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Who’s Who, Who’s Gone: TWICE’s Top CE Retailers Of 1987, 2005

What a difference a couple of decades make.

In the quicksilver world of consumer electronics retailing, where 19 years ago may as well have been the 19th century, the CE dealer landscape was an alternate universe of sorts. RadioShack was the 600-pound gorilla in electronics, with close to $3 billion in sales, while Kmart was the No. 2 player with $2.3 billion in CE revenue.

And what of Best Buy, today’s $24 billion retail behemoth? Back in 1987, Dick Schulze’s baby was still flexing its regional muscles, and the 40-store, eight-state chain trailed Crazy Eddie, Macy’s and Curtis Mathes (!) as the 17th largest CE chain.

This yellowed industry snapshot of the late 1980s playing field comes courtesy of TWICE’s first-ever Retail Registry of Leading Retailers, published in March 1988 based on prior-year sales and produced in partnership with, of all entities, People Magazine. Unlike its current incarnation, the annual TWICE Top 100 CE Retailers Report, the debut effort featured only 89 retailers, as it was designed to include all CE retailers with sales of $45 million or more, and all video software specialty stores selling $40 million or more.

Back then, total sales for TWICE’s Top 89 was $19.6 billion, or just under half of all CE sales at retail. By contrast, the 89 largest CE dealers in 2005, as reported in this year’s Top 100, enjoyed a slight up-tick: $108.1 billion in sales, or 78 percent of all CE sales at retail — and that’s excluding video software.

Interestingly, only 87 of today’s retailers would have qualified for inclusion under the old rules.

Aside from the tremendous volume growth the industry experienced over the past 19 years, and the greater concentration of sales power among fewer dealers, there also transpired profound changes in where CE products are sold, and by whom.

According to the TWICE/People Magazine study, white- and brown-goods specialty chains still commanded the lion’s share of sales in 1987, with about one-fourth of all registry volume, or $10.1 billion worth of product, flowing through the channel. Mass merchants, led by Kmart, Sears, Montgomery Ward and, trailing in ninth place, Wal-Mart, accounted for 18 percent of registry volume, or $7.1 billion in CE goods.

The third-largest channel for CE sales in those pre-Internet days was catalog showrooms, represented by Best Products, Consumer Distributing and, ranked fifth with $1 billion in CE sales, Service Merchandise, which together had a 3.9 percent market share, followed by department stores with a 2.2 percent share.

How does channel distribution differ today? Over the years, market share for CE/majap and mass merchant chains has remained fairly consistent, with the former claiming 26.8 percent of all Top 100 sales in 2005, while the latter accounted for 20.3 percent. What’s changed since 1987 was a refinement in TWICE’s methodology, which resulted in the addition of a separate CE-only classification for retailers, who pulled down 19.5 percent of Top 100 sales.

Also impacting channel sales was the advent of e-commerce and the evolution of the personal computer. Thanks to e-tailing, consumer direct sales now represent 13.6 percent of CE sales, while computer and home office stores together account for nearly 11 percent of volume.

Most striking about the inaugural TWICE/People ranking is the number of businesses that are no longer among the living, or the wild reordering of those that are (see list above). Among the Top 10, the aforementioned Service Merchandise, Montgomery Ward and Best Products, as well as Highland and Silo, have each gone the way of the crystal radio.

Conversely, Price Company, which ranked 19th on the 1988 list, would later crack the Top 10 in its current incarnation as Costco. Also pulling themselves up by the bootstraps was BrandsMart (85th then, 26th now); hhgregg (going from 79th to 24th, and losing its punctuation and capital letters in the process); J&R Music World (rising from 65th place to 34th); and P.C. Richard & Son (shifting from 42nd to 23rd).

Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sears and Wal-Mart have stayed Top 10 CE retailers, and RadioShack has steadfastly remained in the top five. Similarly, Circuit City has barely budged, moving from fourth place to third over the ensuing 17 years — albeit increasing its annual revenue 11-fold.