Strange Bedfellows - Refrigerators, Stereos And Fine Watches At Abt
By Keith W. Strandberg | April 02, 2009
Usually, fine watches are sold in carefully crafted environments, designed
to make customers feel comfortable and luxurious. Watch boutiques are
often stand-alone items, far away from other mainstream stores, destination
stores, if you will.
In the Chicago area, however, Abt Electronics is breaking all the rules
by selling fine watches (Franck Muller, Oceanus, Chronoswiss, Frédérique
Constant, Rado, Tissot, Hamilton, Longines, Oris, Victorinox Swiss Army,
Ball, Seiko, Citizen, Skaagen) at prices ranging from 100 to 12,000 US
dollars inside its existing electronics store, along with refrigerators,
stereos, TVs and dishwashers.
To find out how they do it, I spoke with Mike Abt, the President of family-owned
Abt Electronics. Abt is the oldest of four brothers who run the company
with their father. 70-year-old Abt Electronics (Glenview, Illinois) is
a 350,000-square-foot store that ranks as the largest single appliance
and consumer electronics store in the U.S. It is also the beta-testing
headquarters for major brand manufacturers from Yamaha to Whirlpool. The
Abt store in suburban Chicago has more than 5,000 products on display
and 1,130 employees.
Europa Star: How did you get started with timepieces?
Mike Abt: We started timepieces in November of 2007. The main reason
is that in the Atrium, which looks like you are in a Mall in the Bellagio
in Vegas, we have a lot of room. In the Design Center and the Atrium,
we are selling luxury goods. There are fountains, skylights and great
Our customers asked for fine watches, so we wanted to offer them. Men
like to go into the watch store and look around after they buy their TV.
We sell lots of gadgets, we have the high-end, cutting edge, cool stuff,
so watches are a natural fit for us.
Right now, people are just coming into the store. We havent done
much advertising about watches. We have a big customer base, about a million
people, so we are communicating with them via our newsletter. Two years
from now, we will be a destination store for watches. Right now they are
just learning about us and watches.
ES: Was it tough to convince watch brands to come into an appliance
MA: The brands didnt get it when we went to them to talk
about selling watches. The most important thing for many brands is image,
so what watch company would want to be in a store with appliances? We
are different, though, we are the biggest in the world and we have a good
reputation. When they came in and saw where they would go and how it would
be presented, they said yes. The hard part is to convince people to come
in and see the place.
When we started audio, it was a similar process, it took us ten years
to get the good audio. We have some really good watch lines in our store,
which surprised us. We needed some niche products, like Ball, but we like
to have name brands too. We are not a store that sells stuff, we just
get what people want.
ES: Do you have a watches-only sales staff?
MA: Right now, we have four dedicated watch salespeople, who have
sold watches before. They are watch experts. We have 220 sales- people,
and out of those there are eight or ten who are passionate about watches.
To open the store and get the right reputation, we had to have watch experts.
I didnt want to train the TV guy to sell watches. That will happen,
but for now we need a dedicated staff.
ES: Are you a watch guy yourself?
MA: I like watches and I have a few. Chronoswiss was a line that
I didnt know about, but my wife got me one when we got married.
I am turning into a watch guy.
ES: How is it going so far?
MA: Watches are doing fantastic. We are used to delivering refrigerators
and installing the plumbing, we have a fleet of 230 vehicles and its
a lot of hard work. With watches, you sell an image, you have the watch
and people buy the floor model (in our appliance business, we cant
even sell the floor model as new, we have to discount it). They take it
with them, there is no installation and the service is done somewhere
We will have a watchmaker to service watches in time, but we dont
have enough history yet. So, now, we send the watches off to be repaired.
The business is fantastic, it was easy to enter, all we had to do was
a build out in our store, and watches are exciting products. They are
unique looking, they are changing all the time and people come back all
the time to see whats new. People buy a fridge and they dont
come back for 20 years.
ES: What is the secret of your success?
MA: We have our own customer base. People want to buy from Abt,
they trust us, they are third or fourth generation customers. A second
advantage is that we are open seven days a week and our busiest day is
Sunday, and thats when a lot of the watch stores are closed. People
like to shop together. People shop after work, and a lot of little stores
are closed after six pm.
ES: What is your relationship like with other retailers?
MA: Personally, I am friends with a few. We sell appliances to
all the watch stores. Its tricky, we have our own customers, and
there seems to be a lot of talk amongst reps and dealers, and no watch
dealers are excited about us having watches. They buy from us and they
know how good we are. We will make everyone who stays in the business
The one thing we do bring is visibility to these brands. If we carry something
and we say its good, it helps the brands image. It adds legitimacy
to the lines that people dont know. If we carry Rolex, it wont
add anything to them, but since we carry Ball, the other dealers will
see an impact.
ES: What do you like about your job?
MA: I love the family business. I was in medical school before,
and its really nice to work with your family. Its not life
or death, so I can have some fun. Its always changing, there are
always new people, so its interesting. I like having people come
together as a team. Its not just about who I am, its about
everyone, the sales people, the lady who answers the phone, the delivery
guy and everyone else.
I love technology so, I like to bring technology to the company. We do
sales on the Internet, in the regular goods. We are roughly ten percent
e-commerce. We dont sell Sub Zeros on line, but we do a lot of TVs,
refrigerators, stereos, etc. on line.
ES: What don't you like?
MA: The hours are the hardest. We are the store that is always
open. Family life is hard in this business. You are always thinking about
the business. Since we are open 9 to 9, the hours are always there.
ES: Who is your customer?
MA: For us, our customer really is everybody. We are not big advertisers
and we dont study our customers much, but they are educated and
for the most part, they have to drive far to get here. Our customers tend
to be between 30 and 60, equal split male and female. They are a wealthier
customer and we are a luxury store.
We speak 30 languages, so we do have a very international clientele. When
you have a lot of people working for you, you can have this expertise.
We are very proud about this in the company.
ES: How important is customer service?
MA: Customer service is everything. A lot of what we sell, you
can buy anywhere. Thats what really makes us different, customer
service. Our motto is the answer is yes to any reasonable request.
Thats what we all live by. We try to empower everyone to take care
of any problem. Everyone talks about it, but if you come to our store,
you will see the difference.
ES: Are you optimistic about the future?
MA: Being a company with a history of 70 plus years, the future
will always get better in the end. We are in this for the long haul. We
are fine with the future. People keep wanting stuff and we will keep giving
them stuff. Most of what we sell is needed product people need
to buy a stove or an oven or a TV. We are protected by selling basic necessities.
ES: What does time mean to you?
MA: Every man has only so much time. I try to live with that in
mind, its the most precious commodity. I try to use it to the fullest
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