would you like to save 10% and hit me in the face

12/6/07

There are few things in capitalism as depressing as a dying mall. No doubt many of you’ve found yourself inside one of these husks – the movie theater is still going, the bulk candy place still gats forth sour gummi coke bottles, and the Mervyn’s has a couple of old farts rummaging through the shoehorns, but entire wings of the mall have died – frostbitten, gangrenous appendages with the ghosts of Spencer’s Gifts and Auntie Annie’s Pretzels barely stirring the dust.

One such place about to be a giant ghost parking lot is CompUSA, due for extinction by January. You say the name “CompUSA” and then you crinkle your nose, try to remember, and then say “oh yeah, THAT place” and in a millisecond it makes sense. While there were no doubt exceptions, CompUSAs seemed dirty, poorly-put-together, oddly expensive and depressing.

Of course, in the mid-90s, you didn’t have a ton of choices – it was either that or Computer City, which was about as awesome as cough syrup. Sean and I drove from Chapel Hill to Greensboro in 1994 to buy our new Macs at the CompUSA there, and kept having to drive back because they sold us the wrong stuff.

Which, of course, raises the question of how the competition succeeded. Best Buy does itself favors by using dark colors (mostly blue) set off against yellow, which hides dirt and gives the place a vibe. They also have a shitload of stuff, and while the prices are high compared to online, you simply can’t walk out of there without buying something. Circuit City is learning the same lesson through massive re-branding and reversing its earlier problem: being a place that was as black and oppressive as a dungeon. Don’t get me wrong – both places are shitholes where customer service occasionally goes to die, but I confess buying shite at both.

radioshack.jpg

Another place that manages to keep saving itself is Radio Shack, which by all theories of social anthropology should have died out with Mr. Mister, but here’s the thing: people keep needing extension cords and mini-jacks that convert to RCA adapters. I wouldn’t be surprised if Warren Buffet had stock in Radio Shack for the same reason he owned Gillette – people gotta shave, and people gotta have $3 speaker wire.

This is despite (as The Onion famously observed) Radio Shack’s disturbingly awkward yet annoyingly glommy sales clerks, and the fact that you can’t walk into a store without setting off a light-beam buzzer and feeling as though you’ve just stumbled into the chess team’s basement during a whipit bender.

But the place I’m most frazzled by, of course, is the worst shopping experience in America. Beset by a sales staff that would rather skin themselves alive with the talons of a dead rat than help you, it’s the one store where you could have a stroke in aisle 45 and not be found for weeks. Yes, you guessed right, it’s Home Despot.

And yet, for all of its massive, incalculable shortcomings, capitalism still rewards you for being the best, even if you’re awful. Yes, you could go to the mom-n-pop hardware store (if you can find one) and get 65% of what you need. You can even go to Lowe’s and have a slightly less-inspiring selection. But if you have massive project aspirations and are desperate for only one trip in the car, you’ve only got one choice, and it’s massive and orange.

So I open it up to you: what stores (besides Blockbuster) seem like they’re dying? Which stores should die, but keep limping along? And which make you the most angry?

29 thoughts on “would you like to save 10% and hit me in the face

  1. scruggs

    A tradition while growing up was that my father would always make a Christmas eve run to Radio Shack for some last minute loot. We usually ended up with something with a remote control. However maybe 12 years ago or so, we scored these small Casio tv’s with 2.5″ screens. I still have mine and it works perfectly.
    I am forever amazed that Spencer’s Gifts is still around.
    Given that our two kids will be teenagers one day, I cringe every time I pass by a Hollister’s or abercrombie. Music is too loud, displays too scantily clad…I have finally turned into my mother.

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  2. Kelly in NC

    I totally agree with Scruggs’ comment about Hollister’s or abercrombie. I like to think of myself as still *somewhat* hip (even if my lifestyle is anything but)but I just don’t get the appeal of the blaring music in these stores. And even worse is the overwhelming smell of loud cologne that emanates from them.
    Didn’t someone once say that Axe is the Hi Karate of today’s generation?

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  3. LFMD

    I have self-diagnosed mallophobia, and I would be happy to see all malls closed and razed to the ground.
    I am stunned that Starbucks has been so successful. People around the world, lining up for overpriced coffee that they can simply brew at home? Go figure.

