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

The SSD Decoder Ring

I occasionally get a question about an SSD, usually when one goes on sale somewhere. Inevitably, I’ll get an e-mail message with a URL and the words “any good?” with it. Often I’ll know off the top of my head, but depending on whose name is on the drive, I may not.

But here’s a cheatsheet with all the major drives on the market, and who makes the controller in them. http://www.pcper.com/ssd
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Why total freedom of expression is a reader’s worst nightmare

A longtime reader asked me about news writing, and writing in general, after complaining about the sorry state of writing these days. I think a lot of things are in a sorry state, and the writing is a reflection of that. But maybe if we can fix the writing a little, it’ll help everything else, right?

Kurt Vonnegut once said writers should pity the readers, who have to identify thousands of little marks on paper and make sense of them immediately, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after studying it for 12 long years.

He says to simplify and clarify.

As writers, we’d rather live by Zeuxis’ mantra that criticism is easier than craftsmanship. But one way to avoid criticism is to make sure the readers understand what we’re writing in the first place.
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LED night lights

With two young kids, we find ourselves fumbling around in the kitchen at night more than just occasionally. At some point, we turned to flipping the microwave’s night light on.Which was fine, except I found that one of its settings uses 30 watts, the other 60, and more often than not, that light stays lit 24/7. That’s more power than I want to leave on full time. LED night lights solve that problem neatly. Read more

Coming soon: Affordable LED lighting

Affordable is relative, of course. LED lights are a long way from costing less than CFLs, and of course, the old-fashioned incandescents are still cheaper. But the Ecosmart LED bulb that Home Depot is about to start selling for $20 costs half as much as competing offerings from GE and Philips.

They use 8-9 watts to provide equivalent light to a 40w incandescent, work in dimmers, are made in the USA, and have an estimated life expectancy of 17 years. So I think I could be persuaded to buy a couple.But speaking of CFLs, I’ve been buying them since at least 2003. They get a bit of a bad rap, but in my experience, not all CFLs are created equal. Some of the first CFLs that I installed 7-8 years ago are still working. I’ve had others only last a few months.

I can think of two possible reasons for this. I bought my first bulbs at Home Depot. Later, I switched to buying bulbs at Kmart. The bulbs I was buying at Kmart were considerably less reliable. A couple of years ago I switched to buying bulbs at Costco. Fed up with replacing CFLs, I started writing the date of purchase on the bulbs and saving my receipts at that point. But so far, none of my dated bulbs have burned out.

So I think changing brands can make a difference. If a bulb burns out before its time, buy a different brand next time. And write the installation date on your bulbs so you can be certain the bulb really did burn out before its time. Given the number of fixtures in most homes, it can be difficult to remember exactly when it was you changed a bulb.

The other thing to check is the fixture itself. The base of the bulb contacts a copper tab inside the fixture. Over time, this tab can get mashed down, causing poor contact, which causes arcing and damages the base of the bulb, leading to decreased bulb life. If you want to fix this, cut off power to the outlet from your breaker box or fuse box, remove the bulb, and bend the tab to about a 20-degree angle. Turn the power back on, turn on the light switch, then start twisting the bulb into the socket. Stop turning just as soon as the bulb lights.

The rise and fall of Shack, and how to fix it

Wired has a nostalgic piece on the not-quite-late, not-quite-great Radio Shack. I think it’s a good article, but it glosses over part of the reason for the store’s decline.

It blames computers.But blaming computers ignores Tandy’s long and successful run in that industry. Most Apple fanatics and other revisionist historians conveniently overlook this, but when Apple launched the Apple II in 1977, Tandy and Commodore were right there with competing offerings. I don’t know about Apple, but Tandy and Commodore were selling their machines faster than they could make them.

As demand for home computers with color and sound grew, Tandy released its successful Color Computer line. And after IBM got into the PC market, Tandy became one of the early PC clone makers. They made businesslike PC/XT and PC/AT knockoffs, but their most successful machine, from a sales perspective, was the Tandy 1000. The Tandy 1000 started off as a clone of the IBM PCjr, but whereas the PCjr lasted about two years in the marketplace, the Tandy 1000 became a lasting standard for home PCs that could run IBM business software as well as entertainment titles with color and sound. It was everything the PCjr should have been, and it resulted in IBM software often being relabeled “IBM/Tandy” in stores.

