By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Well, all good things must come to an end. After more than 40 years in this industry, I will be hanging up my CE guns and spurs as I head into the great unknown of retirement.
I thought it might be fun to offer my retrospective on some of the changes in consumer electronics that I’ve experienced since 1972 when I found myself injected into this industry. Hop aboard my way-back machine and take a trip with me down memory lane.
My first real CE job, after discharging from the Marine Corps in 1971 (and being introduced to hi-fi purchased from the base exchange overseas like many vets) was for a Denver retailer selling home audio. I remember my first day in the store playing with all the cool hi-fi products — I discovered a plethora of reel-to-reel tape recorders, turntables, a wall of speakers and, while solid state was taking over back then, a few tube amps (and let’s not forget the 8-track tape changer). Quadrophonic sound appeared as the unsuccessful forerunner to Dolby surround sound that came many years later. Demonstrating Quad was like listening to a Ping-Pong match from the center of the table.
Those first years, I learned how to mount 90 percent gross margin phono cartridges, balance tonearms, wire and install audio systems and demo endless A-B speaker comparisons, otherwise known as psychoacoustic selling. (“Now Mr. Customer, as I demo the Borkwerf 100, just listen for those crisp, clean highs ... you can hear the fingers squeaking across the guitar strings, can’t you?”). You couldn’t swing a cat without making a decent profit on an audio retail sale back in those days. We all sold on specs like THD, dynamic range, and frequency response plus or minus db, etc.
A word here about the Consumer Electronics Show: I recall that my first show was in the Plaza Hotel ballroom with about 130 exhibitors, the last one held in New York City. Since then, I have attended more than 40 Consumer Electronics Shows in Chicago and Vegas, logging around 500 foot miles by my estimate — enough to walk from Boston to Washington, D.C.
I absolutely hated the Chicago winter shows which, for several years, before it was relocated to McCormick Place Convention Center and then moved to Las Vegas, usually required running from hotel to hotel in sub-zero lake wind driven snow and ice.
My next job was a sales rep in the New York-New Jersey metro area, working for a real gentleman, Bob Bach, who has long since passed away, selling brands to audio shops like B&O, Klipsch, ESS, Koss, JBL, Phase Linear, Ohm and other high-end audio to retailers. Schlepping a pair of Ohm-F beasts around to demo for retailers was not an easy feat and required a big station wagon. Also, in the earlier days of hi-fi, I had a chance to rub elbows with many of the pioneers who helped shape the industry. It was a great time.
After working for a couple of retailers in the New York area, I returned to Denver and found myself back in retail where I saw cassettes replaced by CDs and video products now starting to blend with audio. VCRs were all the rage and I watched VHS win over Beta. I sold two-piece, strap-on portable video camera/deck combos and saw the popularity rise in these new consumer categories. The first big (35-inch) CRT TV I sold weighed more than 400 pounds, and was soon followed by monster-sized rear-projection sets, also weighing 400 pounds. LaserDisk and RCA Selectavision came and went and then the DVD arrived — our industry was on the cusp of the home-theater explosion and CE would never be the same.
Transitioning to TV, video and home satellite buyer provided a turning point in my career — I would no longer have to be on my feet for 12 hours at a time and could get most weekends off. At the same time, the stress levels went up dramatically, a result of now being responsible for a big chunk of the company’s inventory control and profitability. In time, it became a lot of fun and a great challenge to meet turns and profit goals month after month. My years in CE sales served me well as a merchant to understand the motivations of customers and helped provide the sales people with the right products.
Long-promised HDTV finally took off and was responsible for providing added flame to the ever-growing home theater category. At Ultimate Electronics, we sold the very first HDTV to a customer. Speaking of flame, after a large buy I had made of a projection TV model (the brand is no longer in business), I received a call from one of our store managers that the set had caught fire and smoked up the entire store, prompting a call to the fire department. The firemen had to completely douse the TV with a high-pressure water hose. The store manager later sent me a security video of the set being hustled out the back door trailing fire and smoke. To their credit, the manufacturer made good on all the defective sets (caused by a leaking CRT cooling bladder).
The next big thing was flat-panel television. Still profitable back then, it opened a complete resurgence into CE retail growth and retailers spawned new stores like weeds. Plasma followed by LCD TV were squeezing out floor space from the rear projection models and everybody wanted one — profit was everywhere for a few precious years.
After 13 years at Fred Schmid and 11 years at Ultimate Electronics as senior TV/video merchant, I moved to Massachusetts to work for Tweeter, where I purchased several CE categories and was heavily involved in the explosion of the iPod and its many supporting products. Music was resurging in a big way, thanks mostly to Apple and iTunes. As in the cycle of life, home audio was making a comeback.
My last six years in the CE industry were spent as business manager for the Progressive Retailers Organization (PRO Group), where I was able to utilize my experiences in the CE industry to help provide added value to the member retailers. It was a great opportunity to see how many different retailers operated and work with them and the group vendor partners.
Over the last few years, the next huge change in the CE business emerged in full force– the maturity (or lack thereof) of the Internet. Over the last several years, this sea change has created great challenges in industry profitability. Quality online retailers have been forced to compete with fly-by night website operators and the manufacturers’ need to keep their factories running have resulted in shrinking prices and profits and a landscape littered with failed retail companies. This marketing and distribution transformation has tended to overshadow the evolution of great products and now some of the largest CE manufacturers are also faced with huge losses threatening their very existence. All of this has forced retailers and manufacturers alike to reevaluate how to survive in the next era of the CE business.
As I reflect on the evolution of the CE business over the last 40 years, I realize that so much has changed — not only the products and technology but the way retailers and manufacturers come to market. The end-user hobbyist and aficionado have been eclipsed by fast, market-driven purchasing patterns. Everything is different today — pricing is compared and changed at light speed and is now the driving force of customer purchasing decision. I can only trust that retailers and vendors alike will find ways to adjust to remain viable and profitable. One thing is certain — it will never be the same.
While the many changes in CE have not always been welcome, the innovation and technology advances have been awesome. For me, it has been a great ride, and I’m exceptionally pleased to have had the opportunity to be a small part of such a wonderful and satisfying industry. Despite its challenges, I feel certain it will evolve and ultimately flourish and I appreciate and wish the best to those that keep working “in the trenches,” day after day to “make it happen.”
I will miss the industry that has been my home for so many years and most of all, the great folks I’ve met and worked with along the way. It’s said that after a while in this industry, it’s a part of you that never disappears. So, who knows, I may find myself pulled back in once again for a project or two down the road. After all, it’s in my blood.
Glenn Rogers can be contacted via Linked In with this link - http://www.linkedin.com/in/glenndrogers
This TWICE webinar, hosted by senior editor Alan Wolf, will take a look at what may be the hottest CE products at retail that will be sold during the all-important fourth quarter. Top technologies, market strategies and industry trends will be discussed with industry analysts and executives.