A look into Houston's retail past

Goodbye Fry’s!

Think back to your formative years on computers. If you’re anywhere close in age to me, then these years span a wide timeline of operating systems from early memories of basic commands in Windows 3.1, ending during the time of Windows XP. I have lots of early computing memories which beyond screeching dial up noises involves going to stores like CompUSA, Best Buy, Microcenter, and on one occasion a trip to Incredible Universe. Unfortunately, these stores only served as walled gardens for me. While they provided lots of interesting things to look my reliance on my parents for money, as they didn’t believe in an allowance, along with their reluctance to buy unnecessary but “cool” items such as a graphics cards and more RAM meant we usually didn’t leave with much. By the time I was able enough to keep control of my own money Fry’s was the new game in town, and often the cheapest by far. The PC components were not the only attraction Fry’s also carried a really cool selection of items, including brand-new tech along with individual parts and tiny components including many that you would only otherwise find at a store like Radio Shack. Outside of the obvious Electronics and Appliances, the store also carried oddities like a copious amount of snack foods, and soda, a seemingly endless number of magazines, tons of “As Seen on TV” products, closeout deals on things like cheapo record players, and best of all it was cheap! The snack foods, and bulk discounting are likely related to the Fry family’s start in retail with the Fry’s Markets grocery chain.

The family’s history in grocery retailing meant Fry’s knew how to set up deals. Especially around the holidays, when the store was set up in a demo heavy Incredible Universe style. The stores undoubtedly resembled their former competitor. It was (excuse the pun) “Incredible” that Fry’s could pull off three stores throughout the Houston area whereas Tandy failed with one. While I can’t find anything confirming it outright gossip from the time makes it seem that the Houston Incredible Universe location was a possible contender for Fry’s to purchase when they bought multiple other IU locations, but they ultimately backed away from the deal. Rather than focus on one central store, Fry’s decided to build multiple in the suburbs. The first location to open was the oil themed, I-45 and West Road location. Opening in 2000, it took the place of a former Builder’s Square home improvement store with what had been the garden space being enclosed by Fry’s. The exterior was renovated adding fake oil derricks added to each side. The next location would be the Space Station themed Webster which opened in 2004 and was located very near to NASA Mission Control. This location featured a faux Space Station inside. The final location would be Stafford which would open in 2006 in a very plain and bland building. The theme was “history of Houston” and the store featured large print-outs of photos sourced from the early 20th century showing typical scenes of Houston.

In 2019, I started to hear rumors that Fry’s was on the brink of shutting down. By this point in my life I hadn’t been to a Fry’s for few years, having moved on to Micro Center. The rumors ranged from people saying that Fry’s was about to lay off all their staff and liquidate, to the slow Sears style burnout that we ended up seeing. Thankfully I was able to document this downfall through three visits within over the course of three years. Fry’s is a private company and we likely won’t see much explanation behind their downfall for years to come. It’s a sad situation to have a store with such fond memories attached just slip away without much notice. However, given their stocking situation I had no business at these stores outside of taking photos.

Stafford Fry’s September 2019

Webster Fry’s February 2020

Houston Fry’s January 2021

Reader Comments

  1. I’ll be writing my own Fry’s retrospective this month and include a map of the Plano one (a former IU) that I scanned for my old blog many years ago, as well as put a few of what I can find here (I think I have some of the Houston Chronicle Fry’s ads too, though due to their size probably won’t be scanned in their entirety).

    The idea of them selling body bags is absurd, but I remember some weird Spencers/frat party merchandise at Hastings before their demise.

  2. I was present at the Greenspoint area/North Houston Fry’s grand opening in 2000 just like I was at the Incredible Universe grand opening in 1995 (I think) and the original West Loop MicroCenter in 1994. I visited Fry’s at least once every two or three weeks during their first few years. Although I didn’t shop there as often in later years, I still shopped there quite a bit. I made a handful of visits to the Greenspoint and NASA Fry’s during 2020-21 even when they had very little inventory left. It’s sad that Fry’s is gone now, but I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone who had been to a Fry’s lately. The only thing more sparse at Fry’s than the inventory and number of employees was the number of shoppers in their stores in recent times. There couldn’t have been more than 10 other shoppers in the whole store during my last handful of visits which is really remarkable given the size of their stores even after they started closing off half of their stores.

    I never visited the SW Houston Fry’s. It uses a generic design that was used at other Fry’s in other locations. It’s boring compared to the other two Houston area Fry’s, but the design of the store is still pretty neat if one doesn’t know about the themed Fry’s locations. I didn’t visit the NASA Fry’s until 2009, but I probably shopped there more frequently than the Greenspoint Fry’s in more recent years. I still went to both though.The ‘WOW! factor’ for those two locations was really quite high.

    Incredible Universe had a high level of ‘WOW!’ as well in terms of store design, but there are many reasons why IU failed and Fry’s lasted a couple of decades in Houston. The biggest reason was probably that Fry’s had very good prices, especially on sale items, but IU’s prices were on the high side at the time compared to Best Buy and other competitors. I remember waiting each Friday to see Fry’s sales circular in the Houston Chronicle. There was always an amazing price on something, usually more than one thing, that I found interesting in the 2000s in those Fry’s ads. The same simply cannot be said about IU.

