Being lucky is observing what you weren’t expecting: An illustration

I decided to begin searching for a replacement for my current laptop computer since it was by this point literally being held together with electrical tape, and I decided to go against my more common computer replacement policy of "Wait until it breaks, and then panic."

There was one model I had my eye on, and it was on sale at a local big-box store as one of those doorbuster deals. I didn't feel like waking up at 4am to stand in line for the slim chance of actually snagging one, so I figured I would just wait, and maybe it'll go on sale again after the shopping season. (This is a strategy that isn't available when you use the "Wait until it breaks, and then panic" model.)

A few weeks later, I happened to be in the shop for an unrelated reason. I naturally stopped by the laptop computer section and, as expected, the model I had in mind was no longer on display. It had presumably sold out. On the other hand, on my way out the store, I saw that very model sitting in the locked cage at the front of the store. The locked cage is one of those loss-prevention techniques, where high-value items are not kept on the shelves. Instead, only a token (such as claim ticket or an empty box) is placed on the shelf, and you bring the token to the customer service desk to exchange it for the actual item.

If the laptop had sold out, why did they have one in the cage? I asked an employee, who explained, "Oh, yeah, we sold out of these almost immediately, but a few days later, somebody returned one unopened, so that's why we still have one unit up here."

Is it still for sale?

"Sure is."

Not only was it still for sale, it was still for sale at the same price. There was a bit of confusion that followed, since they had to figure out how to sell an item that was not on the shelves and for which there was no token, but everything got straightened out, and I walked out with my new laptop.

Comments (18)
  1. Anonymous Coward says:

    So what are the specs of the new machine?  You provided the specs of the old one. ;)

  2. Nathan_works says:

    And did this one burn out any video cards yet ?

  3. Chriso says:

    Congrats, on the good deal and your new laptop! :)

  4. SelArom says:

    as much as I despise the big chain electronics stores, it’s a special feeling when you totally score something like this :) congrats

  5. Cooney says:

    I recently discovered surplusers, which is a step above the discontinued model score feeling, as they’re often further discounted. Buying something that’s a couple years old for $300 is pretty cool if it meets your needs.

  6. Steven says:

    Good things come to those who wait ;P

  7. Steve D says:


    …but not if you wait until until it breaks ;P

  8. chrismcb says:

    You gotta love the "we want to take your money, but we aren’t really sure how"

  9. Worf says:

    Heh. I bet they sold the display model, after being unable to find the last new box of it. Given the quality of warehousing I’ve seen, any particular item can be in at least 3 different areas – in the back warehouse, on the floor where related product is kept, and somewhere else – front lock cabinet (used to hold latest release games, and stuff), on a shelf, etc.

    What amazes me is that these companies have full inventory control systems, and they know how many units they have on hand… yet that count and "salesperson count" can vary as units are mislaid…

  10. GregM says:

    Worf, there is also "shrinkage", which is the industry term for "things leaving the store without permission", and clerical errors such as what the computer thinks was in a shipment not matching what was actually in a shipment, and mistagged items causing things to be sold under the wrong item number.  All of these can cause the official inventory count to differ from the actual inventory count.  That’s why stores have to take inventory periodically to find out what they actually have.

  11. Bryan says:

    Not to mention that most store inventory control systems aren’t designed to be real-time.  They’re snapshots that attempt to model real life, but are generally only updated certain times of the day.  That and shrinkage explained many inventory discrepancies when I worked at a major retail outlet.

    Shrinkage is an accounting term that quantifies mishaps between the point where products left the manufacturer and the cash register.  Shrinkage is specifically relevant in retail environments, but can be used any time you’re dealing with products.

  12. Worf says:

    Yeah, I know about shrinkage. However, things like laptops don’t get up and walk away – I don’t think I’ve ever seen any not locked up. I can expect it to happen to stuff like MP3 players and other easily pocketable items, but large stuff like laptops?

    Anyhow, I’ve seen real-time systems here at Best Buy (Canada) and Future Shop, at least in the store. The online stock indicators aren’t real time.

    When a shipment comes in, the clerks scan each and every one in, which increments the store inventory, and offers the opportunity to validate the price sticker is accurate. As items are sold, the count decreases. And the clerks can query to find out if something is in stock (unless it’s the last one, and someone is carrying it before hitting the register).

    Every store does it, the only thing is that between stores, the data isn’t real time, but a rough stock estimate is available, and clerks can call the other store for latest results.

    Heck, the system even tells you how many units are in transit.

  13. Nawak says:

    If it is theft, why call it shrinkage?

    Are the thieves going to sue you?

  14. Bryan says:


    Shrinkage is an accounting term for anything that goes wrong between the point a product leaves the manufacturer but before it reached the register.  A lot of things outside of theft can happen during that time ( damaged products, unsellable items, etc ).


    It sounds like your ICS systems are better than the ones I used.  If our shipments didn’t arrive before 11:00am local time then our inventory counts were off by whatever came in that day.  Fortunately, that was fairly rare.

  15. David Walker says:

    Inventory is not that hard (just time-consuming).  Yesterday I was in a big home-improvement store.  One item had no stock, although an employee checked the computer which thought that there were 4 items left in stock.  So, they wouldn’t automatically reorder any because the system thought there were 4 left, and until someone bought some of those 4 to bring down the supposed inventory level, no automatic reorder would happen.  

    But no one could buy any because the store didn’t actually HAVE any.  I made an offhand comment about doing manual inventory (which I know that stores have to do, just to detect "shrinkage" or theft in the first place).  She said "it’s not that easy".  Yes, it is easy, it’s just a tedious job since they have so many items.

    She assured me that she would tell the computer to order some more, but said it would take 2 or 3 weeks for the new stuff to show up.  That seemed a little slow…

  16. Dave says:

    Anyone else find it surprising that Raymond historically does not spend a lot of money on PCs or laptops?

    He has been with Microsoft for at least 16 years, so must have a healthy portion of MS stock, yet for somebody so involved in technology he doesn’t seem to spend a lot on himself (or at least doesn’t mention it in his blog).  Not passing any judgement, just making an observation.

  17. Toddintr says:

    That’s the one I returned. I had accidentally placed the unopened box next to the powerful gamma ray generator at the high powered atom smasher where I work (top secret government facility just outside of Redmond). ;-)

    [I love reading this blog – it’s full of useful stuff for the Windows developer, devoid of sophomoric language and the writing is top-notch.]

  18. GregM says:

    "Yeah, I know about shrinkage. However, things like laptops don’t get up and walk away – I don’t think I’ve ever seen any not locked up. I can expect it to happen to stuff like MP3 players and other easily pocketable items, but large stuff like laptops?"

    Worf, there are people that have those keys.  There is also the possibility that someoone mistyped a stock number or quantity received in a shipment.

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