In the 1980s, Tandy was definitely one of the big five companies. The first computer I ever used was a Tandy, in 1982. But the next year, I changed schools, and that school had Commodore 64s, so my allegiance changed. But I really think it was Tandy, more than any other company, that was the undoing of my favorite company, Commodore. Tandy’s computers weren’t any better than what Commodore had. And Commodore computers were sold at Kmart, but Tandy computers were sold at Radio Shack, and the prices were comparable. You had to go to St. Louis to buy a Commodore 64 or Amiga, or order it through the mail. But even in tiny Farmington, Missouri, which was a town of about 8,000 in the middle of nowhere, there was a Radio Shack on the edge of downtown where you could walk in and buy a computer.

Admittedly, the computer industry did change, and eventually it outgrew Radio Shack. By the early 1990s, when I did my stint selling computers at retail, the computer section of the store where I worked was larger than the typical Radio Shack store. Just the computer section. We sold four or five brands of computers and generally had at least four models of each brand, with an entry-level machine, something near top-of-the-line, and a couple of mid-range models in between.

If you wanted cheap, we had Packard Bell and Acer. Tandy couldn’t compete with them on price, though its machines were generally of better quality. But if you wanted quality, we had Compaq and IBM, which generally were better quality than Tandy, and by the mid 1990s, they’d gotten religion on price too.

And on the odd day that we couldn’t beat Radio Shack on price and or selection with the computers themselves, we had a much larger selection of monitors and printers, not to mention the aisles and aisles of books and software.

And if you didn’t live in the big city, another alternative sprung up in the early 1990s. You could pick up the phone, dial an 800 number, and order a computer from Dell or Gateway 2000. Just like ordering pizza, they’d build a computer to your specifications and deliver it to your door. You wouldn’t have it the same day like you would by going to Radio Shack, but you’d pay less, and you could get exactly the processor speed, hard disk capacity, and memory that you wanted.

There just wasn’t any way for the Tandy/Radio Shack model that had worked so brilliantly for about 15 years to compete with those two new models.

Eventually Tandy sold its factory to AST, a mid-range brand that fell by the wayside late in the decade but for a while was a retail juggernaut. Initially Radio Shack switched over to selling AST PCs, and later replaced them with Compaq and IBM, but there was never enough room in the store for more than one or two models.

In retrospect, I think the best thing Radio Shack could have done in the late 1990s would have been to go back to its DIY roots, selling computer components like cases and motherboards to people who wanted to build their own PCs rather than settle for what larger retailers offered off the shelf. It’s not a large segment, but it’s a niche that the large retailers have never had much success catering to. (The exception being regional chains like Fry’s and Micro Center.) And while the independent clone shops almost without exception can offer better advice, better selection, and, probably, better prices, Radio Shack is almost always closer, and the clone shops can’t compete with Radio Shack’s hours. Radio Shack is open on Sunday, and it’s open until 9 PM on other days.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I was tinkering with a PC in the evening or on a Sunday, needed something, and Radio Shack was the only place open. So I went, whether I thought they’d have what I needed or not. Sometimes they actually had what I needed.

If Radio Shack wants to reverse its sagging fortunes, I’m not sure that it’s too late to take that DIY road. Stock a book on building PCs and a book on upgrading and repairing PCs in order to grow that market. Limit the selection in order to accommodate the limited space in most stores, but carry one or two of everything that’s needed to build a PC, or to upgrade or repair a PC when the competition is closed.

Deciding exactly what to carry could be difficult, but a safe and non-creative approach would be to just pick a couple of price points and sell whatever they can find at that particular price point while remaining profitable. Keep it simple, using multiples of $25. Have computer cases priced at $50 and $75. Have power supplies for $25, $50, and $75. Have hard drives for $75 and $100. Have a motherboard for $100, and CPUs for $50 and $100. AMD or Intel? Carry both, or see if one or the other is willing to cut a deal to have an exclusive.

And this also opens the door to oddball gadgets and adapters, like 20/24-pin ATX converters, ATX power supply cable extensions, USB cable extensions, USB hubs, serial, parallel, and PS/2 to USB converters, and other small, profitable niche adapters. And if there’s room, of course they can carry an Ethernet switch, Ethernet cables in a variety of lengths, and perhaps even cable and DSL modems.

