An insider’s account of the fall of Radio Shack

When I heard Radio Shack was going to be open on Thanksgiving day, I wondered why they would bother. The few Radio Shack stores near me are deserted on normal days, so I didn’t know why anyone would take time out of Thanksgiving Day to go to Radio Shack.

Based on this sad account from an employee who spent hard time working at Radio Shack, I was probably even more right than I thought. The first story, from Black Friday 2004, tells the tale of a store that, when all was said and done, probably lost money on Black Friday. And this was in an era when tech blogs would say, “Believe it or not, there are worse places to be at 6am on Black Friday than Radio Shack.”

I’m not sure anybody believes it now. Read more

Remembering Dolgin’s

Growing up in Missouri, a lot of my Christmas gifts when I was young came from a catalog showroom called Dolgin’s. One of my earliest memories is going to Dolgin’s with my mom and aunt, who showed me some Tonka trucks and asked me which ones I liked best.

I know a lot of people remember going through Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs, but I remember Dolgin’s catalogs the best. Read more

Best Buy has one foot in the grave?

In a highly publicized article, Forbes argues that Best Buy is not long for this world.

I can’t disagree with any individual point in the article. Some of the problems Larry Downes identifies existed when I worked there in the early 1990s–I’d spare you the joke about being young, naive, and needing the money, but it’s too late now–but in the 1990s they could get away with that, sort of, because there were competitors who tried to get away with worse.

Sears/Kmart is a favorite whipping boy, but they have one very big thing up on the land of the blue shirts. I can make a five-minute trip to Sears or Kmart–particularly Sears Hardware–to pick up a couple of things, and I do so fairly frequently. I tried a couple of weeks ago to do that at Best Buy, and, like the author said, calling it a miserable experience is putting it mildly. Read more

Rest in pieces, Borders

The Borders at my local mall is closing today. I’ll miss it.

I still remember when the store was being prepared. It was around the time I got married. My then-pastor said he was really looking forward to it opening. While his wife and his daughters shopped, he could hang out in there. I agreed with him. Nearly every time I went to the mall, I would sneak over to Borders for a while.
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The $189 window myth

The other house had problems with its windows. Multiple problems. The inspector recommended not messing around and just replacing all of them. The realtor suggested using “one of those $189 places.” He didn’t recommend a specific one. I ended up learning about the $189 window myth.

Read more

Why I generally buy AMD

I was talking to a new coworker today and of course the topic of our first PCs came up. It was Cyrix-based. I didn’t mention my first PC (it seems I’m about four years older–it was an Am486SX2/66).

With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve always bought non-Intel PCs. Most of the Intel PCs I have bought have been used. One boss once went so far as to call me anti-corporate.

I’m not so much anti-corporate as I am pro-competition.I was a second-generation AMD fanboy, not first. When the Am386DX/40 hit town, I was aware it was the best value in the industry, giving better performance than an Intel 486SX/25 for the price of an Intel 386DX/33, but I didn’t really care because I was still an Amiga guy at that point in time.

But that’s the reason I’m an AMD guy today. One of the reasons the computer market is so stagnant today is because it’s dominated by Microsoft. There’s nothing exciting going on there. There hasn’t been anything exciting coming out of Microsoft since the mid 1990s when they had to compete with OS/2. OS/2 never captured a huge amount of market share, but OS/2 promised to be a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows, and to a large extent it delivered. Say what you want about OS/2, but I could load Tony La Russa Baseball 2 up in a DOS Window under OS/2 and it would run faster than it ran under DOS, even though the game didn’t have the machine’s full attention. OS/2 2.1 (and later 3.0) had Microsoft running scared, because it ran all of the software that was available in the early 1990s and it ran it quickly, in a fully pre-emptive multitasking environment. Microsoft responded with Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 because it had to–Windows 3.1 just couldn’t compete with OS/2’s stability, and booting into DOS using a custom boot disk for every game they wanted to run wasn’t something the public was going to put up with forever.

And what’s happened since then? Windows 98 was basically a service pack, improving the stability of Windows 95 but not offering anything revolutionary. Windows 2000 was a lot better than NT 4.0 but not the kind of jump that Windows 95 was over 3.1. Windows XP did a lot to improve backward compatibility with old DOS and Windows 9x games, and while it was a big leap from Windows 98 or ME, it wasn’t a tremendous improvement over Windows 2000. I haven’t heard anyone say anything good about Vista. At least the Windows 95 box was pretty, but Vista doesn’t really even have that going for it.

Microsoft’s primary competition today is illegal copies of its own operating system, so its main concern with Vista is keeping people from making copies of it. And it shows.

