Local electronics stores hold their ground in tough times

Due to recent events, brick-and-mortar stores are in hot water. When the economy took a nosedive in 2008 the resulting shockwave sent tremors through major electronics retailers. Big names like CompUSA and Circuit City folded. Even retailers who fared better, like Best Buy and Game Stop, have faced a steady decline in stock and sales since then.

At the same time, the convenience of online stores like Amazon.com and others has lured many customers into doing their important holiday shopping where its most convenient: in their own home.

Considering all this, how are downtown electronics retailers coping with changing consumer habits? Pretty well indeed.

There’s a building on 13th and Willamette that seems like it belongs on a different block, maybe even a different planet. In stark contrast to the fire station across the street and the plainer buildings that surround it, Big City Gamin’ is decorated with touchstones of videogame culture.  On one side, Mario strikes an action pose and on the other a handful of classic characters such as Earthworm Jim and Crash Bandicoot lean in for a Polaroid.

Inside is as startling as the outside: the point of purchase is decorated with stamped metal, many of the supports are painted gunmetal and, perhaps most importantly, it is busy. On any given afternoon, Big City Gamin’ draws a crowd of gamers, young and old, and parents looking to purchase any of the store’s stock of games, peripherals and DVDs.

The storefront of Big City Gamin' is an eye-catching display.

The storefront of Big City Gamin’ is an eye-catching display.

Big City Gamin’ is a competitive market force for games sales in downtown Eugene according to Arthur Adams, an employee of five years. “A lot of people just come here,” said Adams.

In an economy where more and more consumers are flooding online for their purchases, there’s one thing that online retailers can’t provide, it’s being able to actually see the product before you buy it. “It’s like diamond shopping.  You’ve got to be able to hold the thing and look at it,” he said as he mimed swiveling his hand to look at an imaginary disk.

Shortly after, a customer approached Adams, asking if a videogame off their shelves was worth playing. He searched up some reviews online that declared the game to be average at best and then recommended a game in a similar genre from memory.

The employees at Big City Gamin’ are frank and honest, but only because they believe in their product and know what they’re doing.

The national chain GameStop has been the go-to place for customers seeking the latest in video games and video game equipment. Not only stocking every major release upon release, GameStop offers exclusive content for some of the games you may preorder through them. With 6700 locations, chances are you’ve seen their red-and-white sign.

But waters are choppy for GameStop. Their revenue is down and their stocks are stagnating since their first drop in 2009. DailyFinance suggests that flagging interest in pre-owned copies of games may be at the root of the problem, as sales of pre-owned video games has dropped 11 percent since the previous quarter.

Compared to its large chain retail competitors, Big City Gamin’ offers many of the same services: trade-ins, preorders, new and used games and consoles. But they also go the extra mile, allowing customers to rent and play games on-site and host the occasional tournament.

“They’re happening less now because of the holidays,” said Adams. The recent releases of Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops II, however, have stoked his interest.

Big City Gamin’ isn’t the only local electronics store to find its niche, either. Thompson’s Electronics near 11th and Oak, a downtown business since 1936, focuses on the purchase and resale of used mid-range hi-fi equipment.

Thompson’s is strictly unpretentious. Built in an old auto repair store with its stock arranged on simple wood shelves, the electronics store prefers function to flash. Gene Thompson described the way that some stereo retailers put on a show. “We’re not a salon,” he said, laughing. “We’re ‘chili con carne’ people. We eat out of a can sometimes.”

Gene Thompson puts up Christmas lights for his family store.

Gene Thompson puts up Christmas lights for his family store.

The store is not without a measure of pride, though. Thompson’s is as discerning with their customers as they are with their purchases. “If [the customer is] just going to blow it out at a weekend party, I’d rather not sell it to them,” Thompson said.

Best Buy, one of the biggest names in consumer electronics and especially home stereos, has been hit particularly hard by the economic hardships. In August, the company posted a 52 percent drop in sales from the previous quarter as well as record stock lows. While according to the New York Times, the company won’t share the fate of other national electronics chains it still faces a number of challenges rapidly shifting economy.

Thompson’s by contrast has found footing in the changing market. Recent upward trends in vinyl sales have caused demand for vintage turntables to increase, so Thompson’s have adjusted their stock to match while also stocking more replacement styluses.

Thompson's wares are selected for their price point and quality.

Thompson’s wares are selected for their price point and quality.

This isn’t to say that hi-fi gear is not in demand, even if sales of some parts are stagnant. On the contrary, as Gene Thompson’s brother Glen said, “I still get a lot of people looking for used hi-fi gear because it basically fulfills a need for people who want better sound equipment, which you only find with the older sound equipment.”

Consumers also prefer to pick up their vintage equipment where they can see it first and where they can make sure it works before they put down their money. “On the internet there is a great amount of faith,” said Thompson. “Seller feedback is really the only way you can judge people.”

Other than Ebay, Craigslist is one of the few places to get the specific type of equipment that Thompson’s sells, and Thompson is leery of that market due to the particular anonymity it provides sellers and buyers. Without a way to track reputation, it’s hard to make sure you’re buying from someone reputable.

Thompson’s is likewise discerning when picking up used equipment for resale. They prioritize vintage equipment and make absolutely sure it functions as advertised.

At the end of the day, what Thompson’s and Big City Gamin’ are most concerned about is offering something you can’t really get at a big chain, whose merchants have sales quotas to meet, or online, where every transaction is handled with button clicks. Shopping at these local stores allow you to see what you’re getting and look a human being in the eye before you make your purchase. Face to face, without artifice or pretense.

SIDEBAR: Tablets may be the new way to shop!

Tablet PCs may be a relatively new addition to the consumer electronics ecosystem, but they are already becoming the go-to tool for shoppers looking to purchase on the go. According to the Shop.org State of Retailing Online survey for 2012, 49 percent of retailers are reporting that tablet users now make up the majority of shoppers on their online stores. This outpaces personal computers, laptops and mobile phones by a fair amount.

Not only that, but studies suggest that tablet users are more likely to shop online than others. This may indicate a market shift that retailers are going to look out for, choosing to build their online storefronts with the tablet user in mind.

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