It’s really no surprise since people have been avoiding crowds and turned to online shopping to get what they needed. That’s why so many chains have been trying to find ways to update their services and options in the wake of people’s fears of infection and government regulation.
But while the pandemic has been a common factor in these closures, for one chain, it was hardly the defining one.
Chances are you know of Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the world. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, it now operates under many names and subsidiaries like the titular Kroger, Ralphs, Harris Teeter, Fred Meyer, and more.
One of them is Fry’s, which first opened in 1954. The founder, Charles Fry, expanded and eventually sold off his supermarket chain. He gave his sons part of the proceeds, and the oldest son convinced his younger brothers and his former girlfriend to team up with him and launch a grocery store-electronics store hybrid in 1985 in Silicon Valley.
These were roughly Walmart-size electronics stores and warehouses with added “theme park” flair like a McDonald’s, daycare, and concert area. Fry’s Electronics stores also usually included themes like space, sports, history, or transportation.
That brick-and-mortar store versus online name disconnect was often confusing, particular since they were an electronics store and even sold dial-up Internet service at one point, but that was far from Fry’s Electronics only bump in the road over the years. This article from Forbes in 1997 described how the retailer hired regular people over experts, heavily policed its stores, discouraged issuing refunds, and otherwise brushed off complaints and criticisms from workers and shoppers alike. “A democracy Fry’s is not,” the article says, and a manager told Forbes, “Ethics is not a word in Fry’s vocabulary, nor will it ever be.”
There are plenty of accounts from around the web Fry’s let people open things on the floor and then just close up the box, or they put out returned items without much — if any — inspection; then other unsuspecting customers would be in for a surprise when their new item was, in fact, not new.
The chain was sued in 2003 by several celebrities over use of their image in Fry’s advertisements, and again in 2013 by the US government alleging a sexual harassment cover-up. In 2008, a vice president of Fry’s Electronics was arrested for embezzling more than $65 million from Fry’s and its vendors, to which he pled guilty and was handed a six-year sentence.
But in fall 2019, shoppers started noticing shelves were looking more than a little bare, but Fry’s denied it was closing down to local and national media. Fry’s Electronics attributed a lack of product to their switching to a consignment model and claimed it would have restocked stores in a few weeks.
Plenty of chains operate on a consignment model, which means that a store doesn’t pay for merchandise that doesn’t sell and can just send it back, but this also means you have to get manufacturers to agree to do this instead of demanding payment upfront.
A few more locations closed in 2020, but otherwise, Fry’s Electronics was chugging along.
Then, late on February 23rd, reports emerged Fry’s Electronics would be closing as of the next day and shutting down its website. This was later confirmed both by news organizations and the company itself. Their website states Fry’s Electronics “made the difficult decision to shut down its operations and close its business permanently as a result of changes in the retail industry and the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.” It also provides contact information for customers and vendors who have questions.
Again, if you browse pictures on the Internet or various YouTube videos, it’s hardly a surprise the chain is closing down. It probably lasted a little longer than people initially thought considering all the bare shelves back in 2019. This also isn’t without precedent, as at least two locations have shut down overnight before within the past year or so.
And, as The Verge pointed out, in April 2020, a proposal was submitted to build a tech campus where Fry’s corporate headquarters (and a store/warehouse) was currently at. So the writing was clearly on the wall. Seems like the best store late in the game was the Las Vegas branch, although it may be because the chain wanted to make the store look good since that’s where the big tech expo, CES, takes place.
With only about 35 stores nationwide over the years and being limited to less than a dozen states, Fry’s Electronics’ closure may not be the biggest news of its type recently. But still, some anime fans recall fond memories of buying DVDs and sets at their local store and missing their great selection.
I loved Frys growing up, it was always a huge treat to binge on anime, records, headphones, video games, and my favorite banana milkshake at their small cafe. The last year at frys was really depressing. I want to share some pics of my local frys which was Atlantis themed! Thread— 𝖘𝖆𝖋𝖞𝖗𝖊 (@hamburgerhelpur) February 24, 2021
Fry’s was the first store I was able to buy anime DVDs at when I was a kid that wasn’t Amazon or some creepy shop in downtown Dallas. I have fond memories of visiting it with my Dad. Sad to see it go.— Kelsey Norden (@Mirakelsey) February 24, 2021
As a person who worked at Fry's decade and some change. It's not surprising. They never got their websites up to par. Bit man did it have an amazing anime collection back then!— Rory Jones (@MakenXsoul) February 24, 2021
RIP Fry's Electronics 😭
Always enjoyed getting space food and anime there when I was younger
Such a surprise to read the news this morning about this. I have many fond memories of taking road trips to the one here in Oregon and buying anime box sets on DVD. Fry’s selection back in the day was unprecedented. Sad times, indeed. pic.twitter.com/JYRFVewzlD— MonumentousKyle (@MonumentousKyle) February 24, 2021
Oof. Damn, Fry's was one of my best sources for anime for YEARS. (Not to mention nabbing various and sundry computer parts, peripherals, etc.) https://t.co/tGHFGKuZIg— Michelle Travis (@Samuraiko) February 24, 2021
I had never been to one personally, but I had been envious of some of the deals I had seen there. Plus the stores look so cool. I had ordered from them a few times. Fry’s was featured in a few of my deal roundups over the years. The last time I mentioned them was Valentine’s 2020, as they were having an anime sale blowout.
At the time, I, like most people, didn’t believe they were suddenly going to pack their (online or brick-and-mortar) stores, even though this was very early in the pandemic before supply chains really got disrupted. I don’t think I expected them to shut down completely at that point; I believed they were going to limit their products to things like computers and/or switch to an online-only model in the vein of TigerDirect. I guess there’s still a chance the owners could sell off assets, but I doubt it. And since they were operating on a consignment model, they don’t have much to liquidate besides fixtures and any pre-2019-ish merchandise. Those will probably end up in the hands of either a pallet-selling company or in Big Lots-type stores.
It is unfortunate employees (and customers) received no notice, but again, it’s not as if their struggles weren’t obvious. The pandemic was probably the final nail in the coffin, but I doubt Fry’s Electronics would have continued much longer regardless. To have spent years with a website that isn’t directly based on your company’s name is just poor business. But it sounds like the chain has had a history of poor business practices, ones that can’t be just attributed to the fact unhappy customers are more likely to talk than happy ones or the occasional bad apple store.
Still, like so many other 80s and 90s icons, this marks the end of an era. Fry’s Electronics may have had its issues, but the stores certainly looked and seemed like a cool place to hang out in the day. Even though its end was probably inevitable, to see the number of tech- and geek-related stores go down is never a good thing even though everything is available online.