use the $400 sewing machines they sell.

Now, overlay that sort of activity on the office reseller I discussed. Other than stalking the Nexus 7 shopper for her extended warranty, and offering what seemed almost like New Jersey style protection -- "Something, you know, like, baaad, might happen to you, I mean it, if you don't pay us to watch out for you. Are you gettin' my drift here?" -- no other services were offered.

Okay, to be fair, that's not a direct quote. But it did almost seem like a scene out of the Sopranos, even to the point of the sales guy knocking over the Nexus box "accidentally" to prove his point.

Now, compare that to the craft store. Can you imagine an office supply store offering an owner's class for the Nexus 7? The buyer clearly wanted a Nexus 7, but also admitted upfront that she was new to Android.

One of the quilting stores my wife shops in offers a "Foot of the Month" class, where they sell customers one specific sewing machine foot (an add-on accessory that does a certain kind of stitch). And then they offer a class (which they charge for) teaching about it. These classes become not only a draw to the store, but another stream of income. Plus, I've rarely seen my wife come home from one of these things without a few, you know, "extra" purchases.

How many people could an electronics retailer bring in each month teaching about how to use a carefully-selected app for those tablets? What about classes in favorite apps? Or an App of the Month class?

The point is, retail is not dying. Far from it. Those craft stores and quilting stores and classes and aisles packed with throngs of customers during sales prove it. It's just that the sector we geeks visit seems to have lost the will to live. Electronics and PC retailers -- and the vendors that sell through them -- don't appear to be willing to invest any level of attention in actually providing a retail experience.

WIth such poor retail experiences in electronics, is it any surprise many of us buy online? But that's not because online is winning. That's because electronics retailers are lazy. They could do what the craft stores do, they could create excitement among their customers. People love these little electronic things. But PC and electronics retailers aren't even trying, and so they're going out of business, one-by-one. I doubt the office products store I visited will be there next year, but that's not because "retail" as a concept is failing, it's because that retailer isn't "bringing it".

Oh, one more thing: if you happen to operate a craft store or a woman's clothing store, could you at least set aside a small corner of your store with a snack machine, an Xbox, and a comfy chair? We husbands would be far more comfortable.

Rather than constantly complaining about having to be in your store, we'd be much better behaved and let our wives shop a lot longer if only we had something to keep us out of trouble. Seriously, throw us a bone here, okay?

Topics: Great debate, Microsoft


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • What comes to my mind ...

    More often than not potential customers enter the store play around with the device, ask the salesperson a few questions (or simply start a mindless debate about a feature ...) and then ask for the same price as they have found on the internet.

    Unfortunately (for the stores) customers are much more informed about features than in the pre-internet area making it hard for an averagely trained salesman to talk the customer into a buy.

    I agree that shops have to be more active, attractive and enticing since competing against lowest possible pricing on the internet is not possible.
    • For the Technically Savy this is true

      But the vast majority of consumers are not that well informed. Should a retailer start offering classes, and the like for their electronics it would change the game. Take for example my local Barnes and Noble, they have regular Nook gatherings, and many of the non-techies who enjoy the e-reader tablets love these things. Tasks we as techno geeks take for granted are marvelous wonders to these people.

      There's a market for hand holding, but geeks tend to be a bit on the hard edge and think everyone already knows this stuff. When the reality is that few people know anything.
      • No tech savy guys would work in a shop

        They get much higher pay from real IT jobs so you are left w/ people not knowing in these stores. It's been that way always.
        • not unless you try to find some

          how about high school kids and tech pro retirees?
        • If only there were some way to fix that

          I am sure that if they offered better wages, they would have a much broader and deeper pool of potential workers who would go along with it.
          Third of Five
        • @LBiege "No tech savy guys would work in a shop"

          Depends on your definition of "tech savvy".

          This is almost a "here we go again" moment.

          I think there is at minimum, three different levels of technologically aware people. And if using only those three levels, the continuum within each is admittedly fairly broad in the least.