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  4. Anne

    K Mart. Who shops there? and why? It’s a relic, truly.
    NAAMCO: the swimming pool/Christmas tree chain. We went in to look at fake trees (so shoot me) and found a GE one we liked, Fraser fir, so real looking even I could stomach it. The price posted was in the high $300s, supposedly down from a “list price” in the high $600s. Um, no. We went online and found the same tree for less than $200. It’s being delivered today or tomorrow. So who the eff buys crap at those prices from NAAMCO???!!!
    (Sorry; the holidays make me cranky.)
    LFMD: I think I read within the last week or so that Starbucks’ profit share is falling, and the thinking is that they overextended their reach.

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  5. Claverack Weekender

    Spencer Gifts. Big hedge fund in NYC just gave them a cash infusion to keep keeping on. Isn’t there one in Crossgates Mall right next to Things Remembered?

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  6. Jim

    K-Mart, of course (as Anne already pointed out).
    I also get the faint whiff of desperation from the likes of Barnes & Noble and Borders (never mind that B. Dalton should already be dead). During the mid-90’s those 2 seemed like an overstuffed chair – warm, welcoming, comfortable. Now, they seem slightly run down and dirty. Since I buy most of my books from Amazon (and Sony’s eBook store since I own a PRS-500), I now only step foot into B&N for an impulse magazine buy.

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  7. kent

    K-Mart is really on life support, and shopping there is becoming a really odd experience. The Iowa City K Mart has so few customers in the evening, it’s like being in a post-apocalyptic horror movie. You expect undead shoppers to pop around the end cap and scare the bejezus out of you.
    Stores that should still be around but are dying:
    Shoe Repair/TV Repair/Watch Repair
    No one fixes things any more, they go straight to the landfill. Certainly, there’s not as much about TVs to repair as there once was — they’re just a circuit board and a tube or panel, and some wires between them. Replacement parts are more expensive than a new set.
    But it didn’t have to be so. The straight-to-the-dumpster business model has warped the engineering and design. Pretty soon cars will be like that. When the batteries in a Prius crap out, will it be more cost effective to trade it in on a new hybrid, or replace the batteries in a perfectly good car?

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  8. Hope

    I used to love the Gap…now, the Gap is just sad. I am not sure where it lost the way, but it is really irrelevant now.
    As for the stores that cause anger, let me focus on the mall jewelry stores…in particular, Kay Jewelers. Now that the Christmas season marketing blitz is upon us, we are bombarded with the “Every Kiss begins with K” commercials from Kay Jewelers here in Raleigh…pan to the image of the man giving his gooey mate a diamond pendant, ring, earrings, you name it. I can’t even describe all that is wrong with this marketing campaign without getting angry. These jewelry stores don’t seem to be falling on hard times at all, but I wish that they would just go away.

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  9. ken

    It’s a shame you don’t have Menard’s by you as it is a great antidote to Home Depot. Their annoying ads are ubiquitous but you do ‘save big money’ there.
    I too am surprised The Shack is still around, though at least they don’t creepily ask for you address anymore.
    One big one that’s still around and surprises me is JC Penney. It might be a decade since I’ve even been in one.
    Sadly one former mall staple that has long since vanished from all malls is the record store. My ‘home’ mall (Yorktown Mall in Lombard, IL) used to have three record stores which would justify the half-hour bus ride me and a buddy would take once a month to buy Replacements and Husker Du records.
    I am glad Auntie Ann’s is still around, those pretzel dogs (a Nathan’s wrapped in pretzel dough) are sublime.

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  10. Ian

    Ken – Ah yes, Menard’s. Best said with a very hard Midwestern accent. When I was a kid in Iowa, didn’t they have a cartoon character in overalls and barefoot as their mascot (or am I hallucinating)?
    Claverack W – Wow, I think you’re right. Good call. How did you know I spend so much (depressing) time at Crossgates?
    K-Mart is interesting, especially since they were so slow to follow Target into the massive-rebranding business. I wonder if they’ll get it done in time. There are still a few pre-renovation Targets left (went to one last week) and they’re god-awful.

