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Jack Luskin, Legendary Retailer, Dies At 89

CT Hall of Famer credited by some for inventing the big-box store concept

Jack Luskin, the self-proclaimed “Cheapest Guy in Town!” who owned and operated the iconic Luskin’s electronics/appliance chain in the Baltimore area for almost 50 years, died on Friday at his home in North Palm Beach, Florida at the age of 89.

Luskin opened his first store in 1948, a small storefront selling major appliances and later TVs. At its height Luskin’s was a 56-store electronics/appliance chain with locations in 11 Eastern and Midwestern states. Along the way Luskin helped develop and introduce key brands, is credited with developing the “big box” store concept, and became one of the founding members of the NATM Buying Corp. before retiring and closing the chain in 1995.

Luskin’s sons Kevin and Cary, who launched The Big Screen Store chain (ranked No. 72 in the most recent TWICE Top 100 CE Retailers Report) in the Baltimore area in 1996, worked with their father growing up. In an interview with TWICE over the weekend, Kevin said his father and uncle — Joe Luskin — operated the business together until the mid-1960s. The original store was near where the brothers grew up in Pimlico, Md., above a grocery store their Russian immigrant parents, Nathan and Dora, owned and operated.

Kevin said his father, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II, used his $600 separation pay from the service to open a store that sold refrigerators during a time when many consumers wanted to switch from old-fashioned iceboxes that needed weekly deliveries of ice to store food.

Jack Luskin himself told the Baltimore Sun in 2006 about the brothers’ ingenious way of finding customers: They followed the ice wagons, noting where they made deliveries and later knocked on doors to give their potential customers a sales pitch. “We convinced them they could own a brand-new Kelvinator for $1.25 a week, which in those days was the going rate for credit,” Luskin said.

A year later the Luskin brothers were also selling washers and TVs, and opened an 8,000-square-foot showroom in Baltimore. While Luskin’s famous “Cheapest Guy in Town!” advertising tagline emphasized low prices, profitability and support of top brands were the keys to the brothers’ success. Kevin noted that Luskin’s sold the most popular brands in appliances, as well as TVs from RCA, Zenith and later Philco. It was also the first U.S. retailer to sell Mitsubishi TVs in the early 1970s while adding Japanese brands such as Panasonic, JVC and others. Luskin’s was also one of the first retailers to sell Atari video games during the 1970s, Kevin recalled, and that Jack made an investment that helped launch Henry Kloss’ Advent Video Beam projection TVs.

Kevin explained that in the early days of Luskin’s the electronics/appliance market was a distributor business. Many brands only wanted to be sold through department stores, then the dominant retail channel, because “some products required assembly.” To expand business and tweak local distributors and national brands, Jack and his brother would “go to local department stores if a customer wanted a specific brand, buy a product, assemble it themselves and resell it to the customer. They would keep the empty box and put it in their store window.” Soon several empty boxes of popular “department store” brands were in the Luskin’s store window, to the indignation of those retailers. Due to Luskin’s popularity suppliers eventually told their distributors to sell to Luskin’s.

In 1964 Luskin was ready to expand again and decided to build a large store in Towson, Md., overlooking the Beltway, which eventually became a Big Screen Store. Cary is quoted in Luskin’s Baltimore Sun obituary as saying that banks did not provide financing, so his father convinced his TV and major appliance suppliers to delay receiving payments until after the store was built by saying he would boost their products sales. The suppliers agreed to help, and the new Luskin’s location performed as promised, Cary said.

By 1970 mass merchants like Kmart, Montgomery Ward and Sears were becoming bigger factors in the TV and appliance businesses than the dominant department stores of the era, and they were getting better deals from suppliers. To combat that trend Luskin became one of the founding members of the NATM Buying Corp. — known back then as “The Forty Thieves” by industry insiders — which was created to secure the same kind of pricing deals, or better, than national chains. NATM continues to thrive today, representing leading independent regional electronics/appliance retailers.

Eventually, Luskin’s store design and merchandising mix of electronics and appliances became the template for the big-box specialty store concept, noted publicist and 40-year Luskin friend David Nevins, president of Nevins & Associates. Nevins told the Baltimore Sun that the concept was emulated by Best Buy and other one-time NATM members including Circuit City, Rex TV, Silo and Sun TV.

Luskin was inducted into the Consumer Technology Hall of Fame in 2005 for his contributions to the industry, and was well known for his many civic and philanthropic contributions over the years.

His legendary retailer status is well-established, but Luskin was also well-known for his great sense of humor. Fellow Hall of Famer Joe Clayton, who worked Luskin in his roles as a top RCA and Thomson executive, described him this way: “Jack was a great merchant, leader, visionary and family man. And he was probably the most jovial man in the industry.”

Gary Shapiro, president/CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), commented, “Jack was unique, and for decades defined retailing in the Baltimore-Washington area. The solace is the legacy carried on by his son Kevin in the successful Big Screen Store.”

Kevin addressed his father’s legacy, and the family’s loss, by saying, “It is hard to feel sorry for someone that has passed away at 90 years old and lived a wonderful life. But we … have lost a father, a lifelong business partner, mentor and friend, all four in one person.”

In addition to his sons, he is survived by his wife of 68 years, Jean; his daughter, Jamie McCourt, confirmed to be U.S. Ambassador to France and Monaco; and eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

His passing follows the recent loss of industry great Harry Elias, who was inducted into the CT Hall of Fame with Luskin in 2005.