          The IT professional. This in fact is the actual kind of "tech savvy" person who would not work in a shop. They are not just "tech savvy", they are well educated in IT and even at the lowest end of being an IT professional they are actual experts compared to the non-tech savvy.

          The Tech-savvy. This is quite a broad group. It may well include those who are very close to being IT professionals, perhaps not quite finished their education or even individuals who are self taught about a vast number of tech issues that have put a great deal of time into their self education and have taken it very seriously, all the way down to people who are clearly not at all IT professionals in any shape or form but keep well abreast of current technology, and know quite a bit about most of the common modern gadgets and computers and software in a general sense.

          The non-tech-savvy. These kind of people who at the high end may well know about many products generally, very generally and about some of the minor idiosyncrasies of IT generally but may often get things wrong and know very little to nothing about any real details about many current products or IT generally, all the way down to where the vast majority of the public are, which is someplace between someone who simply knows what a smartphone, a tablet and a computer are and may own all three and how to use them, but has little clue about what makes them work, what any components are, what software actually operates them or what to do if something goes wrong, to the very bottom of the heap that actually donst have a clue about any of it at all and either simply doesn’t own any significant device of any kind or may even shun a lot of modern tech for their own reasons.

          Because of the fact that most IT professionals would seldom if ever be the kind of individual who would be spending time around a lot of people anywhere near the bottom of the non-tech-savvy heap, its obviously difficult for most IT professionals to understand just how many non-tech-savvy there really are near the middle to the bottom on the non-tech-savvy heap. While admittedly, those at the very bottom of the non-tech-savvy heap are getting to be a more rare and rare variety in the modern developed western world in particular, once you start looking around in the average world you soon find that there are in total, vast numbers of people who are in the non-tech-savvy group, just not that many at the very bottom.

          Its actually funny because I have met so many people I at first thought they were at least in the lower end of the tech-savvy group, until I realized my conversation with them was misleading because of their somewhat extended knowledge of a particular gadget type or brand. Its when for any reason you just happen to push the conversation a little off their track you suddenly see them looking at you like you have 3 heads and are talking in Klingon that you realize they have a very narrow and limited area they can speak intelligently on in IT matters. I was speaking to one guy about his new Android phone for example not so long ago and I started talking about cloud related issues and all he could say after a couple of minutes was “….uhhh…that sounds neat…”.

          I have now had some considerable time to really look at, and think about the way most people post here, and the way so many people who have no direct ties to the IT industry and know nobody directly tied to the IT industry look at and think about modern technology and IT. The divide is very often far more enormous, and among numbers far far more numerous then people who hang about ZDNet seem to know. This has clearly often lead to peculiarly poor predictions and understanding of what the public will do and to what degree they really care.

          For example, there are so many good ones, many here will absolutely castigate Windows Vista claiming everyone hated it and it was an abject failure. In the real world, most people just didn’t care that much. Either way. At all. Complaints for example were only ever present when there were indeed real issues, as in something actually really did go wrong because of Vista. At my company that meant a few complained for a very short while about minor UI changes. I do know of at least a couple companies that had in house software that broke initially and that generated complaints. Nobody complained at all after a while. That’s the real world.

          It was only the other day, due to some conversations here, I asked a couple of our people, non-tech-savvy people, what they really thought of Vista. Their answer, in the two or three people I spoke to were almost the same identically hilarious response, in one measure or another. Below is what the conversation generally went like! Ha!

          Them: “Vista? It was real bad wasn’t it. I heard some people wouldn’t even use it.”
          Me: “You used it.”

          Them: “…I did? When? When was that?”

          Me: “Remember about 2 years ago or so, give or take…?”

          Them: “Here?”

          Me: “Yes here, I don’t know what you use at home. Of course here.”

          Them: “When would that have been?”

          Me: “On the old computer you had, remember, you got the one you have now about 2 years ago…give or take?”

          Them: “Oh ya…right. Ya, it was around then. I guess it was alright. I didn’t have any problems with it. Why do people say it was so bad?”

          Me: “You complained when we first had it put on your old computer because it was a little different.”

