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Abt Electronics: GIA Winner Abt Serves Up Supersized Retail Theater

By Peter Giannetti March 14, 2010

CHICAGO— It would be the ultimate understatement to say Abt Electronics, the Glenview, IL, electronics and appliance superstore, has a housewares department.

Indeed, describing Abt as a superstore doesn’t really do justice to the single-store Chicagoland institution housed in a 358,000-square-foot facility.

Abt, to be honored tonight as a U.S. gia (Global Innovator Award) winner, can’t be pigeonholed by conventional retail definitions. And that’s just the way the Abt family, now in its third generation of owner-management, likes it.

In 2002, Abt Electronics moved into its current location, an appliance and electronics colossus whose foundation was first laid in 1936 when David and Jewel Abt opened a radio store in Chicago.

Their son, Robert Abt, is the visionary who saw the potential in a store that invites shoppers with retail theater on the grandest scale then closes the deal by adhering to the more humble business virtues of selection, service and value.

Abt, by all measures modest and reserved, doesn’t hold back as a retail merchant. He is a student of the Steve Wynn school of visual merchandising, and he readily admits the iconic Las Vegas casino innovator was his biggest inspiration in the development of the new Abt store.

“I’ve equated my store to Las Vegas,” Abt told the Illinois Retail Merchants Association in 2004 after he was named retailer of the year. “As far as the entertainment, it’s really helped our growth a lot.... People can gamble anywhere, but they want to go to Steve Wynn’s hotel.”

The store’s main showroom even has a huge saltwater aquarium, an idea Robert Abt borrowed from the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, to keep families entertained as they shop.

And the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas provided the blueprint for one of the most distinctive features of the Abt store— a 20,000-square-foot mall at the rear of the main showroom known as the Atrium.

The perimeter of the Atrium is lined with several specialty boutiques dedicated to premium brands and products. This includes the store’s Gourmet Shop, as well as boutiques for “Time Watch,” Sony Electronics, Sub-Zero/Wolf, Bang & Olufsen, “Custom Kitchens,” and Apple.

“[The Atrium boutiques] fully present the quality that each individual manufacturer wishes to convey while complementing the Atrium’s own surrounding characteristics,” according to a promotional brochure on the Atrium.

Abt’s Gourmet Shop is a full-service emporium lined with leading upscale brands of cookware, kitchen tools and kitchen electrics for the home cooking aficionado.

The Gourmet Shop evokes a luxurious gourmet kitchen. Carefully crafted displays complement the nature of each item to blend seamlessly into a boutique that embodies the Atrium’s theme of grace, class and modern living.

Relaxing Experience

Abt’s goal of the ultimate, relaxing retail experience is enhanced by the “dancing” water fountain at the heart of the Atrium, choreographed to the sounds of classical music and surrounded by a colorful array of fresh flowers.

“The Atrium is about more than atmosphere though; it’s about meeting the needs of modern luxury living,” according to the company.

Indeed, the Abt family has worked strategically and diligently to ensure that, despite the glitzy Vegas influences, merchandising and operational substance form the backbone of an operation fixated in customer satisfaction.

“ ‘Yes’ is always the answer to any reasonable request,” reads Abt’s customer service motto.

That helps explain why 90% of the store’s customers are made up of return or referred shoppers. This keep’s the store’s reliance on advertising to a minimum, although the company regularly runs ads in local newspapers, and it actively invests in the promotion and search engine optimization of its website.

Behind the scenes, Abt’s customer service department has some 70 staffers working the phones and service counters. The warehouse, bolstered by 80 loading docks and fleet of 130 delivery vehicles, can handle more than 2,200 orders a day and some 6,000 weekly customer visits for deliveries and installations.

Abt keeps its more-than-900 employees motivated, as well, with income bonus incentives, training programs and such on-site amenities as a state-of-the-art workout room and a full-sized basketball court.

The store helps moderate its electrical costs, while advancing its sustainability contribution, with an in-house solar- and wind-powered generator.

While Robert Abt remains very involved in Abt’s strategic and tactical development as the company’s CEO, he has relinquished much of the day-to-day duties to his four sons: Michael, Billy, Ricky and Jon.

Together, they now share the responsibility of continuing the visionary retail legacy handed down from their father and grandparents: to relish change, to keep the store uniquely exciting and to take care of the customer.

Such qualities would seem to define successful merchandising for any retailer. Abt Electronics, though, has built its reputation on defying conventional retail definitions.

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