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  11. Rebecca

    As I was reading, my first thought was of Home Depot. I recently went there because the spray button on my kitchen faucet stopped working. I wanted to get a replacement handle, because it obviously screwed off. The guy said that I needed to replace the entire faucet. So I say, okay let’s look at the faucets. They were conveniently displayed 6 feet above my head. So he pulls up a big ladder, and asks me which one I wanted to see. I said all of them, can’t I get up there to fondle the handles? No, he has to get them down for me. One at a time. Okay, let’s begin! So after about 5 faucets, he conveniently remembers he has to go, and he will send someone else to help me. So I get up there, start looking at the faucets, and this other man comes over and yells at me to GET DOWN! I tell him he’s welcome to come help me, Mike just had to leave. No, he doesn’t work in plumbing. He’ll look for someone. I get on the ladder again. Another guy yells at me. So I leave. And I find the replacement part online for $32.

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  12. wyatt

    The Onion piece is terrific. My cousin-in-law happily fits the stereotype of a RadioShack staffer, and told me he was once asked by a customer, “Do you have radios?” He replied with the official corporate position, “Of course, sir. Otherwise, it would just be ‘Shack’.”

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  13. ken

    Actually the Menards ‘mascot’ now is an avuncular, white-haired John Madden looking guy who only seems to have an outdoor voice. He’s in all the commercials. Both TV and radio ads have that annoying but memorable jingle ‘save big money at Menard’s’. As far as the home improvement stores go, it’s definitely the easiest to navigate and tolerate. Our new store has an enormous ‘people mover’ which brings lazy customers from the first floor to the second. They even have a grand piano on the main floor complete with an average piano player who plays standards all day long. Talk about the gig from hell.

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  14. kevin from NC

    Actually, JC Penny is doing quite well these days and is considered the closest rival of Target. Many old line retailers are trying to emulate their turn around from the bleak recent past.
    I wonder why anyone spends money at Dick’s however they are really leading the charge in reinventing theirselves and getting folk to buy higher price points than in the past. Walmart is watching them closely.
    Walmart has some issues these days particularly with high gasoline prices. Their customers are closer to the bottom of the economic model than most and gasoline prices affect them to a greater degree. They are watching Dick’s and learning quickly.

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  15. CM

    What do you mean, who shops at K-Mart? K-Mart still caters to people who need cheap stuff, and not everyone has a Wal-Mart or Target near them.
    Are there any music stores still in existence? I know Sam Goody and Tower are gone.
    I’ve seen Orange Julius around.
    Anyone remember Gimbles? Orbach’s?
    (By the way, I’m just changing from CL to CM officially. Thank you for your patience during the transition.)

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  16. JB

    Anybody seen a Chess King around anywhere? I’m craving a gray-and-beige checkerboard polyester shirt, parachute pants and a skinny purple tie… They should be back in style any day now.

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  17. Martha

    Toys R Us – ugh! Have you ever been in one of these that wasn’t a dump with employees who couldn’t cut it at WalMart? It’s an incredible feat of marketing consistency that they are the same filthy looking place everywhere. I even feel dirty after I leave their webpage.

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  18. kjf

    walgreens or any of those other big box pharmacies. especially during any holiday when the aisles are full of seasonal crap that usually plays jingles.