          Them: “Ya, Vista,it was different wasn’t it, it was XP before. It was ok I guess. I got used to it. It wasn’t much different then what we have now from what I remember, we have….Windows 7 it is right?”

          Me: “Ya. Windows 7. That’s right.”

          That’s the kind of conversation you have with a non savvy that has a smartphone and uses a computer both at work and home every day. Its real life and they are out there by the millions making the world go round.
      • To : trumanp . . .

        Every Comp USA store on the map offered computer classes, often free with a purchase.

        The ONLY two things that will EVER lead to sustained retail success are : 1) A highly trained, informed, courteous, motivated and focused sales staff with a genuine interest in consumer satisfaction and 2) Never ending follow-up and excellent service from the company, NOT the salesperson.
      • Technically savvy

        That is true. Microsoft's product evolution is a case in point. Does anyone here remember the cryptic command structure of MS-DOS? Probably not. The latest variant of Windows is, as always, designed to take the user by the hand since "We know best what you need, even if you don't." As a computer user since the days of DOS 2.11, I've never been afraid to experiment even if it meant reloading an OS/software all over again. Now it is so convoluted in order to protect profits that it's more of a pain than its worth.
        • Yeah right

          MS can't leave good enough alone and has made controlling the windows system more cryptic with each release.

          I hate having to learn a whole new system of doing things every time MS sneezes. Now that I have figured out Win 7 administration, I am going to have to figure Win 8 which is suppose to be intuitive, but is probabably only so for MS programmers.

          Actually MS Dos is pretty simple. And at least in Windows XP all the help you need is in the help screen. I wouldn't go back to the old fashion text based days, but hand held GUI, isn't actually a reality any more.
        • When you buy a FORD....

          FORD is saying here, buy this, we know what you need.

          Unfortunatly, only for you and others like you, companies have to make products that are wanted by more than you and others like you.

          Unfortunatly for you, and others like you that means saying "We know best what you need, even if you don't.", because at that point they are no longer really talking to you anymore, just the hundreds of millions out there to who the point accuratly applies to.

          Look, Ive tried Linux in the past. Its pretty good, and from what I understand likely much better today then when I tried it some 3 years ago. There are lots of different versions, free and applications for free that work great in Linux. Linux sounds a lot more like what would be good for you. You should give it a try.

          I like Windows a lot better myself, but for you Linux might do the trick.
    • Not always true

      I have walked into Costco, and they have all the TV's and computers up and running. If I have a question, they have a knowlegable person who can answer questions about the TV's and computers, even though I know Costco prices can be beaten online - I purchased the goods there because
      1: I get it right away
      2: There is someone to answer my questions
      3: I can return it no hassle (for 3 months anyway)
      4: Everything is nicely displayed and I can actually see the item working.
      5: The store is bright and cheery.
      I don't get that when I shop from Newegg.

      On the other hand, someone got me a Best Buy gift card, and the store was really sad. They used to be heavily stocked, now it seems like the items are sparsely arranged. There were folks around who asked at least twice if I needed help, so that wasn't bad, but with dim lights and the distance between goods, it made it look like there stuff available (even though there was) and the dim lights made it look dreary. They don't even have much of a movie section any more, so I couldn't even really buy a DVD. It is like the store has given up. I would rather go online, than walk into a Best Buy ever again. Maybe I'll sell the card on cardpool.
      • Something else to note

        If you need a person to help you get the super hard sell at Best Buy for an extended warantee. Costco, no pressure, but they have a display of reasonable priced warantees that even cover other stores purchases if you buy it.

        I hate the hard sell. I remember about 12 years ago I was going to purchase a $550 26" TV at Best Buy and the guy was talking up the warantee so much - and trying to confuse me. I still remember - these new TV's are made out of silicone, and if the silicone breaks your in trouble. Silicone? Did he mean silicon? Oh well it was strange enough where I said forget it, and we went to Sears instead, found the same TV for $100 less. After nine years the TV did need one repair – because it was moved so much cross country, one of the magnets in the back fell off (I suppose it was made from silicon) $50 and it was fixed.
  • Blind leading the blind

    So... non-tech-savvy people selling tech to non-tech-savvy people?

