The Demise of Independent Computer Retailers

A recent thread in a local tech mailing list noted the impending closure of Pacific Solutions, an established computer retailer here in Portland. I was never a frequent customer—to get there I typically had to go out of my way—but the store had a knowledgeable staff and stocked industry-standard parts. I was saddened, though not surprised, at the news.

One contributor to the mail thread noted that back in the 1990s, there were quite a few independent computer retailers in and around Portland. “Then,” he wrote, “came Fry’s and Amazon.”

It’s true that small computer retailers have largely disappeared, but I don’t think that Fry’s and Amazon are the main culprits.

There are a several interwoven issues.

Computers are useful for a much longer period of time.

Advancing technology made hardware obsolete so much faster back in the 80s and 90s. Video standards, hard drive capacity, CPU speeds, RAM capacity, modem speeds—they all advanced so quickly that hardware needed upgrading just to keep up with mainstream software releases (which were quick to take advantage of that new hardware).

A good local shop would provide the parts and know-how. These days, the hardware in a decent computer will run mainstream software well for many years without needing an upgrade. Even laptops have begun to have longer useful lifetimes.

Computer hardware is usually more reliable.

A name-brand computer can still be a lemon – but it’s much less likely than it was in 1998. I have far less need to replace gear than I did 20 years ago.

Computing appliances have replaced PCs for many tasks.

Many computer functions that required unusual or bleeding-edge hardware are now done by appliances or in a professionally maintained service (e.g., cloud services). For many folks, an Xbox or PS4 will run the games that formerly required us to upgrade video hardware, controllers, memory, and CPUs. Likewise, phones and tablets serve as reliable platforms for games, web browsing, e-mail, chat, and multimedia.

Computer enthusiasts are a dying breed.

I think the 80s and 90s were the heyday of a class of users I think of as “computer enthusiasts.” While PCs were new and exotic, these folks took them apart and reassembled them, helped friends get started, and worked to integrate often flaky new services (dial-up modems, drivers du jour, and anything related to Windows). As PCs and their operating systems have become more reliable, the enthusiast community – a main customer of local computer shops – has dwindled.

Web sites provide a broader range of knowledge.

Web sites like Newgg and Amazon that provide customer reviews provide some of the social interaction and learning that we formerly had to get in face-to-face conversations. If I’m looking for a new hard drive, I’m more likely these days to turn to online reviews than the guy manning the desk at the small retailer in a local strip mall.

The businesses that have borne the brunt of those changes are the retailers. Their customers need fewer upgrades and less of their know-how with each passing year.

I’ll leave it to others to assess the good and the bad in those changes, but I don’t think the Fry’s and Amazon are the main drivers.