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  19. mom

    Mom-rant alert.
    Bottom line reason for the slow death of walk-in retail: the internet. But I’ll get to that.
    I have always fled K Mart because of the visual “noise.” Even twenty or more years ago, when malls were booming. The crowded, disorganized, piled up, narrow K Mart aisles of “ stuff” left me depressed and anxious.
    And I think it’s the reason all the non-online businesses are failing. They have forgotten that shopping is essentially a social thing. You go into a pleasant place and are helped by pleasant people, and keep going back because it was a pleasant experience. Or was.
    Our only choice used to be get your shoes on and go to the store. Now it’s far easier to go online and get what you want, and you don’t have to carry it in from the car or home from the subway. Here in NY I even have most of my groceries delivered from a great online service called Fresh Direct. This, much to the amusement and mild disgust of my son and daughter in law downstairs.
    Of course I am ancient, and, though not feeble, carrying groceries upstairs to my apartment is a drag. But it’s more htan that. It’s that most stores have become places where you can’t find exactly what you want and where you are treated with something just short of abuse by unhappy salespeople. It’s sad.
    The reason Starbucks has succeeded is that most of them are like the slightly untidy but comfy oand pleasant living room of one of your old friends. They will give you EXACTLY what you want… throw away the latte they made with whole milk instead of soy and whip up a new concoction cheerfully, and in a hurry. There are places to sit, almost unflaggingly cheerful servers who actually make eye contact and even (gasp) smile. And when the line is long, someone behind the counter comes up to say to those waiting “Can I get you started on something?”
    Contrast this with the grocery clerk who never says boo to you, but continues the conversation about how lousy her shift is with the clerk in the next register,g and hands you your change and receipt with a muttered, dispirited “Have a nice day.” Yeah, right.
    Many years ago, Ian and sibs may remember living in No. Jersey and visiting the (then) upscale Short Hills Mall. It was lively and alive, had great stores with well-trained and personable salespeople. There was even a good art dealer, where you could browse without pressure. There was a store that sold down comforters, a J.C. Penney, a Walgreen’s, a huge Bloomingdales, and everything in between. When I was there a few years ago, every other store was closed, and you could see through to the debris left on the floor when the place was given up for dead. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
    But I often stop off at the Starbucks at 31st and Ditmars, and even though it is one of the more crowded, smaller Starbuck’s, they always have soymilk and sugar-free vanilla syrup, and servers act as if they are not in the least miserable to be working there… Yes, I can make coffee at home, but Starbuck’s is a nice friendly stop on the way home. Oh, and here’s a nod to the friendly, helpful folks at CopyCom on 31st. If all businesses, especially the big ones, remembered the social aspect of shopping, there would be more (and happier) customers in the stores.
    I don’t need salespeople to be my best friend or develop a deep and meaningful relationship. But I think I’ve made my point…
    On line at least I don’t have to listen to salespeople (if I can find them) carry on conversations about their hot date or their car breaking down while they fail to answer my questons or help me find something. On line I don’t get eye contact, but at least I get a brightly colored “Thank you for your order” and a follow-up email thanking me again. It ain’t love, but it’s better than shopping at K Mart.

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  20. T.J.

    “not everyone has a Wal-Mart or Target near them.”? Really? I doubt that.
    I’m amazed Sears is still open, although I buy many of my major appliances there. Montgomery Ward is pretty much gone.

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  21. Claverack Weekender

    RE: Crossgates — The Apple Store, of course!! It’s still the closest mall to our new house in Dorset, VT.

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  22. Sean

    It is so awesome that MOM, in her rant, gave a shout-out to Copycom on 31st street in Astoria. In a blog read by people who will probably never even go to Astoria.
    It is the perfect example, though. Owned by an Indian couple who remember me every time I walk in there, and ask about the baby and my mom every single time. They sell boxes and online access, they will wrap and ship anything and they are the closest drop-off for all the major shipping companies. The shop itself has about 15 computers with big comfy leather chairs on one side, and the other side is a shipping store.
    It is the very model of a small business that succeeds. When we had a fire on 31st street that burned down four or five stores (including the McDonalds) I heard people on the street telling each other that Copycom hadn’t been hit.
    Their secret is obvious. Provide goods and services that people actually want instead of trying to persuade people that they want something that they don’t, and then offer it with intelligence and kindness.

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  23. neva

    RIP CompUSA.
    I would kill off Chuck E Cheese’s in a heartbeat. Preferably before my daughter’s birthday party there. Despite my great aversion to the place, I just couldn’t deny her only birthday wish so we are having her entire 1st grade class there next weekend for her 7th birthday.
    I need to premedicate before I even walk in the place so I think I will need an IV infusion after being responsible for 20 some 6 and 7 year olds there for 2 hours. Sadly enough the only people who look like they hate the place more than I do are the employees!
    This time of year though it is nice to not have to do anything other than hand over the credit card and at least they won’t all be in my house!

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  24. wottop

    Ditto on Chuck E Cheese. Way overpriced pizza. Games that ask for a quarter so they may return 5 cents to buy “prizes” you wouldn’t buy if you had the whole quarter back. Yipes.
    Chess King. Good times.
    Is Banana Republic still around? Have they sold the safari look to the kids yet?

    Reply

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