On a periodic basis a former Zenith president, Walter Fisher, used to lecture his dealers on the importance of the retail sales floor. He called his talk "Closing The Sale, The Last Six Inches," and in it stressed that the ultimate success of the entire industry was pretty much in the hands of the retail floor sales person who had the power to make or kill a sale.
Well, based on my recent experience at outlets of our three biggest consumer electronics retailers, if the fate of digital HDTV is in the hands of our retail sales people, then we are all in big trouble.
I recently hosted a visit from an overseas journalist who wanted a look at the American retail scene. I took him to the Palisades Mall, a massive 4-story edifice, which lays claim to being the nation's second largest mall. It is so big it is able to house both Best Buy and Circuit City under its roof, and is only about a mile away from another mall in which a Sears resides. And of course it being my favorite subject, I focused on digital wide screen TV.
Our first, and most disastrous, stop was at Best Buy which had only two direct-view models on display. Only one, a 32W-inch Samsung was operating and it was housed at ankle level making it impossible to view by anyone not in a prone sniping position. But there were lots of projection models. Three, one each from JVC, Sony and Panasonic, were housed on a shelf just above head height, putting their screens about five feet over my head. This of course meant that any customer walking up to them saw a dark, washed out picture compared to those with screens at or near eye level.
One of the worst displays was of a Panasonic 32W-inch labeled, in big letters, "Digital Light Projection." This is a rather short model and was sitting on the floor with its screen at about hip level. Obviously the picture was terrible. When I got down on my knees I saw the line double picture was outstanding, but I doubt many potential customers would do the same. Then in smaller writing I saw the set was also described as an "LCD Projection Monitor," even though it had two-tuner P-I-P. I guess they used the term monitor because the set does not have an internal digital TV tuner.
Because of the picture quality I assumed the set used Texas Instrument's micro-mirror technology, also known as DLP, the P stands for Processing, not Projection. So to set the matter straight I located a floor salesman who was busy watching a cartoon on another one of the sets on display.
I asked if the Panasonic model used the TI chip. He allowed as he hadn't a clue as to what a TI chip was but assured me the TV had an LCD screen. I corrected him, but he insisted the screen was an LCD panel and "the reason they call it projection was because the set was so big." When I looked skeptical he said, "Well that's what they tell us."
At Circuit City a strong attempt was being made to display all digital projection models with screens at or near eye level. But while the sales person did indeed understand how the Panasonic LCD projection TVs works, he too said he had no idea what a TI DLP was. I found the same lack of knowledge at Sears.
To Circuit's credit, they have in a rack a free "Big Screen Buying Guide." It has some excellent product color photos and a great rundown on the digital TV models Circuit carries. But it also has some minor errors of omission in its glossary section that could be explained away by a fully trained sales associate.
I suspect that projection will hold on to the digital lead for years to come. That makes it imperative that the information available to consumers at the retail level be as complete and accurate as possible.
Bob Gerson, TWICE editor-at-large, has covered the CE industry for more than 30 years. He is the founding editor of the publication and was its longtime editor-in-chief.