    Another big reason why Fry’s was successful in those early days is that they had a much wider variety of products than other chain-type electronics/computer stores. At that time, even MicroCenter was not really serving the then-large and growing crowd of people were were assembling their own PCs during halcyon days of Pentium 3s/Athlons and Pentium 4s/Athlon XPs. If you wanted a great deal on a CPU-motherboard combo or on an OEM bare hard drive with better than online pricing, it was either Fry’s or taking your chances with a small private computer store that were common on Harwin or Westheimer (and a few other places like UBM Computers on the West Belt). MicroCenter eventually picked up on this and beat Fry’s at their own game, but Fry’s was really the only place for a few years.

    Aside from DIY computer parts, Fry’s also had a large selection of general DIY electronic parts like a Radio Shack would have had and they also had a lot of stuff that would be useful for IT professionals and home theater integration people. Completely consumer-oriented stores like Best Buy and IU had nothing for that large segment of customers.

    One thing Fry’s was still good at selling even just before their death was recordable optical media (CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, BD-Rs, etc.). Of course, this isn’t something most people use with any frequency in modern times so it was a bit of a strange thing for Fry’s to focus on, but it was always prominently featured in their weekly ads until the end and they still had a whole aisle of the stuff even when they closed. I’m in the minority, but I still use recordable media quite often and so Fry’s large selection of it and really good prices caused me to make a number of visits there in recent times. Their prices were better than online stores and there was no issue of the online store shipping the discs with improper packaging which causes many of the discs to arrive scratched (*cough*Amazon*cough*).

    My last visit to Fry’s was a visit to the NASA Fry’s in very late January 2021 or very early February. By that point, the left half of the store was closed off and all remaining inventory was shifted over to the right side of the store. This was done haphazardly as the aisle markers were not changed so it was a real guessing game as to where anything was in the store. Sale signs that expired in October were still on the shelves and almost nothing had correct price tags. Fry’s was beyond malaise in their last few months. Aside from optical media, another thing Fry’s took seriously in their last few months was pandemic supplies. Perhaps no store had more variety in masks and sanitizer than Fry’s did, lol. I think I saw that they were even selling body bags. Perhaps that was appropriate given Fry’s not-so-distant fate!

    On the topic of store organization, Fry’s was never really all that good at it. Fry’s had a bad habit of putting the same type of merchandise in all kinds of different parts of the store. If you wanted an HDMI cable, they had them in the TV department and in the electronic parts department. The former location ones cost $20-30 and the latter ones cost $2-$3 (hardly anyone else in town was selling HDMI cables for those prices)! The same was true with things like cordless phone batteries. Very similar batteries were $15 in the phone department and $5 in the parts department. They were different brands, but essentially the same thing with the same mAh ratings and such. It paid to check the parts department first if you wanted something like those items!

    Fry’s was a bit shady in their business operations. This seemed more true in their early days than their later days. They often put returned merchandise right back on the sales floor at regular price. These things were usually marked as being returned, but sometimes the whole pallet of a particular item had those returned item stickers on them. There were reports that Fry’s went to great lengths to try to deny returns for cash and would try to get people to accept store credit instead. I never really had any problems with anything at Fry’s, but I wouldn’t have bought big ticket items from there either.

    Here’s one last thing. Not only was the Greenspoint Fry’s a former Builders Square (actually, Kmart referred to that type of Builders Square stores as Builders Square II stores), but that whole shopping center it was in was a Kmart powercenter. Kmart relocated their Little York/Victory store to that shopping center and it was joined by Kmart’s Pace Membership Warehouse. Of these, only the Kmart was still around when Fry’s opened.

    The Pace is The Dump furniture store now, but around the time that it opened, it was a Compaq Works store. Compaq Works was essentially a Compaq factory outlet store (of course, Compaq was headquartered on 249 north of Willowbrook Mall at the time). While I was not interested in Compaq computers at the time, they did have great prices on computer accessories like laptop bags, mice, and stuff like that. I once bought a laptop bag for half the price Fry’s was selling it for and the savings were even greater compared to what OfficeMax and such were selling the same bag for. Compaq Works was certainly a very obscure computer retailer, but a neat one and within walking distance from Fry’s. I still have and use a Compaq mouse pad that they were giving away at the Compaq Works store about 20 years ago!

    My apologies for the long-windedness of this comment especially since I’ve posted some of these thoughts on Je’s Louisiana & Texas Retail blog before, but hopefully some of your readers will appreciate these remembrances, lol.

    1. I can confirm the reports of Fry’s going to great lengths to deny cash/credit card returns in favor of store credit. I was able to get them to credit back my card, but like most of issues I encountered at Fry’s, it took well over half an hour to resolve.

  3. As someone who loved stalking the aisles of CompUSA from Westheimer to Sugar Land to the short-lived revival at Bunker Hill and I-10 just to look at all the computer equipment and software (and covet that Apple eMate 300), walking into Fry’s for the first time was a mind-blowing experience. Unfortunately, the experience of actually shopping there left a lot to be desired, and by the early 2010s I had stopped going to Fry’s due to these issues. I suspect I was not alone, though to be fair I also have many friends who praised the stores and clearly had good experiences there

    Even so, it is sad to see what the once wonderful window shopping experience at Fry’s had been reduced to, like a dying Kmart stocking snow shovels in July just have SOMETHING on the shelf. Sad too to lose such unique interior design and architecture, something that developers seem increasingly averse to putting in new retail buildings. Here’s hoping that someone can creatively reuse these 3 very large store spaces, I’m sure that won’t be easy.

What do you think?