Once upon a time, before the distractions of CarMax and Divx, before it de-commissioned its sales force, before it dropped appliances, before Best Buy went corporate, before it lost its way — Circuit City was the CE specialty chain supreme.
But bad lease deals, outdated locations and aging infrastructure eventually took their toll. All boats rise with the tide, but when flat-panel prices plummeted and the economy went south, so too did Circuit’s fortunes. Firing the company’s highest paid but most experienced sales clerks saved money in the short term, but only hastened the inevitable.
What follows is a brief history of the iconic chain that created the big-box CE format and brought high-technology to the masses.
1949: Samuel S. Wurtzel opens the first Wards retail store in Richmond, Va.
1960: Wards expands operations nationally via licensed departments in discount stores.
1969: Begins major expansion by buying up local chains and discount stores.
1970: Wurtzel, now chairman, names son Alan president. Partner Abraham Hecht retires.
1974: Begins closing licensed departments and opens The Wards Loading Dock, a 40,000-square-foot, retail warehouse-showroom for A/V and majaps and the precursor to Circuit City.
1977: Opens new-concept “Circuit City” showrooms in Washington D.C. The 6,000-square-foot to 7,000-square-foot stores feature top A/V brands, in-store service departments, convenient pick-up areas and knowledgeable sales staff.
1982: Richard Sharp joins as executive VP.
1984: The $250 million company changes its name to Circuit City Stores and is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Alan Wurtzel succeeds Sam as chairman and Sharp is named president.
1985: Partners Wurtzel and Hecht die.
1986: Sharp named CEO.
1987: Alan McCollough joins company as general manager of corporate operations. Sales exceed $1 billion.
1990: Sales hit $2 billion; company opens own bank to handle private-label credit card program.
1993: Begins testing CarMax used-car superstore concept.
1994: Sharp named chairman.
1997: Alan McCollough named president/COO.
1998: Company launches Digital Video Express (DIVX), a proprietary movie-rental system.
1999: Company drops DIVX, launches CircuitCity.com. Total annual sales now exceed $12 billion.
2000: McCollough succeeds Sharp as CEO; exits appliances.
2002: McCollough succeeds Sharp as chairman; spins off CarMax.
2003: Company ends commissioned sales.
2004: Company buys Canadian electronics chain InterTAN. Tops, Sony and Best Buy veteran Phil Schoonover joins as executive VP/chief merchandising officer. Best Buy prepares for national rollout of customer centricity strategy, continues aggressive build-out of store base.
2005: Schoonover named president.
2006: Schoonover succeeds McCollough as chairman/CEO. Panasonic 42-inch plasma falls below $1,000 on Black Friday, setting off period of margin-crushing price promotions.
2007: Company restructures to cut costs, lays off 3,400 most experienced and highest paid sales associates; looks to unload Canadian business.
2008: Investor Mark Wattles forces Schoonover out following massive losses; Blockbuster passes on possible buyout; company files for Chapter 11 protection; shuts 155 stores.
2009: Company fails to secure new financing or a buyer, and begins final liquidation.