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Dec 10 2007   8:44AM GMT

After CompUSA: Random thoughts on retail

badarrow Barbara Darrow Profile: badarrow

The  imminent demise of CompUSA sparks a now-familiar debate over the viability of brick-and-mortar retail outlets.

That discussion should be buried: There will always be room for physical stores, although their nature will change over time. As always. (When I joined a channel book more than 15 years ago, one of my IT sources told me that the computer channel was disappearing but fast. “Why don’t you just join Buggy Whip Daily?” he asked. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.)

Naysayers today point to the deaths of retail music outlets as predicting the future of computer retail. A local example, Harvard Square was once home to nearly a half dozen big-time music stores. Now several staples — HMV, Tower Records — are long gone. But Newbury Comics remains.

During their going out of business sale, the HMV guys attributed their fate to the Internet.  Newbury Comics had the best prices, and maybe the best help. It also didn’t belong to a ginormous chain like the others.

As for CompUSA: It was once the trailblazer. It employed good people, it sold tons of stuff. It expanded. Maybe over expanded. It faded. There were management mistakes. Tougher competition from online and other chains all contributed. But just a year ago, NetSuite, the pioneer in ERP-as-a-service, forged an alliance with CompUSA to move more of its SaaS wares. Why would NetSuite-which ships no physical goods-ally with a retailer? Because CompUSA had local presence: Feet on the street. It also fielded a small cadre of people to support small businesses. Of course once the NetSuite deal was announced, no one heard any more about it, which probably means the results were underwhelming.

But look at the bigger picture. HP has displaced Dell as PC kingpin largely because of  HP’s retail presence and the fact that many people like to try and buy. To borrow Microsoft’s tortured phrase, a catalog is no replacement for the “user experience” of a well-lit, well-stocked, well-staffed retail outlet.

In my -admittedly small — anecdotal world, what happened to the CompUSA was Best Buy. A new store went in less than two miles away from the Brighton, Mass. CompUSA a few years ago. Best Buy hired young kids along with some severely over-qualified veterans to sell and support its goods. One of the help desk guys I dealt with had been a vice president of service at one of the local mini-computer companies. Yikes. The store thrives. In fact, the Gen Yers are so busy, it’s hard to get their attention. So my back up is Micro Center. Also jammed. Also well staffed.

Those Best Buy Gen Yers not only know their stuff, they seem to love it. In the last few years, the folks at the Market Street CompUSA could no longer be bothered with questions about software or even pointing out where a given SKU might be.

Still, within that two mile radius, Best Buy (and Micro Center) outclassed CompUSA. End of story. That store closed last year.

(Hey, Micro Center: What’s with the interrogation at check out? The cashiers won’t let you get out without giving up your first born (at least your phone number and vital stats.) One guy fled store in utter frustration — without his purchase — because the checker wouldn’t let him pay cash for his printer cartridge without getting his full workup. That woman had nothing on Mike Vrabel. Here’s a hint: Ease up or we’ll all go back to the lines at Best Buy.)

Barbara Darrow, a Boston-area reporter, can be reached at badarrow@comcast.net.

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