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Independents Using Fresh Ideas While Adding Stores And Space

While No. 1 retail chain Best Buy plans to increase its store count by more than 60 this year — including the first New York metropolitan area units this fall — many of the industry’s regional and independent dealers also are in the midst of major expansions.

Among the larger regional chains, Ultimate Electronics entered the Phoenix market late last month with the opening of two new stores. The central focus of both units is a 15-foot-high Technology Tower that displays mid- to high-end brands with an emphasis on digital technology.

These stores are only part of a growth spurt for the company, said real estate VP Steve Olsen. A SoundTrack store is planned for Colorado Springs, Colo., and two additional Ultimate Electronics stores are planned for the Phoenix area this fall.

Ultimate also opened a 36,000-square-foot Audio King store in the St. Paul, Minn., area at the end of May. Located in the town of Woodbury, the unit replaced a smaller Audio King store in nearby Maplewood.

Olsen said the St. Paul location — with a 22,000-square-foot sales floor — is an example of a change in direction for the company, which in general, is building larger display spaces to boost its brand count, as well as placing more emphasis on custom installation. The new store features three home audio rooms — one each for “good,” “better” and “best” products, depending on how much the customer wants to spend — and three car audio rooms, which the Ultimate exec said are relatively small.

Sound Advice, the Dania Beach, Fla.-based CE retailer, is not only opening new stores, it is launching a new mall-based concept store called Electronic Interiors this fall. The concept store will be a hybrid of a regular Sound Advice unit that’s about 4,500 square feet in size and a 1,500-square-foot higher-end Bang & Olufsen showroom.

CEO Peter Beshouri said the format — which is planned to debut in the Palm Beach, Fla., area this fall –is intended to draw in the usual Sound Advice customer and then introduce them to the higher-end B&O product lines.

“The Bang & Olufsen stores have done very well for us,” Beshouri said. “[In the concept stores] you’re showing products that the customer knows and is familiar with, and then you’re showing solutions people don’t know exist.”

The company plans to open the second Electronic Interiors site in fall 2001, two traditional Sound Advice stores (one each in Miami this fall and Orlando in mid-2001), and three additional B&O shops in 2001.

In addition to building new stores, Sound Advice is in the process of acquiring Showcase Home Entertainment, a small upscale retailer with two stores in the Scottsdale, Ariz., area that specializes in home automation, Beshouri said. The company expects the acquisition to be completed by mid-October.

Meanwhile, NATM member R.C. Willey Home Furnishings began construction last week on a store in Las Vegas, which will be its first Nevada location. The 162,500-square-foot unit is slated to open next summer and will consist of 125,000 square feet of retail showroom space.

Conn’s, another NATM member, will bring its Houston-area store count up to 17 with a 3,000-square-foot store in Conroe, Texas, that opened Aug. 1 and another under construction in the Woodlands area north of Houston, which is planned to open in early 2001.

Conn’s also plans to open its fifth store in the San Antonio market this fall and has more acquisitions on the drawing board, said president Bill Nylin.

Not to be outdone, Abt Electronics, a Morton Grove, Ill.-based electronics/appliance retailer that also belongs to NATM, is moving its 150,000-square-foot store and company headquarters to a site in Glenview, Ill., by the fall of 2001. The new location will be larger than Abt’s existing headquarters and will include a state-of-the-art fulfillment center for the retailer’s growing online business, the company said.

BrandsMart U.S.A., which is based in South Florida (and is a NATM member), opened its fourth store last spring in South Dade County.

In early August, Newton, Mass.-based Cambridge SoundWorks opened a store in North Reading, Mass. The site contains 3,250 square feet of retail space dedicated to the company’s line of home audio, home theater and multimedia products, as well as other leading brands.

“The new North Reading store launches phase one of [our] long-term expansion plans,” said sales and marketing director Sid Newman, which include eight new stores nationwide over the next year.

Giving new meaning to “theme stores,” Wolf Camera opened its first-ever photography theme superstore in Manhattan this spring.

The 4,200-square-foot shop is modeled after other specialty retailers’ theme stores and includes an artists’ gallery of rotating work, a children’s play area and a computer kiosk that connects customers to, where they can record video messages and send them via e-mail.

The Atlanta-based photography chain followed this with a second New York City theme store that opened in May, as well as the acquisition of four of the five Manhattan-based Alkit Camera locations.

Elsewhere, Morris Home Furnishings in Dayton, Ohio, opened a third location in the area during the first week of August. Though it wasn’t planned, the store is conveniently opening at the same time a regional rival, Roberds, is liquidating, a spokeswoman said.

Within one wing of the store, an Appliance Gallery will feature a fully operating kitchen display, as well as a wide assortment of mid- and high-end appliance brands, including Viking and Fisher & Paykel. The other wing features an Electronic Gallery that will display state-of-the-art CE products including home theater, sounds systems, DVD, satellite and HDTV products, the spokeswoman said.

In conjunction with its 25th anniversary, San Antonio, Texas-based Bjorn’s Audio/Video is constructing a 25,000-square-foot retail facility. Building began in the spring and should be completed this fall, in time for the holiday shopping season, the company said.

“The new retail facility will give us the opportunity to present our products and services in a truly different environment, which will give the customer a memorable experience,” said Bjorn VP/general manager Bob White.

The new store will allow the customer to experience home theater in three different home settings and two theater environments with raised seating. It will also feature “a house within the store” to illustrate the possibilities of distributed A/V.