People wonder why brick and mortar stores succumb to online sales. Online stores lose the touch-and-feel from shoppers, and certainly cannot compete when it comes to impulse items. However, online stores are superior when it comes to finding exactly what you are looking for, as long as you are willing to wait a few days. I am trying to learn some electronics, and made a quick trip to my local Radio Shack recently for a few discrete components that I needed to build a small example circuit. Nothing uncommon: LED’s , 555 timer and a 4017 decade counter. These are small, cheap components that should be available at any electronics store. Well, Radio Shack let me down. They did have the timer chip, but nothing else. OK, I’ll take the trip up to Fry’s Electronics, the geek superstore. If you have never been to Fry’s, it is the size of a large supermarket with everything under the sun that is powered by electricity. Computers, computer parts, washers, dryers, refrigerators, TV’s, DVD players, video games and systems, movies, phones, radios and anything else you could hope for. Oh yeah, they also have electrical components. A lot of them. Or so it seems.

I made a small shopping list of discrete components I needed for a few beginner electronics projects. Again, nothing obscure. I spent the better portion of an hour looking at components, trying to cross items off of my shopping list. Low and behold, they didn’t even carry much of the items I was in search for! Those items that they did carry, they had low stock on. For example, I needed 3 types of a certain chip. They had a foot long peg containing the items, but only carried two of them. Now, this is a chip that you commonly use in a trio, so why only carry two? Maybe they needed to reorder. Nope. Looking at the other components, most of the pegs only had 2 packages of the components. It is not looking good so far. One item I was in need of was a PIC. This is a chip that you can write programs to. They carry the devices to actually program the chips, but the actual chips could not be found. Anywhere! I asked an employee that was stocking items in the electronics area where I could find the PICs at. He said ‘guitar picks?’. Arghh! No. I explained what it was, and commented that since he is in this area, I would hope he would know where to find them. He directed me to the computer counter where someone might be able to help me. After waiting four deep behind people asking questions like ‘will this hard drive fit my computer’ and ‘I want to upgrade my memory in my computer. What model of computer? Windows.’, I finally was greeted by someone who looked like they dreaded the next question to insult their intelligence. I promptly changed their look to that of bewilderment when I inquired about PICs. He didn’t know what they were, but would look in the computer. His search of PICK returned nothing. *SIGH*. I told him it was PIC and gave him a few model numbers, and directed him to the PIC programmers displayed on the screen. No dice. Nada. No results returned. Strike two on trying to procure common components.

I was reciting my misadventures to a coworker who stated he has had similar experiences and only shops for components online, else he scavages old electronics equipment to recover their silicon goodness before their retirement in the great trash heap. He gave me a few pointers on where to get samples of small components online, and after filling out a few online forms, I have some of the components I need being shipped as I write this, free of charge!

While this post outlines my most recent dealing with brick and mortar stores, I find this a regular occurrence. For most household projects, I need to visit two to three different hardware stores. One for the lumber, one for electrical items and one for fasteners. Same thing goes for incidental items. Luckily, the Walmart, Target and Meijers are all close together, so I can hit each store for the items I need on my shopping list.

So, while I pass new shopping malls being built, I can’t help but wonder how long it will take before the new tenants perish to the powers of the Internet.