CE Dealers Shop CES For Digital Delights

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They made their lists, checked them twice, and learned which vendors were naughty or nice. That, in a nutshell, was what retailers, e-tailers and buying groups of all stripes were up to at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.

Topping buyers' wish lists was the latest wave of handheld Internet access devices and solid-state portable audio players, although personal video recorders, CD recorders and home networking systems were also high-priority purchases.

Equally high on retail agendas: Securing supplies of HD-ready TVs and home satellite systems, while cementing strategic plans with core suppliers and striking up partnerships with new ones.

Mike London, senior VP/merchandising for top CE retailer Best Buy, said he was on the prowl for all manner of digital products. "Digital is the word," he noted. "Best Buy is looking for new, enhanced digital products as well as convergence products."

Specifically, London was on the lookout for cellular phones, satellite radios, mobile video players and global positioning devices, CD-R, FRS, DVD and Pro Logic shelf systems, and PC and video games. Other priorities included direct satellite and home-networking systems, as well as such bigger ticket toys as digital and high definition televisions and home theater systems.

While number-two CE merchant Circuit City was also searching the aisles for "first-time new products," a spokesman explained that most of the major introductions have already been previewed by its buyers. "Although we're looking at demonstrations by companies that are showing new things, CES is more of a relationship-building opportunity for us. It's a great time for buyers to renew their relationships with vendors and to discuss our future plans," he said.

CES wasn't about shopping for RadioShack either. "Due to our private label arrangements and strategic partnerships, we don't do any buying here," explained Rick Borinstein, VP/merchandise marketing. Instead, the nation's number-four CE retailer made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas to hold strategic meetings and "get the feel of the pulse of the marketplace. Our whole organization is here to sniff and smell and scope out every nook and cranny for new gadgets, gizmos and ideas we haven't thought of."

Similarly, Sears had "already been to the vendors and seen what's new" by the time CES rolled into Las Vegas, said VP/general manager Chuck Cebuhar. Instead, Cebuhar's staff was there to hunker down with suppliers. "It's strategy and update time for us and our vendors to see what's locked and loaded for the year," he said.

For Tweeter Home Entertainment Group, CES offered an opportunity to supplement its product assortment. "We'll take a closer look at plasma TVs, and different areas that will help us complete our custom installation business," explained Bernie Sapienza, VP/merchandising and purchasing. "We're not necessarily going to change our TV line, but we need to augment the mix with some other products."

Tweeter is "also serious about the mobile multimedia business. In-car entertainment and information are definitely hot buttons for us," Sapienza said.

CES was also the place for the major buying groups to plug any holes in their mix, and to reaffirm commitments to and from manufacturers.

Bill Trawick, executive director of NATM, said, "We're not looking at anything new, but we're holding meetings with most of our suppliers out here and are starting to work on planning some new programs for the year."

By contrast, Associated Volume Buyers' executive director Bob Lawrence was at CES to "firm up HDTV availability and get commitments on the satellite side. That's high on our priority list now that Clinton signed that [local broadcast] bill into law. There's going to be huge demand."

Rick Bellows, director of merchandising for Best Brands Plus, said he was busy "looking for new profit opportunities and products," particularly in home theater, where the group plans to make a splash this year with a program of turnkey in-store shops. "We're talking to partners, looking for new partners, and are reviewing what's new and exciting for 2000," he said.

Among the high-end A/V specialty chains, Internet appliance products held a particular appeal. "We want to see if we can develop a business model for the Internet appliance-type devices," said David Workman, president of Ultimate Electronics. "We're most interested in the new technology stuff, including the MP3 players and TiVo-type recorders."

Ultimate was also there to beef up its assortment of high-definition television sets and DSS receivers. "We're looking at filling out the brands and mix to expand HDTV dramatically," he said. "And because signal source drives sales of these products, we want to look at every manufacturer's offerings."

Cathy Stauffer, VP/merchandising for The Good Guys, cited Internet appliances like the iPhone and Alpine navigation devices as high on her shopping list. Beyond that, "We're here for the premieres and launches," she said. "We're always looking for unique opportunities to partner with existing and new vendors."

Also on Stauffer's agenda was to communicate her store's new upscale slant. "We've got a big story to tell to all of our vendors, and we want to make sure that story is coming through loud and clear."

Likewise, the shopping list for Sound Advice was "very small this year," reported Michael Blumberg, senior VP/merchandising. "High definition is what's important for us. We're looking to get more product -- and plasma sets."

Blumberg said he was also looking to secure dependable sources for LCD panels in addition to Sharp "because we can't get enough from them alone."

And Ken Cranes, according to director Tom Campbell, was "very excited about seeing, touching and feeling new technology and convergence products," including DVD recorders, personal video and audio servers, home theater components featuring THX Dolby, and new MP3-type products.

The story was no different on the e-commerce front, as Frank Sadowski, VP/merchandising at 800.com, attested. "Our agenda at CES is virtually identical to any successful, mainstream store -- to meet all the vendors, to get a sense of the industry trends, to look for hot new products and to develop the planning process for the year," he said.

Of particular interest to Sadowski were the "more advanced digital technology products," such as CD recorders ("a very hot technology.") and HDTV, for which he hopes to "get a sense of product direction and pricing structure."

Conversely, Amazon.com was "more manufacturer-focused than product-focused" at CES, said electronics general manager Christopher Payne. "We're working with manufacturers to learn and to share our experiences with them over the last six months. Eventually," he added, "we want to carry every electronics product. We're building toward that over time."

While Keith Clougherty, chairman and founder of Roxy.com, was also at CES to glean ideas and forge new partnerships, the search for cutting-edge products was paramount. "We're looking for what's hot, what's new, what's just coming out. We're going to bet on some of the products introduced here so we can be first out with the newest items," he said.

Of particular interest to Clougherty were wireless data communications devices with Internet access; the second generation of personal video recorders; CD recorders; DTV; digital imaging; and home-networked convergence devices.

For Jean Pierre LeDour, general manager of CyberShop subsidiary Electronics.net, most of his time at CES was spent "solidifying relationships with suppliers and manufacturers" that the company only recently forged after former partner Tops Home Appliances exited electronics.

"Our key focus is on delivering more products and brands to consumers, and doing it better," he said, although he also planned to spend time perusing new DVD models, discerning the latest digital camcorder formats and discovering "what new TV concepts will be sellable at retail."

Back on terra firma, mainstream CE stores went to Las Vegas with agendas as diverse as their assortments. For New York metro area chain P.C. Richard & Son, the show was all about "building relationships and partnerships," said CEO Gary Richard. "We do our buying at home, and come to CES to keep our relationships and see our partners."

Steve Child, VP of R.C. Willey, was "interested to see what suppliers will do with HD-ready products and new DVD development." Also high on his wish list were handheld global satellite positioning devices -- which are new to Willey and performing "very well" -- and personal two-way radios. "We're certainly going to look at that," he said.

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