    That's been pretty much the norm at Wal-mart, bestbuy, etc. for what?
    Ten years, if not longer?
    • The Circuit City Lesson

      I used to spend a fair amount of money at our local Circuit City. For routine stuff it was faster and simpler than ordering from some Internet firm, plus I got to browse the shelves.

      But, they lost my business long before they closed. (In fact, they became so irrelevant to me that I didn't know they'd closed until I saw ads for the business that took over their vacant storefront.)

      First, they fired their more senior sales staff -- including the folk who could explain to me the correct cabling to add a second hard disk to my PC. (If it matters, I'm a data and software geek, not a hardware type.) The remaining junior staff could barely read the box label enough to pull what I needed from the storeroom.

      Then, they fired half the remaining staff. Shelves weren't getting stocked, and I could never find anyone to check the storeroom. The staff you could find knew their days were numbered, and they could have cared less about a customer's experience.

      This store at least committed a slow and lingering suicide. I suspect it wasn't the local manager's idea, but came from corporate. Cost-cutting through service reduction is like smoking crack -- a great rush, but your brain and body rots.
      • Radio Shack is interesting

        If you go to one in the Super mall, but if you go to one on a strip outlet and they usually hire old duffers who have been around, and are sometimes even retired EE's and can tell you about any project, about what connectors you need and everything.

        I am not sure how Tandy is doing with Radio Shack, but the non-mall ones are pretty good if you like to tinker and need some advice.
  • They never had much of a will to live

    In the first place. Hard to loose something you never had.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • Same story here in the UK

    It's pretty much the same here in the UK at our major PC retailers, it's definitely something Microsoft needs to tackle rather than leaving it up to the stores. It's not exactly a new phenomenon either. Those of you in the USA might not remember the Commodore Amiga, but it was very popular home computer here that often sold on the back of being a games machine that kids could do homework etc on too. Being a fan I remember going to one of the electrical retailers to see the new model, it was on display, showing a blue screen with the "insert floppy" animation. Next to it there were Sega and Nintendo machines running the demo software that the companies had provided.... couple years later Commodore went bankrupt (not solely due to this of course, but it didn't help).
    • Commodore

      I loved my Commodore 64. Learned to program on it at 7 years old. It basically started my career.

      I remember seeing the Amiga 500 at Software Etc. They had some demo running on it that looked amazing. Man I wanted that thing. My parents couldn't justify the cost for just a "gaming computer" though. (they also couldn't see the purpose/need for a mouse, and I was stuck using an Atari 2600 joystick in GEOS).

      Damn, now I feel old.
    • Grocery Stores

      It is quite interesting that at grocery stores, they stock the shelves very neatly. Part of the reason is that they make the poduct manufacturers pay for shelf space. Because they pay for the shelf space, the manufacturers send folks in to make sure that they get the "eye view" they paid for and make sure all the shelves are stocked appropriately and neatly and are displaying the new product more prominently, etc.

      Maybe the PC stores should try the same.

      There is one store that has improved immensly. Frys. It used to be hell shopping there, and even worse returning something, but we all went because they had everything. Now in addition to having everything, they have some of the best prices in town - will match Internet prices, have folks who will help if you need them but are not too pushy ...

      So it is possible with the right direction and motivation to turn a store around. Even with the minimal retail experience I had, if I were manager of a Best Buy or Office Depot, I would know that the computers and tablets should all be up and running, and not be password protected, or showing the screen of death, and would get on my employees to do something about it? Why do these managers with supposed years of experience not understand this?
  • too familiar

    I had a similar experience several years ago at a big box electronics (not office supply) store. I was there to buy an inexpensive TV, which someone had to get out of stock. There was almost zero interest in helping me even get the TV. But boy were they eager to sell me the extended warranty. When I said "no", the guy was gone, no offer even to help me get a cart to get the thing to the checkout.