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?)

Dayton-Hudson had recruited a true genius of a merchant named David Banker to run the new Lechmere. He was the most intimidating man I had ever encountered. I shuttered as he walked into the ballroom just as I took my seat at the conference table. Lechmere’s TV buyer was to my right and my immediate boss, the divisional merchandise manager, was to my left. Mr. Banker (we all called him that) walked up and put his massive hands on my boss’s shoulders. “Phil”, he announced. “Find another seat. I want to sit next to the hippie”. I had this overwhelming urge to wet myself which fortunately passed without incident.

Saul Gold called the meeting to order. He rattled off so many numbers so fast I couldn’t keep up. Mr. Banker took the pen from my hand and slightly shook his head. “No need for notes from Saul. It’s all bullsh*t anyway.” he smiled.

Finally the agenda shifted to stereo, my emerging category. Gold was wondering if any in the group had picked up Technics which was Panasonic’s new-to-market component brand. Panasonic wanted to offer NATM a group deal. Wurtzel told the group the line was doing great at Ward’s and he was buying it so right he could offer his floor salesmen an incentive to sell it. Ward’s had negotiated 8% off the price sheet. Gene Mondry piped up and boasted that Highland had wrangled 3 more points than Ward’s.

Mr. Banker scribbled on my notepad. “Are we buying as well as Highland?” “Better”, I wrote back. “We’ve got a 14 point deal.” I started to raise my hand anxious to tell the most powerful men in CE that I had a stronger deal than them when I felt my hand clamped to the table by a much larger hand. Through clenched but grinning teeth the CEO of Lechmere whispered to me “Don’t say a fu**ing word.”

 That was my virgin experience at a buying group meeting. I remember it as vividly as my first date.

 (This piece originally appeared on the CE Pro website March 22, 2013 with the title “Are Buying Groups Worth Joining?”

It has been edited for AIHS and is reprinted with the permission of EH Publishing, Inc.)

photo credit: j.o.h.n. walker via photopin cc


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