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Mounting Problems?

Playing the role of the canary in the coal mine at this year’s CEDIA Expo: flat-panel mount vendors.

I spent a good part of my time at the show getting demos of the latest designs and generally ooh-ing and ah-ing at the options available. But some recurring themes were evident in my conversations: prices are plunging, competition is fierce and the number of players is growing.

As most retailers will tell you, the margins on accessories for flat-panel TVs are keeping them above water, since the margins on the actual TVs are so tight. You could barely sniff a motorized mount for less than $1,000 at last year’s show. This year, under-$1,000 is the norm and at least one fully motorized model hit the $399 mark.

And as in CE retail as we know it, once prices drop, they never go back up.

Said one supplier: “It’s the same old story. New, cheap sources from overseas … and customers who shop price first. It was as predictable as the sun rising.”

Said another: “The novelty has worn off. The average customer is spending every dollar they can on the actual set, getting as much screen size as possible. Then they add an HDMI cable or two. There’s not much left for the mount. If we can’t find a way to lower the cost, we don’t stand a chance.”

I sat next to the president of a very successful regional chain on my flight out to Denver, and I asked him whether he had seen any evidence that the old axiom is true: Do consumers in a bad economy really spend less on luxuries like dining out and traveling, and instead spend it on improving their homes, often by upgrading their electronics? He chuckled and shook his head vigorously. “That’s just not true. Business is good for us, but that’s because we’re working hard to maintain share … more advertising, more promotions, more price cutting. Times are tough out there.”

Still, mirroring the U.S. economy, there were signs of life, anecdotally at least, at the extreme high end.

“Growth is exploding,” said a spokesman for K2, whose Underbed Mounting system, a robotic arm that stows a flat panel under a bed and raises it to viewing level in 30 seconds. “For the customer who can afford it, there is nothing else like our product in the market. “ The price tag: $9,999.

Too bad I spent my federal stimulus check already. I could have bought about one-eighth of one Underbed mount.