Apple is trying to compete, but its market share is around 10 percent. We don’t exactly have a duopoly.

When I got interested in computers in the 1980s, there was all sorts of interesting stuff going on. IBM and DOS were things you used at work to do accounting. At home we used all these weird and wonderful 8-bit computers that were technically obsolete, but engineers kept figuring out how to squeeze more capability out of them. Revisionist historians talk about Apple dominating the 8-bit era, but that wasn’t true. At its peak, Commodore sold as many C-64s in a single year as Apple sold Apple IIs in that line’s entire lifetime. Although Commodore was the king of sales, Atari arguably had the best 8-bit computer (the 800/XE/XL family). Tandy had its Color Computer line, and while it couldn’t match the graphics and sound capability that Commodore and Atari had, it had a far more powerful CPU. Coleco’s Adam is little more than the butt of a joke today, but on paper it should have done well. Coleco took several chips that Texas Instruments had used in its failed TI-99/4A, paired them up with a more conventional CPU (the popular Zilog Z-80), and made a competitive computer with it. Its biggest problem was that it was late to market and plagued with reliability problems at first. Kind of like Windows Vista.

And that’s the beauty of competition. In the 1980s, if you delivered a product like the Coleco Adam, you went out of business. But if your name is Microsoft and you have 85% of the marketplace, you can deliver something like the Coleco Adam and keep on chugging.

The really exciting stuff in the 1980s wasn’t in the 8-bit arena though. The Motorola 68000-based computers were where the action was. The most famous of these, of course, was the first-generation Macintosh. But the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga used the 68000 too, and unlike the first Macs, they paired the powerful CPU with color and powerful sound. The three companies threw bricks at each other a lot, but they kept each other honest. Apple ended up having to add color and sound and expansion slots to its Macs in order to compete. Commodore designed a low-cost Amiga to compete with Atari, and a higher-priced model with lots of drive bays and expansion slots to compete with Apple.

These three companies, ironically, built the kind of machine Bill Gates tried to get IBM to build in 1981. Gates wanted IBM to use a Motorola 68000, and then they would have used Xenix, Microsoft’s version of Unix, for an operating system.

The result was Microsoft trying to play catch-up. Windows was in development before these machines hit the market, but Microsoft knew the Mac was coming long before it happened. Microsoft had a prototype and was one of the first Mac developers. In typical Microsoft fashion, Microsoft was talking about Windows in 1983, but didn’t deliver anything until 1985, and what they delivered wasn’t useful for very much. It wasn’t until Windows 3.0 came out in 1990 that it hit prime time. By then the code was stable enough that you could use it for a few hours at a time, and PC CPUs were powerful enough that Windows could keep up with an Amiga or ST or Mac without embarrassing itself.

And that was the beginning of the end. It was one thing for Commodore and Atari to compete with 286 clones that could barely run Windows. But within a year or two, they were competing with Tandy 386s that sold for $1,200 at every Radio Shack in the country. Whether you lived in New York City or Buffalo, Missouri, you could walk into Radio Shack and see a computer running Windows and buy it on the spot. Neither Commodore nor Atari had a dealer network anything like that. And if you lived in a big enough city, you could walk into a "superstore" like Best Buy or Circuit City or Silo that were sweeping the nation at the time and buy a Packard Bell for even less.

By 1993, Commodore and Atari were non-factors in the marketplace. It was down to Apple and the PC clones running Windows.

So what does any of this have to do with AMD and Intel?

AMD and Intel keep each other honest. When Intel released the Itanium, AMD countered with its AMD64 architecture. While the Itanium gives better 64-bit performance, AMD64 does a much better job of running the 32-bit applications we all run today. Itanium has a better long-term approach, but it’s designed for a future that will never come on its own because people still want to play their old copy of The Sims and have it run well on their new computer. AMD’s answer for 64-bit computing was AMD64, and its success forced Intel to clone it.

The CPU isn’t as important today because Intel and AMD are making CPUs that have more power than today’s software knows what to do with. But that’s not Intel’s fault, and it’s not AMD’s fault. Microsoft can’t think of a good use for all the power or a way to harness it, and the industry doesn’t have the scrappy underdog companies like Commodore or Atari anymore to figure out a use for them and drive the industry.

But if one company had a total monopoly on CPUs, I’m afraid of what I’d see. Probably Intel would become more like Microsoft, delivering products that ran slower and at a higher price than each previous generation. It’s unnatural, but it’s the norm for a monopoly.

