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Last days of Circuit City: Lousy bargains, rumpled salespeople

Don Reisinger spent a few hours at Circuit City over the weekend and he didn't like what he saw.

Circuit City
It's a sad state of affairs at Circuit City. CNET Networks

I remember when "liquidation" meant something. There was a small electronics store in my area that was closing down a few years back. Signs all over read "Liquidation Sale." In the store, I found prices slashed considerably. Some good stuff was 75 percent off. It was a fire sale, and it was fantastic. That was a going-out-of-business sale done right. What Circuit City is doing now, though, I don't get.

The company is shutting down, as we all know. But I was still shocked when I went into Circuit City this past weekend and found a store that was a shadow of its former self. The signature red shirts on employees were ditched in favor of jeans and sweatshirts; DVD sales racks that were once barely browsed were overrun by customers who couldn't help but dive in to the store's 50 percent off DVD sale. But the real bargains that Circuit City claimed we all would love weren't so sexy after all.

I need a new HDTV. Usually, I buy my HDTVs from because I've found it has the best prices and delivery service. But since I knew Circuit City was going out of business, I decided to make a trek down there to see if there were any hidden gems at a good price. Signs said the TVs were 30 percent off, and when I looked around, I realized the inventory wasn't picked over, as I had feared. There were some nice Sony LCDs on the shelves, as well as Panasonic plasmas.

I was drawn to the Panasonic TH-58pz800u, which was on sale for approximately $2,600 at the store. I own the 50-inch model of that plasma and couldn't be more pleased with its quality. So when I saw it offered at such a discount, the wheels started turning and I was thinking about how I was going to be able to fit it into the back of my SUV.

But then I checked Amazon's price. To my surprise, Amazon was offering the HDTV at an even more attractive price: $2,372.

So I decided to find one of the Circuit City salespeople to ask if they matched pricing that online companies were offering. I searched far and wide for their signature red shirt and could find just two people wearing it. Thinking the company must have laid off some staff, I went back to examining the HDTV, when a twenty-something guy dressed in a hoodie, baggy jeans, sneakers, and a crooked Mets hat walked over to me and asked if I needed help.

At first, I didn't realize he was an employee and I looked at him without saying anything. Then he told me that he works at Circuit City, he's just not required to wear his uniform anymore ("After all, am I gonna get fired?") and that's why I didn't recognize him as a salesperson.

So I asked him if the company matched pricing and showed him my iPhone, which was displaying Amazon's price of the same Panasonic plasma. His response was short and biting: "Nope. We don't do that anymore."

You don't do that anymore? How is it possible that a company that needs to liquidate its entire inventory won't sell a product to a customer for $200 less? It's a guaranteed sale!

Of course, explaining that to this salesperson would have fallen on deaf ears since he wasn't in a position to make any decisions and I don't think he would have cared if he could. He's there until the end of March--that's the deadline the employees have been given at this store--and after that, he's on to bigger and better things. Why should he care if Circuit City, a company that has laid him off, will be getting my money or not?

For comparison's sake, I went to Best Buy across the street to see if it had that same Panasonic plasma and to ask its salespeople if they would match the Amazon price.

After just a few minutes of browsing, a Best Buy salesperson in the signature blue shirt came up to me and asked if I needed help. When I asked her if they would match pricing, she said, "Absolutely." In no time, she asked her manager if they could match my price on the Panasonic HDTV and he came over to assure me that they could and the offer was on the table indefinitely--I didn't need to take it right that second if I didn't want it.

In spite of the Circuit City going-out-of-business sale across the street, the Best Buy was overrun with customers, the company's blue shirts were everywhere, and people were rushing to the checkout lines. Even in its dying days when it should be the price leader and the most willing to sell products, Circuit City still doesn't "get" it.

Under the guise of "Everything Must Go!" sales, Circuit City's liquidators are doing their best to feign value to squeeze every dime out of customers just one last time. Maybe it works (the company announced it has sold $1 billion in merchandise over the past month), but I still think it's a sad state of affairs. Circuit City is still a wrinkled mess. Meanwhile, Best Buy is as vital as ever.

Previously: Spying on the Circuit City liquidation sale.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter feed, and FriendFeed.