Imagine walking into a department store, a Walmart for a direct example, looking for something electronic in nature. Maybe a new TV, or something simple like an HDMI cable. What do you imagine?
You imagine the accessibility of technology in the 21st century, an open space dotted with displays of current items, small aisles lightly filled with speakers and accessories, a bin full of discount DVDs. You browse, you buy electronics as if you were shopping (which are now in the same store).
When I worked at Walmart from the early to late ’90s, it was different. In a sense, it was a perfect physical metaphor for our growing relationship with technology. When you walked into a Walmart in the early 1990s, it was a different scene.
The walls were brown, orange and yellow (ish). The lighting was dimmer, the ceilings lower. There was a sense of confinement, a sense of dread, and the only viable groceries were bottles of Gatorade and a limited line of cereal. The electronics section, usually located in the center of the store, was a walled garden.
While part of the overall metaphor, it is literal. The walls of the electronics section surrounded him almost to the ceiling. Eight-foot walls of aluminum and cabinet-style composite panels separated the vaulted electronics from the rest of the common household items.
If I remember correctly (and I can’t, as there was a multitude of drugs involved in my bloodstream at that time), the shoe department and the electronics department were not officially part of the store, but a kind of Walmart. subcontractors. Customers weren’t aware of this except for the clear separation from the rest of the store.
Entering the electronics section revealed its own security tag detectors, its own ledger counter (a counter I often worked on, besieged by lack of support from supervisors when it came to requesting a change) which was often more complicated than functional. This required customers to walk to the front of the store to make a purchase while staying there until they had passed the line. Electronic items had to buy in electronics.
While I worked in many areas of the store, from toys to inventory, checkout and shoes (where I started out), it was the electronics that provided a sort of sense of superiority over the rest of the store, and especially the loose jaws. customer.
It was the days of RadioShack
It was a pre-smartphone, and customers needed help figuring out their purchases because they didn’t get it through mobile advertising.
It was a time when electronics outside of the basics of the house were mostly understood by those who built them or became experts at them (us nerds). I could explain the difference between TVs to an unwitting customer, or why one amplifier was more expensive than the other. It was necessary, as they stood there watching, often knowing that they needed a device that produced sound, but unable to discern what all those buttons and holes were doing. RCA cable for the most part was confusing three colors.
Walmart’s electronics section was then full of computer components (more so than now), which was another level of ignorance among customers. Rarely though, would we have questions pointed to this shelf, like if customers were buying computer parts, they usually knew what they were doing. The same is true today, for the most part. Video games could be played, cassettes and CDs remained trapped in rectangles of plastic security packaging. When we ended up in the electronics section, we ended up in a different store.
Obviously, there is some twisted nostalgia for this fortress of electronics, but the moment a cellular transporter set up a stand at the front of the store – an event that turned out to correlate with a store redesign who opened the floor plan and changed the colors to those you recognize today – our attitude towards electronics started to change. Sure, some of us wore pagers, but it was the line of consumer cellphones that grabbed our kidneys and drugged us in a world in which we were forever bound to our personal electronics. .
Along the way, we lost touch with what those products were. They were tools, they provided access or service, they enabled audio or visual entertainment – but they weren’t tied to who we were. Sure, there were audiophile shower jigsaw puzzles whose entire state of being was determined by the size of their Kenwood speakers, and we all knew a dude whose detachable car stereo was talking about the parking lot, but there was still a sign out because electronics was something you had to look for in another store or in the gated community within one.
Now the electronics section is part of Walmart’s open floor plan. You can drift, drift. Purchases (except for locked things) can be made in another register. The knowledge base of the standard electronics employee has become that of a damp rag in a pile of sand.
They just seem to be there for the day, but we don’t need their knowledge anymore. The Internet has it. Google has it. Product reviews on Amazon have it. Entire screens are devoted to phones and tablets, the only determining factor being whether you’re an Apple fan or not. As with our lives, electronics are now an integral part of the store in general. Do you put on your clothes first thing in the morning or check your phone?
“I grew up in a small town in Texas and Walmart was the only place in town it was fun to go,” says a Twitch streamer and a Twitter friend (and real Space Captain) sometimes. Space Captain Zemo. “I was hanging out there all the time my family was shopping.
“[The electronics section] felt like this little magical area that had video games, music, and gadgets. I remember playing video game demos and checking out computers during the tech boom of the early 90s.
“Now that I’m older and the technology is a lot easier to access, the electronics sections of stores aren’t as fun anymore. I’m still traveling through but it doesn’t have that magic like it used to. I guess that’s because as a kid I only had access to technology like this at Walmart. Now I’m swimming in electronics so it’s become the norm.
As with our lives, our shopping experiences are embedded in technology. We walk around the store, glued to our phones, check prices, and simultaneously shop online for more tech.
RadioShack and other dedicated electronics and tech stores have fallen into obscurity as we no longer search for transistors, fuses, and other parts. We just buy a new thing instead. This is the way. The magic (and the need) of repairing an old and expensive amplifier is no longer there. It is not mandatory. We are all connected to our phones, connected via WiFi to our Sonos speakers.
This is neither a bad nor a good thing, it’s just the way the company has progressed over the past three decades. While there is some concern about our addiction to technology, it is clear in our physical world that we are fully integrated with our technology regardless of our personal feelings about it. So yes, it’s inevitable for us to look around and remember when the closest electronics section wasn’t a plastic shelf in our closet.
There is something in our mind that reminds us of that technological Eden that once existed, that the submerged world that we are a part of today was built from something, something detached but allowing us to connect to the music, movies, video games, and each other.
Now everything is in our hands. We travel the world, no longer looking for specialized electronics and technology, but simply waiting for it to be delivered at a fraction of the relative cost.
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