I’ve heard myself saying several times over the last three or four years that I don’t like computers anymore. But that’s not exactly true. Either I don’t like modern computers, or what HP and Dell sell today aren’t computers.

If either Intel or AMD were to succeed in squeezing the other company out of business, the modern computer would become even more underachieving and uninteresting than it is now.

Confessions of a former Best Buy salesman

The State of Ohio is suing Best Buy. One former employee talked about his experiences working for the company.

I last worked for the company in 1995. To its credit, the company did much to persuade me to finish college: It motivated me to get an education so I could get a better job. A few things have changed since 1995, but what I’ve read today about the company rang so true.It might not be a good idea for me to say a whole lot more, seeing as my experiences are limited to working at two different stores nearly a decade ago, and seeing as my name is on it.

But what “Hopjon” said is very, very similar to my experience.

Extended warranties

They’ve never called them those, because extended warranties have a bad rap. They were called “Performance Guarantees” in my day. Now they’re PSPs, or “Performance Service Plans.” For a Benjamin or two, they’ll stand behind the product if it breaks outside of its manufacturer’s warranty period.

“Hopjon” says these warranties are misunderstood, if not downright misrepresented. My experience matches his. I was told that the “No Lemon” clause would replace the product the third time it had to come in for service. This was what my manager told me, and what I related to customers.

I found out the hard way, and to my great horror, that this isn’t the case. If you read the fine print very carefully, it stated that this replacement happens on the fourth service call. Not very clearly, mind you. Customer service knew the difference.

The difference is profitable.

Now, was it malicious? It’s hard to say. None of the managers who trained me were as smart as any of the managers I had when I worked fast food. The question is whether they were told the same thing I was told, or whether they were just told to read it, and someone higher up was hoping these misunderstandings would sometimes occur.

Upper management saw to it that much more time was spent explaining the benefits of 900 MHz cordless phones than all the terms of the extended warranties. (At the time, a 900 MHz phone was a $400 item.)

Whether to buy the extended warranty depends on the quality of the product and the cost of the product versus the cost of the warranty. If you choose to buy one, go over the terms with customer service. Don’t go by what the salesperson says.

Was I pressured to sell the warranties? Yes. Did I? It depended. When there was something in it for me, I sold more warranties than anyone else in my department. When the incentive wasn’t there, I could go weeks without selling one.

Employee expertise

The people who work there very rarely know much of anything special about what they sell. The managers were moved around from department to department. During my second summer with the company, the former computer manager was managing audio. The computer manager had been the manager of CDs and VHS tapes the summer before.

For a few weeks that summer, I worked in audio. I had been the most knowledgeable person in the computer department, by a long shot, especially when it came to any computer more than a year or two old. If the question involved a 286 or an XT, I was the only one who had a chance of answering the question. A customer only ever stumped me once, and that was someone who wanted to hook up an IEEE-488 printer to a PC. I’d never seen the cable he brought in before.

But for a couple of weeks I worked in audio, because my old boss wanted me. Eventually I moved back into computers because the computer people kept dragging me back over there to answer questions, and it didn’t look good to have some guy from audio answering all the computer questions.

The training is nothing. They have training sessions once a month, where they hand out manufacturer-supplied literature that gives an overview of the product, and then you take a test. You eventually have to pass it in order to stay gainfully employed, but the tests aren’t all that hard. I only missed one question on the Windows 95 literacy test on my first try, without ever looking at the educational literature.

Whatever the employee knows was gained on his or her own time. On company time, you’d better find a way to look busy, or else a manager will find something for you to do. Probably unloading the truck.

No pressure

That’s the mantra. It’s bull.

Now it’s true that the salespeople aren’t paid on commission. When I was hired on at age 19, I made a flat $5.35 an hour. That was 55 cents an hour more than I had made as a cashier at a now-defunct roast beef chain. Minimum wage was $4.25 an hour, as I recall.

Occasionally there were contests based on performance. Sometimes it was sponsored by one of our suppliers. Some days a store manager felt generous and would come by and tell us whoever sold the most warranties that shift would get a free CD.

But store managers got monthly bonuses based on sales. So, in effect, the managers were paid on commission. And yes, they did pressure the people under them.

So the people who do most of the legwork aren’t paid on commission, but the pressure is still there. In effect you get the worst of both worlds.

Bait and switch

I only remember one specific incident involving a printer and the person at customer service refusing to honor the posted price, and the department manager getting involved. Ultimately the customer was offered another, much more expensive printer, which he refused. The details are pretty hazy though. The customer was clearly right and the manager yelled at me after he left.

