How Walmart’s electronics symbolize our relationship with technology
The electronics castle is on your left.
Imagine walking into a department store, a Walmart for a direct example, searching for something of an electronical nature. A new television perhaps, or something simple like an HDMI cable. What do you picture?
You picture the 21st-century accessibility of technology, an open area spotted with displays of the current items, small aisles lightly stocked with speakers and accessories, a bin full of discount DVDs. You browse, you shop for electronics as if you are shopping for groceries (which can now be found in the same store).
When I worked at Walmart in the early-to-late 1990s, it was different. In a sense, it was a perfect physical metaphor for our growing relationship to 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 containment, a sense of dread and the only viable groceries were Gatorade bottles and a limited range of cereals. The electronics section, generally located in the center of the store, was a walled garden.
While part of the overall metaphor, this is literal. The walls of the electronics section surrounded it nearly to the ceiling. Eight-foot walls made of aluminum and composite cubicle-style boards separated the vaulted electronics from the rest of the common household goods.
If I remember correctly (and I may not, as there was a wealth of drugs involved in my bloodstream at this point in time), the shoe department and the electronics department were not officially part of the store, but some sort of Walmart-operated subcontractors. Customers were not aware of this, save for the clear separation from the rest of the store.
Walking into the electronics section revealed its own security tag detectors, its own register counter (a counter I often worked, beleaguered by the lack of support from supervisors when it came to requesting change) that was often messier than it was functional. This required walking customers to the front of the store to make a purchase while standing there until they were through the line. Electronics items had to be purchased in electronics.
While I worked in many areas of the store from toys, to stock, to cashiering, and shoes (where I started), it was electronics that offered some sort of feeling of superiority to the rest of the store, and especially the slack-jawed customer.
This was the era of RadioShack
This was pre-smartphone, and customers needed help understanding their purchases because they didn’t get it from mobile advertising.
This was a time where electronics outside the household basics were mainly understood by those who had built them or become experts in them (us nerds). I could explain the difference in televisions to an unwitting customer, or why one amplifier was priced higher than the other. It was necessary, as they stood there staring, often knowing they needed a sound-producing device, but unable to discern what it was all those buttons and holes did. An RCA cable to most was three colors of confusion.
The Walmart electronics section then was full of computer components (more than now), which was another level of customer ignorance. Rarely though, would we get questions pointed to that shelf, as if customers were buying computer parts, they generally knew what they were doing. The same stands today, for the most part. Video games could be played, tapes and CDs rested trapped within rectangles of plastic security packaging. When we found ourselves in the electronics section, we found ourselves in a different store.
Obviously, there is some twisted nostalgia for this fortress of electronics, but the moment that a cellular carrier installed a booth at the front of the store — an event that happened to correlate with a redesign of the stores that opened the floor plan and changed the colors to those you recognize today — our attitude toward electronic device began to change. Sure, some of us wore pagers, but it was the consumer-facing range of cell phones that grabbed us by the kidneys and drug us into a world in which we’d be forever linked to our personal electronic devices.
Along the way, we lost touch with what these products were. They were tools, they provided access or a service, they enabled sound or visual entertainment — but they were not tied to our identity. Sure, there were some audiophile douchenozzles whose entire state of being was determined by the size of their Kenwood speakers, and we all knew that one dude-bro whose removable-face car stereo was the talk of the parking lot, but there was still a disconnect because electronics was something you had to seek out in a different store or the gated community within one.
Now, the electronics section is part of the open floor plan at Walmart. You can drift in, drift out. Purchases (save for things locked up) can be made at a different register. The knowledge base of the standard electronics employee has become that of a wet rag in a pile of sand.
They simply appear to be assigned there for the day, but we no longer need their knowledge. The internet has it. Google has it. Product reviews on Amazon have it. Entire displays are devoted to phones and tablets, the only deciding factor being if you are an Apple fanboi or not. As with our lives, electronics are now an integrated part of the store at large. Do you put your clothes on first thing in the morning or check your phone?
“I grew up in small-town Texas and Walmart was the only place in town fun to go to,” says sometimes Twitch streamer and Twitter friend (and real Space Captain) Space Captain Zemo. “I would hang out there the entire time my family was shopping.
“[The electronics section] felt like this magical little zone that had video games, music and gadgets. I remember playing on the video game demos there and checking out the computers during the early 90s tech boom.
“Now that I’m older and tech is much easier to access, the electronics sections of stores don’t feel as fun. I still travel through it but it doesn’t have that magic like it used to. I guess it’s because as a kid, I only had access to tech like this at Walmart. Now I’m swimming in electronics so it’s become the norm.”
As with our lives, our shopping experiences are integrated with technology. We wander through the store, glued to our phones, price checking and simultaneously shopping online for more technology.
RadioShack and other stores dedicated to electronics and technology have faded into obscurity because we no longer seek out transistors, fuses, and other parts. We just buy a new thing instead. This is the way. The magic (and necessity) of fixing an expensive, antique amplifier no longer exists. It doesn’t have to. We’re all plugged into our phones, WiFi-connected to our Sonos speakers.
This isn’t a bad thing or a good thing, it’s just the way society has progressed in the past three decades. While there is some worry about our reliance on technology, it’s clear within our physical world that we are fully integrated with our technology regardless of our personal feelings about it. So yeah, there is an inevitability to us looking around and remembering when the closest electronics section wasn’t a plastic shelving unit in our closet.
There is something in the back of our minds that reminds us of this tech Eden that once existed, that the immersed world we’re part of today was built from something, something detached but enabling us to connect to music, movies, video games, and each other.
Now that is all within the palms of our hands. We walk the world, no longer seeking out specialized electronics and technology, but simply waiting for it to be delivered for a fraction of the relative cost.
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