238-The Perilous Peril

There once was a little chain of stores called CompUSA. They sold computer equipment for small businesses and individual users. For a while it looked as if everything with this little store was doing just fine. But it was an illusion. ‘Cuz really they sucked.

CompUSA was bought in 2000 by a Mexican billionaire amusingly named Carlos Slim. We will refer to this event as The Only Investment this Latin Ever Tanked, or T.O.I.L.E.T. Slim’s toilet flushed down about 2 billion of his own money… after the sale. This period of time is known as the Time When Everything Looked Like It Was Going Fine But Really Was Being Propped Up By An Investor Who Couldn’t See The Writing On The Wall, or T.W.E.L.L.I.W.G.F.B.R.W.B.P.U.B.A.I.W.C.T.W.O.T.W., and we all know what that spells.

Officially the problem was “declining sales,” and the only comment Slim himself has made was to say “We made a mistake in management.” Even this belies the craptastic reputation CompoopSA had garnered for itself over the last, we’ll say eight, years.

First was the customer service. Now I don’t know how they did it, but if I walked out into the street downtown on a busy day and threw an egg up into the air behind me, I can almost guarantee that the guy who got splattered would know more about computers than the too-stupid-to-vomit-down yahoos at CompUSA. I have received more bad advice at this store than I would have if I was a drunk chick in a sports bar parking lot trying to figure out why my Mini Cooper wouldn’t start. I learned (relatively) quickly how useless these gerbils were but that didn’t stop the tales of woe coming from friends and family who had made purchases there. Unfortunately this problem fed directly into the next one: The Return Policy.

At some point after the toilet CompUSA decided it was them against the customers. (I don’t know how this business failed!) The first shot across our collective bow was a change in their return policy. They decided that it would be a clever idea to force customers to pay a 15% charge on all returned merchandise. They called it a “restocking fee.” Now if you’re returning an above-ground swimming pool I get it. But if you’re bringing back a $100 adapter the size of two strawberries and you get told that it’ll be $15 for the slack-jawed idiot in the red vest to walk twenty feet and put it back on the shelf, I think you’d be entitled to a little resentment. Of course it didn’t help that the idiot in the vest was the same guy who told you that was the correct part to begin with.

Next was the legendary CompUSA repair department. For an extra 30% onto your purchase price, you could obtain a 50 year service plan for that item. Leaving aside the impracticality of a 50 year plan for equipment that becomes obsolete in 6 months, CompUSA only lasted for 23 years. I think we can guess whether or not this service plan was worth the money for anyone who bought it.

Of course the other side of that dime was the repair department itself. While I must admit to never having taken any machine of my own in to be repaired, I do work in a computer field, and most of my friends are computer people. Near as I can tell, having your computer go down and taking it to CompUSA is a similar experience to finding a bag of flaming poo on your doorstep. Surprising and alarming when it happens, and then when you try and do something about it, it sticks to you and just stinks.

The final straw was CompUSA’s schizophrenic indecisiveness about what kind of store they wanted to be, combined with a complete lack of attention to the market forces surrounding them. First they brought in telephones, then videogame consoles, then televisions, VCR players, DVD players, stereo equipment, cameras, flashlights, books, luggage… the list goes on. And the worst part was that they didn’t do any of it well. They carried nothing that couldn’t be purchased for considerably less most anywhere else, but worst of all, they somehow never took into account that their customers, the ones buying the computers, knew how to use them! These are the people who made internet shopping what it is today, and CompUSA never even made the pretenseof being remotely competitive. I expect to pay a little more at a brick and mortar establishment — and I frequently will for the instant gratification that provides. But I don’t expect to have to pay more than I would at every other brick and mortar establishment there is.

In the end, I don’t think it was a particular surprise to anyone when CompUSA took down it’s shingle. It is kind of a shame because there really isn’t any other store to replace it. (Sorry, but Best Buy doesn’t cut it for me as a computer store.) On the other hand, maybe this is a good thing. The Market giveth and the Market taketh away. And when you want a computer, the last place you’re going to look is in the toilet.

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