I do remember employees being accused of bait and switch by customers, and sometimes bragging about how close to the legal limit they’d come, but had just skirted the line.

The general attitude was that since they offered rain checks on sale merchandise that was out of stock, bait and switch was impossible.

Used merchandise sold as new

I had one manager who was especially fond of re-shrink-wrapping returned merchandise and selling it as new. This is against corporate policy, and it doesn’t necessarily go on everywhere. But the capability is there, and with it, the temptation.

As far as whether open-box merchandise was opened in the store or was a return, don’t let anyone fool you.Someone probably returned it.

People return merchandise for any number of reasons. You can save some money by buying open-box stuff, but you’re taking a chance. Customer service inspects the merchandise before taking it back. But it’s a fast inspection, and whoever is available does it. It’s not an expert inspection.

The story you may hear is that another customer wanted to see inside the packaging, so someone opened it in the store. That happens on rare occasions. Rarely was that item then marked down and sold as open-box merchandise. I usually saw someone re-seal it to sell as new. I’m pretty sure this was against corporate policy. I don’t know if it’s legal or not.

Do I shop there?

For seven years I didn’t, and I still try to avoid it but sometimes don’t have a choice. Circuit City used to be the closest alternative, but it had its own problems and closed. Silo left St. Louis way back in about 1990. The local chain, Goedekers, closed its South County store in about 2002.

In the name of competition, I buy all of that kind of stuff that I can at Office Depot or OfficeMax or Kmart. When it comes down to Best Buy or Wal-Mart, then I’ll buy at Best Buy. Not because I think Best Buy is a better company–I don’t like either company–but because Best Buy isn’t as big and powerful.

I wish people would realize that all so-called “Big Box” stores will have these tendencies, because the name of the game is maximizing profits. The smaller, local stores will charge higher prices, but in almost every case they give better service.

The hysteria on StarOffice…

Various sources are reporting Sun’s plans to begin charging for StarOffice. Sun, meanwhile, is mum on the subject.
Nowhere has anyone reported that Sun, by the strictest definition of the word, already charges for StarOffice. You can buy it at retail. It’s fairly cheap, but we’re not talking five bucks. I’ve seen a retail-boxed StarOffice 5.2, with Sun’s logo on it, at Circuit City within the past year. Price was about 40 bucks, as I recall.

Sun is mum on the subject. It could be that Sun plans to charge $100 for it and take away the free download. Or it could be that 6.0 will cost $40 at retail but remain downloadable for free on the Web. It’s anybody’s guess, precisely because Sun hasn’t said anything yet.

It’s non-news until Sun announces a shift from current policy. But this isn’t the first time non-news has garnered attention and it won’t be the last.

One more thing. On a completely unrelated note… This picture really scares me.

Happy New Year!

The way the ‘Net oughta be. I finally broke down and bought a VCR yesterday. It’s hard to do video work without one, and you want to give people drafts on VHS. When it comes to consumer video, there are two companies I trust: Hitachi and Hitachi. So I went looking for a Hitachi VCR. Their low-end model, a no-frills stereo 4-head model, ran $70 at Circuit City. I ordered it online, along with 5 tapes. Total cost: 80 bucks. For “delivery,” you’ve got two options: delivery, or local pickup. I did local pickup at the store five miles from where I live. You avoid the extended warranty pitch and trying to convince someone in the store to help you, and you just walk into the store, hand the paperwork to customer service, sign for it, then go pick it up. Suddenly consumer electronics shopping is like Chinese or pizza take-out. I love it.
The VCR’s not much to look at and the $149 models are more rugged-looking and have more metal in them, but this model is made in Korea so it ought to be OK, and the playback’s great on my 17-year-old Commodore 1702 (relabeled JVC) composite monitor. For what I’ll be asking it to do, it’s fine. In my stash of Amiga cables I found an RCA y-adapter that mixes two audio outputs, which I used to connect to the monitor’s mono input.

Desktop Linux. Here are my current recommendations for people trying to replace Windows with Linux.

