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Have PC retailers lost the will to live?

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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?

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