They can take the same approach to selling computer components as they’ve always taken to selling discrete electronics components. When I need a resistor or an LED, I can get it a lot cheaper by ordering it online or by driving to an electronics supplier. But I can be at Radio Shack in five minutes, and they’re open late and on weekends, so I usually end up going to Radio Shack and putting up with their cellphone pitches.

If they’re still able to eke out a profit selling resistors and heat sinks by virtue of being the most convenient option, I think they can do even better selling computer components the same way.

And that would still leave room in the store for cell phones, the odd adapters and components that no other major retail chain sells, and cheap R/C toys.

I think it’s a better plan than officially unofficially renaming itself to Shack (next door to Hut, where you buy pizza) and harassing customers about cell phones at the checkout.

Cars for trains

Vehicles are a frequent topic of discussion on the various O and S gauge train forms. At times these discussions can get rather heated.

Since use on train layouts is rarely the objective of the companies making various diecast vehicles, there’s no true right answer to what one should or shouldn’t use. This is my personal philosophy. Take it for what it’s worth.

I run prewar and postwar Lionel and Marx trains on my layout, primarily. Most of them are undersize O27; I only have a handful of American Flyer cars that might perhaps approach proper 1:48 O scale.

Prior to the early 1970s, Lionel paid no particular attention to scale. Therefore I see little need to break out the scale ruler and be anal retentive about what vehicles will and won’t go on my layout. A Lionel 6014 Baby Ruth boxcar is very close to 1:64 scale, although it’s riding on trucks that are very close to 1:48. The famous Lionel 6464 boxcars are about 1:55 scale. Marx had a whole line of 1:64 scale O gauge trains; its cheaper plastic cars are also very close to 1:64. Some of its “deluxe” cars were closer to 1:60–somewhere in between the Lionel 6014 and 6464 in size. Maybe making them bigger than the 6014 for about the same price made them seem to be a better value for the money.

And for that matter, while A.C. Gilbert’s American Flyer division paid more attention to scale, Gilbert wasn’t shy about shipping off-scale stuff with the American Flyer name on it either. The trains themselves were pretty close to scale, but many of the accessories and buildings were too large or too small.

Needless to say, it doesn’t bother me then that a Matchbox VW Beetle is 1:55 scale but a Matchbox model of a larger vehicle, say a ’57 Chevy, will be 1:64 or perhaps even a bit smaller. If it’s the right era, I’ll use it.

Besides, park any of them outside a Plasticville house, and it’s clear to anyone that it’ll fit inside that garage. Therefore, it will look believable.

I do pay attention to era. Even a casual passer-by can tell the difference between cars from various decades. And I do think era sets the tone of a layout, so I draw my line at 1949. Postwar fans have it easier, as there are tons and tons of great vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s available. Since I stick to pre-1950, generally speaking I can only count on each manufacturer of Hot Wheels and Matchbox type cars offering one or two vehicles per year that I can use. If I drew the line later, I could probably find a couple dozen cars per year to buy.

Many cars have to be modified to suit my purposes, since I want everyday city street scenes, not a hot rod convention. In the case of the Hot Wheels ’32 Ford Delivery sedan I picked up at Kmart tonight (along with baby formula and a cordless phone–you gotta love it), the car is pretty tame. No jacked up wheels, no overly funky colors. It does have flames. Remove the flames with some nail polish remover or purple cleaner on a cotton swab, and I can probably pass it off as stock to a casual observer. Other times, it’s necessary to drill out the rivets on the bottom, swap out the wheels for more conservative ones, and maybe even strip and repaint the vehicle.

According to a car buff on an S gauge board I read frequently, prior to WWII cars tended to be painted dark shades of green, brown, blue, red, and black. Fenders might be a different shade of the body color. After WWII, the colors lightened up and two-tone paint jobs became popular.

The need to swap wheels means sometimes you have to buy cars just to get their wheels. So I’ll look for cheap vehicles with conservative-looking wheels to use as donors. This adds cost, but consider some people pay $20 and up for each vehicle on their layout. Compared to that, it’s still cheap.

Some people get irritated at having to modify vehicles before using them on the layout. It doesn’t bother me all that much. I think it’s part of the fun, and the result is that I have vehicles that don’t look like anyone else’s.

So is a Costco membership worth it?

