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Dealers See CES As Key Venue For Confabs With Core Vendors

For many dealers who attended International CES this month, scouring the far reaches of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s halls for new and novel products and suppliers was secondary to one-on-one meetings with their core vendors.

Indeed, most merchants contacted by TWICE said that face-to-face meetings with major manufacturers topped their agendas at this month’s CE extravaganza. Only after these high-level confabs, in which dealers and vendors reviewed previously planned programs and reinforced personal ties, did they unleash their buyers to flush out new category or sourcing opportunities at the show.

“We have great working relationships with our vendors, and know well in advance what they’ll be showing at the show,” said Bill Cimino, director of corporate communications for Circuit City. But despite instant interaction via phone, e-mail or video conferencing, “There’s still nothing like talking in person, and CES is a good place to meet face-to-face.”

Those summits aside, Circuit also set time aside for its merchants to “walk the floor and see different products,” Cimino said. “We’re always looking for new products and ideas, and the show provides an opportunity to discover new suppliers who we haven’t had a chance to work with.”

Similarly, Richard Glikes, executive director of the Home Theater Specialists of America (HTSA), spent most of his CEA time “with current vendors to make sure we’re on the same track.” Specifically, he and the group’s board of directors met with core suppliers to discuss HTSA’s 2005 goals and marketing plans, while individual dealer members fanned out across the convention center. “They go to look at all the vendors to notice trends or new technologies that might fit into their business plans,” Glikes said — and to determine how product lines from other major manufacturers “stack up to our current vendors’ products.”

But Franklin Karp, president of New York metro area A/V specialist Harvey Electronics and a member of HTSA, downplayed the significance of the show. “Considering much of our businesses is C.I. [custom installation] — 60 percent of sales — I’m not sure that CES is a prime venue for us. I’m more interested in the world of servers and media storage. That’s of big interest to me. Our focus is on complete systems, and our store remodels are making even more of a lifestyle presentation. Some of my current vendors are starting to show C.I.-influenced product, such as Boston Acoustics, which is getting aggressive in outthinking the basic loudspeaker box. Macintosh is also moving toward C.I.-oriented home theater components.”

Other dealers, including NATM Corp.’s members Eddie Maloney, president of Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City, and John Wilkerson, executive VP and chief operating officer of New England chain Bernie’s, were eager to evaluate Toshiba and Cannon’s new surface conduction emitter display (SED) flat-panel technology, which was previewed at CES behind closed doors. “The picture is supposedly better than plasma,” Maloney said before the show. “It’s supposed to blow away the current technology,” Wilkerson agreed.

What else was on Bernie’s agenda? “We don’t use the show so much for shopping as for exploring which vendors are truly going to be in the game,” Wilkerson noted. “They may have the coolest product, but if they can’t supply it, we can’t partner with them.”

Warren Mann, executive director of the MARTA Co-op of America, made the most of his stay at CES, devoting six days to the show. His itinerary included core vendor meetings, opportunistic buys, expanding the group’s accessory assortment, and an aisle-by-aisle assessment of new products and technologies.

“We meet with the major suppliers prior to the show to get a read on the coming year,” he said. “That’s the foundation. Then we use CES to find areas to shore up, where our vendors are weak.”

MARTA also re-assesses its vendor matrix each CES “to make sure we’re with the right people. We’re very narrow with whom we support, and we need to make sure we’re still important to our key vendors.”

In addition, Mann and his dealer delegation were sniffing out closeout buys on LCDs and DVD players, and “looking for accessories to flesh out the line. We have been lax about selling the smaller stuff, and need a wider range aside from the core product categories.”