Stores I Struggle to Explain in 2024

I recently read Gary Weiss’s very good 2022 book Retail Gangster, about Crazy Eddie, a discount retailer that was well-known in New York for its high-pressure sales staff and its screaming commercials touting its “insane!” prices. When I’ve tried to discuss the book and the business with people who are younger or not from the New York metropolitan area, though, I felt like I was speaking a foreign language. Crazy Eddie, and other stores like it, changed the retail world for people interested in consumer electronics, but today, consumers expect to be treated better — and they usually are.

Before Crazy Eddie came around, stereo and television manufacturers worked with their authorized dealers to sell their products in particular ways, at particular prices, with margins that caused consumers to pay more. Crazy Eddie engaged in a lot of novel practices, many of them fraudulent, to send a message to consumers: “We will not be undersold!” Crazy Eddie told customers to shop around, find the best price for what they wanted, and bring it to a store, where Crazy Eddie would offer an even better deal. Their sales staff would aggressively push customers to buy combinations of products that appeared to be good deals, but which might have been misrepresented, inferior, or cobbled together from returned or used equipment. At the time, price matching and haggling were very unusual for electronics retailers, but today, even mainstream retailers compete on price.

Crazy Eddie’s second store was in Syosset, New York, where I lived from 1987 to 1999, although I don’t remember going to it; all of the company’s stores closed in 1989, when I was 8 years old. Although Crazy Eddie eventually succumbed to its own poor accounting practices and criminal activity, their peculiarly aggressive sales strategy continued to exist at other electronics stores, particularly those specializing in cameras and personal computer equipment. B&H Photo, Adorama, and other shops copied Crazy Eddie’s playbook: bold ads with attractive prices, prominent mentions of major brand names, and promises to negotiate with customers for better prices. I remember going with my mom to LaBelle, a camera shop just down Jericho Turnpike from Crazy Eddie’s former Syosset location, which made the unusual boast in the early 2000s that it would match prices from online sellers. I brought a series of printouts from reputable online shops selling the same camera, and the aggressive LaBelle salesman batted them all away, like a basketball player rejecting shot after shot. Without providing evidence, he questioned the legitimacy of one of the retailers. He doubted that another company, a well-known seller, actually sold the camera they had listed on their own web site. It became clear that at LaBelle, they would only match prices to a limit, and beyond that, their salespeople would try to use fear, uncertainty, and doubt to try to win the customer’s business. On that day, my mom and I left LaBelle empty-handed and disappointed, and we bought the camera online instead.

Crazy Eddie’s “insane” salesman ads had a precedent, although most people in New York hadn’t seen the ads of Earl “Madman” Muntz, a California seller of cars and electronics who screamed manically at his prospective customers. Because of Crazy Eddie’s saturation marketing — their ad agency was blanketing airwaves like insurance companies do today, but with a much smaller budget — the company was referenced in TV shows and movies. Malfunctioning Eddie, a maniacal and unstable robot on Futurama, debuted in 2000, more than a decade after Crazy Eddie’s stores closed, for example. Growing up, I assumed that every city had their own version of the screaming, supposedly mentally unbalanced salesperson, willing to beat anyone’s price on a new TV. Radio ads for car dealers are about the closest thing I’d ever heard; even in the mid-2000s, there seemed to be at least one “screamer” ad in every city where I ever drove, and it seemed like there was one ad agency that wrote and produced the same script for every one, with the local dealer’s name filled in. Electronics, though, have gone mainstream. While you can still find suspiciously low prices for gray-market imports, they’re offered by professional-looking web sites that state their prices up front. I used to love shopping at the now-defunct Fry’s Electronics, just south of Seattle in Renton, and whose sometimes misleading ads gave me light Crazy Eddie vibes, but their salespeople were the polar opposite of the high-touch, fast-talking people I remember from LaBelle and other New York shops. I could spend an hour at Fry’s and never hear a word from a single salesperson. I’ve asked around, and no one I know who’s grown up in the Pacific Northwest has told me about a Crazy Eddie-style store of high pressure and questionable ethics. People around here, it turns out, had no problem buying their electronics from dealers.

Reading Retail Gangster made me think about other stores that seem incredible to younger generations. I recently visited Ghosts of Belltown, a large art gallery in the defunct and crumbling Bergman’s Luggage store in downtown Seattle. I talked to Nick, the proprietor, who plans to operate the space as a gallery for years to come. Nick has done an impressive job so far of activating the light-filled ground floor with murals, sculptures, and neon signage, and he has even more space upstairs at his disposal. We talked about the oddity of a downtown store that only sold luggage; even before online retail took off, one could buy suitcases at the huge (and now-defunct) department store across the street, or from any number of general-purpose retailers. In addition, well-built suitcases can last for a decade or more; how often would people need to buy luggage to sustain a fully staffed retail store in a prime location? The last time I was in Portland, I was walking around near the convention center, and I noticed Stark’s Vacuums, a 90-year-old shop that sells, rents, and services vacuum cleaners. I didn’t walk through Stark’s, but I was still stunned it remained in business: it seems like most people I know buy a vacuum very infrequently, vacuum reviews and sales are easy to find online, and even modestly priced vacuums are built well enough that they will work for years with only a minimum of maintenance. My neighborhood, too, had a vacuum store, until it closed in 2020; I am impressed that its parent company, still open in other locations, has operated continuously since 1985.

One of the nice things about cities is that they can sustain businesses that seem so niche as to be impossible. I heard a recording of a Ricky Gervais Show episode from 2003 about a shop in London that only sold chess pieces and supplies for the game of bridge; in 2017, I was on Baker Street in London, and Chess & Bridge was still in business, as it is today. Last year, I visited the charming and walkable downtown of Edmonds, Washington, about 10 miles north of my home, and found shops that sell lavender products and rocks and gemstones exclusively. I was impressed that they could specialize so narrowly and still have a loyal and dedicated customer base.

I do a lot of my shopping online, especially for commodity products that I could get anywhere, but there are some physical stores that are destinations all by themselves. When I’m shopping for products that I don’t know much about, like paint and tiles for my home, I appreciate stores where the sales staff know what they’re talking about. All the reading in the world can’t prepare me for the experience of walking into a big showroom, surrounded by products that I don’t understand. I also appreciate that, even while I’m on the go, I can look up information about products before I make a purchase. Crazy Eddie and its high-pressure salesmen have given way to a world where consumers can be educated by third parties before and during the sales process. That helps me shop with more confidence.

At time of publication, I worked for a division of Amazon. The opinions in this article are strictly my own and don’t represent those of my employer.