Web browser: Galeon. Very lightweight. Fabulous tabbed interface. I hate browsing in Windows now.
Minimalist browser: Dillo. Well under a meg in size, and if it’ll render a site, it’ll render it faster than anything else you’ll find.
FTP client: GFTP. Graphical FTP client, saves hosts and username/password combinations for you.
PDF viewer: XPDF. Smaller and faster than Acrobat Reader, though that’s available for Linux too.
Mail client/PIM: Evolution. What Outlook should have been.
Lightweight mail client: Sylpheed. Super-fast and small, reasonably featured.
File manager: Nautilus. Gorgeous and easy to use, though slow on old PCs. Since I use the command line 90% of the time, it’s fine.
Graphics viewer: GTK-See. A convincing clone of ACDSee. Easy-to-use graphics viewer with a great interface.
News reader: Pan. Automatically threads subject headers for you, and it’ll automatically decode and display uuencoded picture attachments as part of the body. Invaluable for browsing the graphics newsgroups.
File compression/decompression: I use the command-line tools. If you want something like WinZip, there’s a program out there called LnxZip. It’s available in RPM or source form; I couldn’t find a Debian package for it.
Desktop publishing: Yes, desktop publishing on Linux! Scribus isn’t as powerful as QuarkXPress, but it gives a powerful enough subset of what QuarkXPress 3.x offered that I think I would be able to duplicate everything I did in my magazine design class way back when, in 1996. It’s more than powerful enough already to serve a small business’ DTP needs. Keep a close eye on this one. I’ll be using it to meet my professional DTP needs at work, because I’m already convinced I can do more with it than with Microsoft Publisher, and more quickly.
Window manager: IceWM. Fast, lightweight, integrates nicely with GNOME, Windows-like interface.
Office suite: Tough call. KOffice is absolutely good enough for casual use. StarOffice 6/OpenOffice looks to be good enough for professional use when released next year. WordPerfect Office 2000 is more than adequate for professional use if you’re looking for a commercial package.

04/24/2001

A sense of wonder. It must have been almost 20 years ago, I read a short story in a magazine involving a wondrous new tool. I don’t exactly remember the plot line, but it was something similar to this: a preteen boy comes into a sum of money under questionable circumstances. He’s uncomfortable going to his parents about it, or even his peers. Not knowing where else to go, he turns on his dad’s computer and types his story into it–whether this was a built-in Basic language interpreter like a Commodore or Atari, or a command line like CP/M or MS-DOS, it didn’t say. At the end of the story he hits Return, or Enter, or whatever that key’s supposed to be called, and the computer responds with one sentence:

Sorry, can’t compute.

That line gave the story its title.

I don’t know why I remember that story, except maybe for the technical inaccuracy. At any rate, I seem to recall he left without turning the computer off, so his dad came home, noticed the computer was on, read what was on screen, and confronted him. And that was pretty much the end, at least how I remember it.

Last night I was making up a batch of barley and mushroom soup from a recipe I found over the weekend. I know when I’m out of my element, and trying new recipes without any help at all is among them. The recipe called for 4 tablespoons of dry sherry. Now, I’m not a wine drinker, unless drinking wine twice a year counts. I was pretty sure that sherry is a type of wine. But white wine? Red wine? I didn’t know. As I was picking up the other ingredients I needed, I went to the wine and liquor section of the local grocery store and wandered around a while. I couldn’t find any sherry.

So I went home. I figured I was probably in the minority as far as not knowing anything about dry sherry, but I also figured I probably wasn’t the first one to have questions about it. I fired up a Web browser, went to Google, and typed a question: What is dry sherry? I was able to infer very quickly from the site hits that, indeed, dry sherry is a wine. But I couldn’t find any. So I typed in another search phrase: “dry sherry substitute.” That put me in business. A lot of people have asked that question. One of the first documents hit offered several suggestions, marsala among them. I have a little bottle of marsala in one of my kitchen cabinets. So I made the soup, and it wasn’t bad.

The moral of that short story remains unchanged: A computer still can’t answer questions on its own, particularly questions of ethics–the experiments of www.mindpixel.com notwithstanding. What Mindpixel is doing is storing and cross-referencing the answers to millions of simple questions in hopes of one day being able to answer complex ones. (The results of that are fairly impressive–last night I asked it several simple questions like, “Was Ronald Reagan president of the United States in 1981?” and “Is Joe Jackson the name of both a famous musician and a famous baseball player?” and it answered all of them correctly.) But what Mindpixel, or for that matter, any good search engine can do effectively is gather and retain information. And that in itself is extremely useful, and the idea of search engines indexing a global database and answering simple–and not-so-simple–questions was unthinkable to most people just 20 years ago.

And I found a sale. I’m suddenly in need of a large number of network cards, as regular readers know. Just out of curiosity, I checked CompUSA’s pricing on Bay Netgear FA311 NICs, and–drum roll–they’re $14.99 with a $5 mail-in rebate. That’s a steal. It’s not quite as striking as the deal I found on D-Link cards at Circuit City back in January, but I like the Netgear–or at least its predecessor, the FA310TX–better anyway.

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