February 21, 2008

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An elegy for CompUSA
Another superstore goes quietly into that good night
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

It is with great sadness that I witness the closing of New Hampshire’s two CompUSA stores in Nashua and Salem.

The retailer was sold to a liquidator in December, seven years after going private under a Mexican company. Some individual stores were sold, but most are going out of business.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t always very keen on CompUSA. Their flyers seemed more the Crazy Eddie variety, with unbelievable prices that had lengthy small print sections and suspiciously low stock on advertised specials. Once I learned to play the game, though — get to the store before opening Sunday morning, fill out rebate forms meticulously — the deals were hard to beat.

Still, they didn’t make it easy to stay in love. Even their loyalty card was more of a pain than most stores’ — it actually cost money to sign up and earn points. That venture folded just a few months in, and even though they refunded the signup fee in the form of a coupon, the store staff didn’t quite know how to handle it. I ended up wasting it on a crappy spinning DVD rack with unstable shelves that fall off every time I pick out a movie.

I know, technically not CompUSA’s fault. Allow me some irrational blame in my time of grief.

In any case, the going-out-of-business sale has been — how shall I put this? — underwhelming. They started out with 10 to 30 percent off with no returns, and in an industry with fast-dropping prices and frequent rebate deals, that just wasn’t thrilling me. The discounts have since gotten steeper, but still nothing earth-shattering. Rather than a bang, CompUSA goes out with a whimper. So what’s next?

When OfficeMax pulled out of New Hampshire a couple years ago, closing its Nashua and Manchester stores, the blow wasn’t too hard to take. A new Staples is built in the state just about every month, and Office Depot popped up one plaza over from OfficeMax’s erstwhile location in South Nashua.

CompUSA’s closures leave a more distinct hole. Best Buy and Circuit City do quite well with the consumer electronics, software and complete computers, but there’s no other large store around here with as many options for individual PC components. Where else am I gonna pick up a processor fan, a bare tower case or, heaven help me, a motherboard?

Barring the Internet, of course, the answer is: a local shop. In theory we all love the personal touch and in-depth knowledge of home-grown stores, but the big parking lots and big sales of the chains have a way of drawing us all in. Maybe the departure of a retail giant will get me perusing the shelves of smaller joints owned by the guy right there behind the counter more often. And that can’t be bad.

At least until Fry’s moves into town someday.