Why Fry’s Was Once the Best Place to Buy Gadgets in Silicon Valley

RIP Fry’s

Thomas Smith
Debugger
Published in
7 min readFeb 25, 2021

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Photo of a Fry’s Electronics store entrance from outside.
Photos courtesy of the author.

Late on Tuesday, Fry’s Electronics announced that it would abruptly close all 31 of its electronics retail stores. In a statement on the company’s website, Fry’s said that it had “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.”

Fry’s Electronics has long occupied a strange place in Silicon Valley culture — at times totally nostalgic, and at others highly practical. The store originally launched in Sunnyvale, California — the heart of the Valley — in 1985. Fry’s Electronics was founded by three sons of entrepreneur Charles Fry, who built a successful supermarket business that still bears his name today (the grocery stores are now part of Kroger and aren’t affiliated with Fry’s Electronics).

According to Forbes, when their father gave them the proceeds from the sale of his grocery chain, the Fry brothers had little interest in entering the food business. Instead, they joined with a fourth partner and launched Fry’s Electronics. Grocery retailing is an odd business, with obscenely high revenues (the average individual grocery store brings in $14 million per year in gross sales) and obscenely low margins. Grocery stores thrive on scale — occupying cavernous spaces and moving tons of product, they often reap enormous profits, even if their margins are a paltry 2.5%.

The Fry brothers’ core innovation was to take this same business model and apply it to electronics retail. From the very beginning, Fry’s Electronics stores were massive. The brothers’ first store occupied 20,000 square feet, and just before the chain closed this week, its typical store was between 50,000 and 180,000 square feet. That scale allowed Fry’s to sell a massive variety of electronic gadgets — as many as 50,000 unique products in each store.

From the get-go, Fry’s catered a bit to consumers, but mostly to hard-core…

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