requiem for a rant

CompUSA and Circuit City are finally being put (back) in the ground, after three tortuous years of Systemax trying desperately to make their gutted husks not only look alive again, but alive enough to put the fear of competition in Best Buy.

As someone who worked for CompUSA (long before this whole fiasco), I didn’t get that feeling of watching a relative or parent exhumed and reanimated before my eyes. I don’t feel any nostalgia for that company whatsoever. But I would rather have seen it get just one quick death, rather than lingering on as it did. Circuit City didn’t really have much better of a reputation; in the best of times, it was regarded as a wannabe Best Buy (albeit one that carried a better selection of stereo equipment), and at the worst, it was remembered primarily for inventing things no one wanted. The electronics retail crash dive of the late 00s was a shock that left the bodies of these companies intact, but their internal workings permanently and catastrophically damaged. By 2004, most any CompUSA or Circuit City was filled with staff who were best described as demoralized and unmotivated. They were still forced to fill a quota of signups to AOL dial-up internet, in a period when far faster cable internet was becoming both easily available and very affordable. Most people were just waiting for the end, like strangers holding a candlelight vigil outside the hospital, eager to go home and continue their lives.

What concerns me more about this is the damage to their parent/sibling, TigerDirect.

2004 was probably the last heyday of the big box electronics superstores. Best Buy, CompUSA and Circuit City spent their days battling for the crown of Retail King, evoking memories of the European monarchs warring over control of the Continent in the first World War. The common people wearily endured the constant deluge of propaganda, while others served in the ranks, and all just hoped for the excitement to die down a bit so things could just be normal for a while.

Meanwhile, off to one side, was TigerDirect. I fondly remember Tiger as being a cross between these big box stores and RadioShack. One could go to Tiger for something older or more obscure, but also find plenty of newer hardware as well. They weren’t obsessed with selling overpriced TVs or games. In particular, I remember my local Tiger’s absurdly wide selection of system memory. Everything from the then-current DDR2, to archaic PC66 SDRAM, and even a few sticks of the near-mythical RDRAM, could be found with a fair degree of ease. One entire wall of the store was nothing but system memory. Similarly, older hard drives and motherboards were easily available, making working on older systems far easier. Smaller parts like molex splitters, 3-pin adapters and mounting kits to adapt components of different sizes were nearly as prevalent as the memory. I can’t even remember how many dozens of trips I made to that store when I suddenly discovered I needed a splitter to install a new fan or something of the like.

In 2007, CompUSA officially went under, and was purchased by Systemax, the parent company of TigerDirect, with its last 16 remaining stores rebranded as TigerDirects. The following year, Circuit City closed nearly all its stores, and the remainder were also acquired and eventually rebranded. Systemax had pulled these vegetables right off their hospital beds, given them a fresh change of clothing and started making them walk and talk as if they had never been in ill health at all. I had my doubts about this move, but if it meant even more access to niche hardware, I was all for it.

That didn’t happen.

Almost overnight, my local TigerDirect underwent huge changes. Within six months, fully half the store’s footprint was occupied by enormous HDTVs, with computer hardware pushed off to the side and the selection reduced to a mere sampler, rather than the imperial buffet it had previously been. Within another twelve months, the hardware was moved again, to the back corner where it had virtually no exposure. Only the cheapest and most extravagant of video cards and motherboards were on display, with the midrange underrepresented at best. For me, it was only barely a notch above Best Buy, but they still had the advantage with hard-to-find parts and kits. Eventually that dwindled to nothing, as well. After a while, I had very little reason to go to TigerDirect, and apparently most other people felt the same way.

In 2012, the CompUSA and Circuit City brands were officially dissolved and brought under the TigerDirect banner, finally putting the zombies in the ground. But TigerDirect shuffled on, apparently hoping to fulfill some obscure set of criteria to attain manhood. My local store was completely rearranged every 6-9 months, seemingly part of a mission to guarantee customer dependence on the nonexistent salesmen to find products because they were constantly on the move. They still had those obscure niche components, but my motivation to shop there continued to asymptotically approach zero. Even when I went there during the evening rush hour, I would see at most half a dozen other customers. It was nearly abandoned.

And here we are, another three years later. Systemax has announced that TigerDirect will effectively be no more, closing all but three stores nationwide, including a distribution center in Naperville that has been open since Ye Olde Dayes. Finally, the (tarnished) legacies of these three franchises are being put to rest.

I’ll miss TigerDirect, but only the TigerDirect I knew before 2008. I certainly won’t miss CompUSA or Circuit City. Their time was long ago, and long past.