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Sharp Is Going Upscale With Distribution Plans

Sharp is joining a growing line of companies looking to transform their images from vendors of commodity goods to developers of cutting-edge technologies that are worth a price premium.

The company used CES to unveil the corporate facelift and announce a shakeup in the way the company distributes its products at retail. Rick Calacci, who recently left Toshiba to become Sharp CEG senior VP, said the company’s booth “set the stage so dealers [would] know that the Sharp that they once knew is not what it will be going forward.

“We are going to raise the image of the brand in concert with our technologies,” he said. “Everyone knows the Sharp brand, but we want to start having Sharp equated with the high level of our technology and our expertise.”

As part of that effort, the company is announcing here a strategic repositioning of its SharpVision sub-brand, which had been used primarily for LCD-based video projectors. Going forward, SharpVision will stand as a premium brand for a class of highly styled, hi-tech products in a manner similar to the way Sony uses its XBR television series and Pioneer uses Elite.

“SharpVision will become the launch platform for our technologies, feature designs and high performance products,” Calacci said. “The SharpVision brand will eventually encompass all product categories that Sharp is in — both here and in Japan, from flat-panel televisions to one-bit audio systems.”

After a new technology has been in the market through the SharpVision line, Calacci said it will be opened up to the core Sharp brand. Although Sharp had experimented with Optonica as a high-end brand in the past, it will be much more aggressive in bringing the new SharpVision line to market, Calacci said.

“Optonica was used for a very limited line of products, and it wasn’t really used as a launch platform for new technologies,” Calacci explained. However, he added that the recently introduced AQUOS brand will continue to represent all Sharp and SharpVision LCD TV products.

Sharp will use a controlled distribution mechanism for the SharpVision line focused on value-added retailers, and will be “very market-distribution oriented,” Calacci said. Initially, he said, Sharp expects to use less than 100 regionally based dealers, each representing a key territory. He added, “there will be no national accounts for SharpVision — I can guarantee you that, and you won’t find a SharpVision dealer on every corner.”

Dealer participation won’t be focused on volume, the way Sharp has been, but will require that products be properly presented and sold by directed sales personnel.

The company will also tighten the reins somewhat on products sold in the core Sharp line, as Calacci introduces a new “recommended retail pricing program that will be applied to all 2001 products, and will be part of our retailer, distributor and SharpVision agreements.”

“Effective April 1, Sharp will begin an authorization process for independent retailers and distributors,” he said. “We will assign minimum volume levels to be a direct account with Sharp, yet within that SharpVision will become a subset.”

Calacci said that over the next 90 days he would be scouting for independent service-oriented distributors to carry Sharp-branded electronics and appliances “to smaller regional accounts that we can not handle on a direct basis.” Sharp will also set up a department to manage the distributor organization, “which is a real departure from where we’ve been.”

Meanwhile, Calacci said, Sharp, which helped to pioneer LCD development, is more convinced than ever that the future of television is in flat-panel technology.

For that reason, Sharp’s booth was adorned with more than 200 flat-panel display screens of varying types. The current lineup of 10-, 13-, 15- and 20-inch 4:3 LCD TVs will be expanded with the unveiling of new 16:9 models in the 22W-inch (shipping in June at a $3,999 suggested retail, ) and 30W-inch (shipping in March at $9,999) LCD configurations, as well as new plasma models in 43W-inch (shipping in February at $12,995) and 50W-inch (shipping in January at $14,995). The new widescreen LCD panels will be among the first of the new SharpVision products.

Although Sharp does not produce the glass panel for the plasma displays, Calacci assures the arrangement Sharp has with the manufacturing partner is collaborative.

“We went to [the OEM] with our technology and our expertise and helped them make a better panel,” Calacci said.

Sharp will also present its home networking solution, using “AQUOS wireless digital video transmission products,” that will send digital video signals to multiple LCD TVs wirelessly throughout a house, using the 2.4 GHz spectrum and the 802.11b standard. Also to be shown are new LCD TVs equipped with universal memory card slots, capable of accepting data from multiple flash memory card formats.

In camcorders, Sharp is introducing a super compact ViewCam line (three analog and three digital) in the company’s traditional two-handed styling format. Bob Scaglione, Sharp CEG marketing VP, said the company has returned the entire line to the two-handed style after consumer focus studies found that style to be preferred as “a better way of videotaping.”

The digital models will start at a $599 suggested retail price. Analog models will range from $269 to $349.