The First Annual CE Pro Masters Awards

By Chuck Schneider

Recognition. It just might be the ultimate high. From that very first Kindergarten star-laden crayon scribble on Mom’s refrigerator to a Nobel, Pulitzer, Oscar or Emmy–getting recognized by others for what you do or did feels pretty darned swell.

I’ve been fortunate to have received a number of individual awards over my career in CE and remember every situation in vivid detail. Later on, as a rep principal, I gushed like a soccer mom when one of my staff was recognized by a vendor.

More often than occasionally, lots of deserving folks get overlooked when the award “wood” is handed out. That was the thinking when CE Pro conceived of these awards as a cherry on top of their year-long 20th Anniversary sundae. It was first named “50 over 50” but that was deemed not so original. After much debate it was decided that CE Pro Masters had the right ring.

The criteria were pretty straight forward. CE Pro was looking for career CE folks who’ve moved up the ladder of success over the past several decades and made an honest living. Some of these people intentionally stayed out of the spotlight while others have concentrated on their jobs rather than endless self promotion.

Here they are—the first CE Pro Masters. (more…)

THE RACK SYSTEM—Darth Vader Comes to Audio

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A few of you are just about old enough to remember a particularly ugly era in the history of Consumer Electronics, a time that many contend (including me) started audio components on their death spiral that continues even today. It started sometime around 1975 and was pretty much over by the late 1980s. This was the era of the “rack system.”

It was innocent enough at the jump as most evil intended entities are. Separate audio components were hot items in the mid 1970s. Specialty stores were everywhere. Here in the Boston area alone, Harvard Square boasted eight stereo stores at the peak.

Manufacturers, most notably Japanese manufacturers, were in a race for greater and greater market share. By that time they dominated the receiver business, having vanquished or acquired the great American audio brands of the 1950’s and 1960s. They had made great strides in the turntable arena stealing business from European brands by successfully convincing the vinyl buying public, mostly stoners, that playing records one at a time was better for the planet that stacking them on a record changer, that malevolent contraption straight out of your Mom’s fruitwood veneer Sylvania console from 1957.

Yet the boys from the Pacific Rim had close to zero market share in freestanding speakers. True, they had improved the boxes cosmetically moving away from the fretwork grilles of the military PXs in the Viet Nam era to something that at least looked like a KLH. But putting lipstick on those pigs did nothing to help sales and speakers were the most profitable components in the system. (OK. OK. I’m not forgetting phono cartridges.) They needed something to increase the top and bottom lines and sell more speakers. Enter the rack.

The rack system looked like component stereo pieces placed on shelves in a piece of furniture. Safe enough, right? But the “components” were one big piece of electronics that shared a power supply thereby defeating the whole raison d’être for buying components over consoles and compact systems in the first place. It was deceptive. It was hypocritical. And it sounded just dreadful. But it succeeded. It was so successful in fact that major specialty audio stores were forced to carry it for of fear losing business.

The manufacturers sold these things to everyone short of convenience stores. Most notably, they put places like Macy’s and JC Penney in the specialty stereo business for the first time. Craving more, they moved even further down market to the likes of Target and K-Mart. Finally, the systems found their way onto little brochures tucked into virtually every credit card billed ever mailed.

Then suddenly they were gone. But like a hurricane, tornado or tidal wave their relatively brief time on the audio scene caused destruction that would last a long long time. Component audio came back with the rise of home theater but the thrill of a carefully chosen music system was dealt a near fatal blow.

(This piece originally appeared on the CE Pro website December 17, 2013 with the title “Can You Trust Your Vendors?” It has been edited for AIHS and is reprinted with the permission of EH Publishing, Inc.)

 

Major Buying Groups—The Glory Days Of The Mid 1970s

 

small_3428900164Chicago, January 1976. Not just Chicago but the Conrad Hilton Hotel, then the Crown Jewel of the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, January 1976. Back when CES was a twice a year event and both shows were in the Windy City. Before Las Vegas!  

It was 5:30PM when I walked unnoticed into the Grand Ballroom. Very important men were gathered in small groups holding adult beverages and talking amongst themselves. I recognized a few of them from trade magazine photos. There was Jack Luskin from Baltimore talking to Alan Wurtzel from the Ward’s Company (before Ward’s decided that Circuit City was a way cooler name). In another group stood Dick (of Newmark and) Lewis laughing it up with Dave and Gene Mondry from Highland in Detroit and Saul Gold the Executive Director of the NATM Buying Corp.

Every one of the men mentioned in that last paragraph is in the Consumer Electronic Association Hall of Fame. They were the leaders of the Forty Thieves, the affectionate but somewhat damning nickname for the National Association of Television Merchants. The 16 (which may have seemed like 40) members of NATM were the most powerful hard goods retail force in America well into the 1980’s.

If you were a vendor or competitor of a NATM member during this era you know how significant this group was.

I had recently been hired as the youngest buyer in Boston-based Lechmere’s history.  I bought Hi-Fi/Stereo, considered an emerging category. Lechmere was no shrinking violet in NATM. The founding Cohen family (also each a CEA Hall of Famer) had recently sold their 4 store chain to Dayton-Hudson Corporation which had also just purchased Target Stores. Either Lechmere or Target was going to be D-H’s choice to nationally go head-to-head with K-Mart and/or Sam Walton’s upstart discounter Wal-Mart. (Guess who won that contest?) (more…)