One gift my wife and I gave ourselves after paying off our mortgage was a Costco membership. We didn’t get one before we paid off that debt, just in case it wasn’t worth it. I’d carried a Sam’s membership for years but found I didn’t use it much. So is a Costco membership worth it?

I think Costco is worth it, with caveats.My wife and I eat whole-grain bread without trans fats or high fructose corn syrup. It’s hard to find anything that meets that criteria. At grocery stores, only a couple of national brands make the grade, and they cost $4 per loaf. We go through one a week, on average. Costco’s house brand makes the grade, and two loaves cost $4. So buying bread at Costco every other week saves us $104 a year, plus about $6 in sales tax. For us, that covers the $50 membership.

I recently read some advice from Andrew Tobias. Johnny Carson asked him what the best investment for $1,000 would be, and Tobias said non-perishable consumer staples. Everyone thought he was kidding, so he clarified. Buy $1,000 of nonperishable necessities (stuff like toilet paper, toothbrushes, shampoo, soap, and the like) on sale, and the return on investment is tremendous.

And you beat inflation. Let’s say inflation continues at 10% annually for a couple of years, which seems likely. By that measure, a toothbrush that costs $3 today will cost $3.63 in 2010 if I’m doing the math right. So if I behave and use four toothbrushes a year, I automatically save $2.56 by buying them today instead of 2010.

Needless to say, I feel pretty good about getting that 10-pack of Oral B toothbrushes today for $9.99 minus a $2 coupon. I saved $20 over buying them one at a time at Kmart. And I got a 20% return on investment.

About those coupons: Costco sends out coupons every couple of weeks. They don’t make substitutions when a hot seller runs out, so get there early. Today we spent $122 and used $15 worth of coupons. We only bought things we knew we’d use: shampoo, baby wipes, coffee, toothbrushes, bar soap, and laundry detergent.

Looking at it from an investor’s viewpoint, $68 worth of the stuff we bought had coupons, so we saved 22%. Where else am I going to get a 22% return on a $68 investment?

So when the next batch of Costco coupons comes in, we’ll look them over and buy anything that we’ll be able to use. I don’t know if $15 is a typical savings over the course of two weeks, but that would be $390 a year if it is.

As for the savings of the regular prices over retail, I looked into that too. The toothbrushes cost $3 if purchased singly, but slightly less in larger quantities. The laundry detergent gives 110 loads for the price of 64 loads purchased most other places. The shampoo isn’t a great deal, basically giving you a name brand for the price of a generic on an ounce-for-ounce basis, but with a $2 coupon it’s a good deal. Coffee is in essentially the same boat, but when you can get Maxwell House for the same price per pound as Chase & Sanborn, do it. If you’ve never had it, Chase & Sanborn makes Folgers taste like your favorite $5-a-cup coffee.

I don’t remember the specifics on how baby wipes and bar soap compared, but the prices were favorable. Even without a coupon, I would have saved something.

The two things I don’t like about Costco is that if they run out of a product with an active coupon, they won’t substitute a similar product. I also don’t like the hard sells on the executive membership. As you wait in line at the register, an associate will hound you to upgrade to the executive membership, which costs $50 more per year. The benefit is a 5% rebate at the end of the year on your purchases. Once I heard them tell one person, “Well, you’ve already spent $3,000 here, so you would have paid for the executive membership three times over.”

I just publicly analyzed to death what I spent this week, so I guess I don’t care much if my line-mates know what I’ve spent at Costco this year, but I know some people will resent that. Personally I don’t resent that, but I do resent the tone I usually get. I’m careful with my money and I’d like to think I’m pretty good at handling it.

Right now I know we’re spending $100 a week there, but I don’t know how long that will last. This week we bought a 170-ounce bottle of laundry detergent. A couple of weeks ago we bought 250 ounces of dishwasher detergent. Once we have a Costco-sized quantity of everything like that, will we still spend $100 a week? Maybe. But it could just as easily drop to $35. I don’t think it would drop to $19, which is the point where the membership doesn’t pay for itself, but I don’t know that yet, and if I don’t know that, there’s no way a Costco employee can know that either.

What I do know is that it’s become pretty easy for us to justify the $50 membership. The key is to buy things only because you need them, not because it’s a good deal. It’s not a good deal if it spoils. And use the coupons they send you. So far, storing Costco-sized quantities of shampoo and toilet paper isn’t a problem, but maybe you should talk to me in a year about that.