Back in the early 90’s, the CEO of Tandy decided that electronics stores weren’t enough like Disneyland, and Incredible Universe was born.
To 9-year-old-me, it was a true electronics utopia. Incredible Universe lived up to its name and became the next big thing in retail…at least until more than two of its locations had to make a profit.
I live about an hour away from Wilsonville, OR. It’s a town I hold in high personal regard because it was the original home of the experimental themed electronics chain.
Incredible Universe had a hub-and-spokes design just like a theme park. You’d enter a large rotunda, and spread out in front of you were several themed mini-stores. Each store had its own registers and inventory, and staff that were knowledgeable in that particular type of stuff.
There was a section for video games (my personal favorite) that carried all the latest systems…even the many also-rans the 90’s produced like the CD-i, Jaguar, and 3DO. There was a music area with more albums than any other store. You could buy brand new computers, appliances, and even entertainment furniture.
It was a big threat to the mom-and-pop computer stores at the time, but little me didn’t know that. It was like a dream.
Get hungry while you’re there? No problem! Why not buy some food from a fast food chain restaurant you already know and love from their counter right inside the store, like McDonalds or Pizza Hut. In Wilsonville, there was also a second floor that had some additional restaurant seating and product kiosks.
You could sit up there and take it all in from above.
In the center of the main rotunda was a vast TV screen hung from the ceiling, playing promos for the hottest new electronics and pop music videos. Under the screen lived a multiplayer VR setup from Virtuality where you could play Dactyl Nightmare for a couple of bucks.
After four years of excitement, Incredible Universe came crashing down. Hard. Not because the Wilsonville store couldn’t make money, but because the model didn’t work after they expanded to fifteen locations.
The Wilsonville location quickly sold to Fry’s Electonics, a competitor in the themed electronics store game but with more modest production budgets and a discount warehouse mentality.
Almost immediately the large store took a huge quality nose dive, where it then quietly hummed along for the last 20 years.
Fry’s cut all of the fun theming and tore down several walls. The department concept vanished and they turned an elaborate electronics wonderland into one big bland cement room full of shelves.
They still carried far more products than any other electronics store or chain, but all of the heart went away.
The vast selection is the only thing that kept me going to Fry’s for the last two decades. It was almost always a guarantee they’d have the device, movie, game, or computer thing I was looking for and I didn’t have to wait for shipping.
On every visit, I could also remember all the good times I had going there as a kid, seeing the true wonder of Incredible Universe, a retail experience that was unmatched. That nostalgia helped propel me through my many visits to the drab cement room.
The boring warehouse aesthetic was strange because most of the other Fry’s stores are elaborately themed, kind of like that original Incredible Universe. I don’t know what Oregon did to deserve such a gray warehouse.
The chain fast food counter got turned into “Cafe 16,” a generic coffee stand that served decent sandwiches and espresso. The large individual “store” signs in the rotunda mostly got the axe, save for one I’ll get to later. The big TV, (really a multi-screen array), remained active for years, but the VR units left the premises.
Fry’s operates on a far pushier sales model than Incredible Universe did. Sales people were heavily commissioned, and thus encouraged to “Write up a quote” for every item they “sold” you in the store to help their numbers go up, even if they just walked up to you while you had already selected an item.
Incredible Universe encouraged you to explore at your own leisure like a welcomed guest and take everything in, trying demo units and marveling at technology. Fry’s was all about the sale.
In the last few years, the real decline started. And it’s one the chain likely won’t recover from.
Dust started to build on the shelves. The big TV array finally went dark, and was dismantled…but not before hanging ominously for several months with no images displayed. A large selection of perfumes, colognes, and beauty supplies was inexplicably added to the inventory.
And rules started to fly out the window, as I recounted in this article a couple of years ago.
I started to distrust every item on the shelf, assuming it was a return unless it looked fully wrapped.
There’s been some vague rumblings of death for the entire Fry’s chain online in recent months, and the Oregon store now looks like a true ghost town. The clock is running out.
Stock hasn’t been re-ordered in months. Many of the counters and kiosks are gone, as is the security checkpoint that used to be right by the exit door. The employee count dwindles by the week.
Yet that stupid perfume area remains fully stocked.
Going to the Oregon Fry’s is like walking into a store that’s having a “Store Closing” sale…but everything is still full price.
Let’s take a little tour of some the highlights together, shall we? I went for one last visit this past weekend before it inevitably collapses and took the following depressing pictures.
Would you like a video card? You have three units to choose from. These shelves were full of stock six months ago.
And yes, that’s a GeForce GT730 there, a far cry from the piles of RTX cards you can find at the Best Buy down the road.
