Tales of computer retail past

Somehow I escaped doing helpdesk or phone support early in my career. But I didn’t escape selling computers at retail at Best Buy. And since this was the 90s, I have some good stories. Some of them happened to me. Some happened to coworkers. None of them should be true.

I turned the key and nothing happened!

Can Best Buy survive
Selling computers at Best Buy in the mid 1990s, when this store format was brand new, led to some stories that might be a little hard to believe today. We’re more computer literate now.

This story was from before my time but only by a couple of years, and people were still talking about it. Early in the 486 era, PCs had keys to lock the keyboard. It didn’t provide as much security as it looked like, and eventually name-brand PCs dispensed with them. Probably because of stories like this.

Someone bought a Packard Bell PC (of course!) and brought it home, set it up, and couldn’t make it work. So she boxed the whole thing back up and brought it back to the store. Of course customer service made someone from the computer department come talk to her. Customer service hated returns. Actually, at my store, the customer service people hated everything. They were the kind of people who’d boo Santa Claus. But I digress.

“Well, you see, I took the computer home, got out the instructions, read them twice, then set it all up just like it said. Then I turned the key and nothing happened!”

Aaaaaaaaaaaaand that’s why the Packard Bell computers they sold while I was there didn’t have keylocks.

The noisy hard drive

This was the other story that took on legendary status. A guy brought his computer back, wanting to get it fixed. It was fairly new, still under the factory warranty. Normally that’s not a problem. The tech asked what happened.

The customer said he didn’t know. He said the computer was really loud and he didn’t like it, and he figured out the noise was coming from the hard drive. So he took it apart and oiled it, then put it back together, and it never worked since.

The customer was rather upset that neither the manufacturer warranty nor our extended warranty covered that.

The Anachronisms

I was the specialist when it came to anachronisms. Sure, by 1994, we were solidly in the 486 era. We’d get 386 owners who’d come in and brag about how they’d souped their systems up and they could hold their own with our 486s. Those were fun conversations. Occasionally someone with a 25 MHz 286 would come in and brag on that machine. That was pushing it too much for some of my coworkers, but I dug that conversation too.

But you’d be surprised how many XT-class machines were still floating around in 1994. They were thoroughly outmoded by then, and we didn’t have a lot for a machine that old, but we probably had a couple dozen products we could sell to an XT owner. Those questions always fell to me.

But four things really stand out. They took anachronism to the extreme.

The IEEE-488 cable

One day in the early summer of 1994, a guy wandered in with a really odd looking cable. It had a Centronics-style connector on it, but it was much smaller, and had the connection doubled up on the back. No one knew what it was. And I don’t remember anymore if he wanted to buy another cable like it, or a cable that would let him connect something with that connector to a modern PC.

IEEE-488 was a standard invented by HP in the 1970s. Commodore stole it and used it on the Commodore PET line of computers, which dated from 1977 to about 1982. I hadn’t seen one of those in years, and the only time I had seen them was in passing. It was months later that I realized what that strange cable was.

I couldn’t tell him what the cable was at the time. I felt bad about it, but we wouldn’t have had anything to help him. I’m not sure anyone in St. Louis would have still had that cable at that point.

The Amiga 4000

I can’t remember if this was a phone call or a guy who wandered into the store. My boss sent him to me, regardless. The guy wanted an Amiga 4000, and he didn’t believe me when I said we didn’t carry those. But Best Buy never carried the Amiga line. And at this point in 1994, Commodore had been out of business nearly seven months. Amigas weren’t easy to find. It’s not like there was a ton of demand for them, but Commodore still hadn’t made enough of them to go around.

At that point there was one Amiga dealer left in St. Louis, barely hanging on, somewhere up near the airport. I told him his options were that or mail order.

My boss asked afterward what that guy wanted. When I told him, he didn’t believe me.

The Commodore Colt

Another guy wandered in who’d bought a Commodore Colt at Best Buy years before. The Colt was an IBM-compatible XT-class machine sold at mass market retail. It was Commodore’s last stand at retail stores like Best Buy in the United States. It was a good enough PC/XT clone, but quickly became outmoded. It looked terribly old fashioned sitting next to 386SX-based PCs that could run Windows.

But back to our friend. He wanted a hard drive, and we didn’t carry any hard drives for machines that old by 1994.

I knew a guy who had a line on all kinds of used XT-class equipment. I put them in contact. Best Buy would have frowned on that, but it’s not like they had any way to help him. He got his hard drive, and ended up not having to pay much for it.

Seven years

The most bizarre anachronism that happened to me was when a guy with a bit of a drawl wandered in. He bragged he’d had computers ever since they came out, but wanted to make sure he didn’t buy something worse than what he already had. I asked what he had. It was a Commodore 64.

Admittedly, it was a souped up C-64. He’d expanded the memory on it, added a 3.5-inch drive, a hard drive, and possibly a bit more. I remember being jealous. It was outmoded by 1994, but still would have been a fun machine.

He didn’t like Windows when I showed it to him though. I said you could drop to DOS and run from a command line, but there wasn’t much new software being produced for DOS. The new software development was all happening for Windows.

He said something about sticking with his Commodore. I mentioned Commodore had gone out of business. He said no, they had to keep making parts, and probably even whole computers, for another seven years. It was the law.

It was a bizarre thing to say. I know that’s true of some consumer goods, but when you’re out of business, you’re out of business. He left in a huff, so I’m sure I made him mad. But I don’t think he was going to buy a 486 that day, from me or anyone else.

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