This gaming accessories area used to contain shelves full of the latest mice, keyboards, and PC gaming peripherals. The selection ran deep too, with mainstream products from Razer and Logitech, and more Esports-focused products like BenQ’s Zowie mice.
Now, all of the shelving is gone and they’ve spread out their few remaining demo gaming chairs out to try and fill the space.
Until rather recently, this area had a few of those cool Arcade 1Up miniature arcade machine replicas on display, and an employee created some nice artwork for the wall.
Some of the artwork is still there, but now they’re displaying…go-karts and a mini segway?
I did come across their one remaining Arcade 1Up unit, a Galaga machine, about a hundred feet away next to a big pile of Gatorade.
They should probably at least take the artwork down but I bet it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm.
These shelves were once filled with Corsair’s gaming keyboard lineup, and now the spaces that aren’t empty have generic USB membrane keyboards instead.
It’s okay though because why buy a keyboard when you could buy makeup?
Fear not beauty supply or perfume customer, Fry’s Electronics in Wilsonville still has your back more than covered.
It’s always been weird that they stocked this stuff in an electronics store in the first place, and it’s even weirder that these shelves are still so full while the rest of the store falls into the ether of the past.
This exclamatory music/keyboard sign is one of the only remaining pieces of Incredible Universe left in the store, hanging near one of their last three shelves of old Blu-Ray movies.
At one time, Fry’s proudly declared they had the largest selection of movies and music in the state. It was totally awesome. I know that digital sales have changed that landscape, and it’s no more apparent than at Fry’s.
I loved the whole mini-store concept of Incredible Universe, and I thought the signs helped sell that you were entering a new “land.” It’s cool that this one inexplicably survived, but it makes me sad every time I walk through the store.
Fry’s has these 26 Nintendo Switch games to choose from. None of them are incredibly recent releases, and none of them come at a discount compared to other stores, so, yeah.
I do appreciate that each side of the divider has exactly thirteen games on it.
I thought it was neat when they first hung up this homage to the past in the exit corridor, but now it’s doubly sad.
The Fry’s microchip mascot guy wears a cowboy hat while surveying the empty shelves. An arrow by his feet points you towards the cafe, one of the few places left in the store that’s still fully stocked.
This random placement of the Fry’s mascot costume is the closest the Wilsonville store ever came to trying to theme anything. Every so often they’ll move him around. At one point he was among several small Christmas trees atop the main rotunda.
Fry’s used to be the best place in town to find the latest gaming headsets. Now, it’s the best place in town to find these few models that they won’t restock.
I have about ten more pictures like this of empty or near-empty shelves I could post, but I think you get the point by now.
About half of the store looks like this:
It’s truly sad to see this once-icon go away in such miserable fashion, and a large part of the blame lies at the feet of Fry’s leadership for not adapting to the market.
Best Buy has posted record quarters by leaning in to modern trends in online and retail shopping, and singing deals with big tech companies to rent them show floor demo space in lieu of them having to own their own retail stores.
Fry’s meanwhile has sought out contracts with lower-end distributors of discount products, then left several of them in the lurch with unpaid debts and soured relationships.
It’s inexcusable that they’re stringing their remaining employees along with the store in such a terrible state. They should at least be running a store-wide clearance sale by now and offering their employees severance packages.
That would require the corporate leadership to care. At this point they clearly do not. There’s no excuse for this.
I’ve seen similar reports online about other locations, and I don’t know how long they’ll try to go on like this. The other customers in the store with me just seemed confused.
I have such fond memories of Incredible Universe. Every time I pass the old exit door, I fondly remember buying a CD boom box and a copy of the Power Rangers Movie soundtrack on CD, which I still have on my shelf.
Going to Fry’s was never the same experience, but it still had an amazing selection and could always evoke my nostalgia for the fun times I enjoyed in the building as a kid.
How many memorable electronics store experiences have you had? Do you remember your last trip to Best Buy more than the thing you bought there? Probably not.
Incredible Universe nailed the shopping experience, and Fry’s always had the opportunity to do that but never quite pulled it off. Still, the way they’re just decaying now is miserable.
I know that they got lost in the soup of trying to compete with the internet and bought a lot of cheap goods that people didn’t want. I know that times change as markets change. But this is still sad and terrible.
Now, this giant building and piece of land need a new tenant and I have no idea what will go in there. With the prominent growth in the rest of Wilsonville, which continues to thrive as Fry’s decays, it’ll probably become a strip mall or a housing development.
I’m glad that electronics shopping used to be an experience, and that I got to witness it. I’m glad it used to be more than clicking a button or picking up an online order at a counter. I miss those days, and I’m sad that Fry’s squandered my memories so badly.
Their employees deserved so much better than this slow stupid store death.