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Top Electronic Store Is A World Unto Itself

Abt generates electricity, praise and $300 million in yearly sales

BY: Neil Steinberg Sun-Times Columnist

August 6, 2010

A company does not generally want to catch the attention of Consumer Reports. If the scrappy monthly watchdog singles out your business, that typically means your product tends to catch fire, or has been found shoddy, shabby, or insufficient.

So you have to smile - I sure smiled - seeing the magazine's trademark tough scrutiny dissolve into applause in the August issue, where a survey of 21,068 subscribers crowns our own Abt Electronics as the best store of its type in the country.

"Abt Electronics, in the Chicago area, and [other] independent local stores garnered high praise from shoppers who bought a major appliance in the past year," the magazine notes, running a shopper-satisfaction chart showing Abt, with a score of 92, far outpacing also-rans such as Home Depot, Sears (both 83) and Best Buy (82).

Celebrating a store is unusual for me, but then Abt is no usual store. The place is a sprawling world of wonder, and I respect Abt just for doing what it does so well.

The stats amaze. Some 1,100 employees in 350,000 square feet at its one and only location. Platoons of salespeople guiding an army of customers - up to 10,000 a day - through Abt's jungle of products, and as amazing as that is, in these pared-down times, even more incredible that 80 percent work away from the sales floor, handling service calls and online orders (the Internet accounts for 20 percent of business). Not in Delhi, but in Glenview.

"We do everything ourselves," said Bob Abt, 72, neatly summing up the secret of the success of the 74-year-old store, which rings up more than $300 million a year in sales.

And he means "everything." The store generates its own electrical power, with a pair of 850 kilowatt natural gas generators. It has its own wood shop, its own fleet of trucks, serviced in its own garage and gassed up at its own pumps.

Many stores recycle; Abt takes the Styrofoam packing its delivery people remove after setting up appliances, then melts it down into a sweetish-smelling white paste Abt sells back to manufacturers in Asia. Currently, they're shipping 40,000 pounds a week at 20 cents a pound.

If I had to point to just one aspect of the store to explain Abt, it would be the fish tank - an enormous, 7,500-gallon saltwater tank. It isn't just decoration - the camera department rings it, and the tank was installed so people fiddling with video cameras would have something colorful to look at through their viewfinders.

Most stores wouldn't worry about a detail like that, never mind solve the problem with 100 tropical fish and an on-staff fish feeder who goes into the tank in a wet suit.

But Abt is a spend-money-to-make-money kind of place. In the bathrooms, the granite goes all the way to the ceiling - no painting, easier to clean - and there are fresh flowers. Scattered around the store are not just glass jars of candy, but glass jars of Hershey's miniatures - good, expensive candy.

Candy helps keep kids occupied while their parents are buying electronics, and there are a number of other kid-centric activities - the big spinning granite globe, for instance, a booth allowing you to raise an enormous bubble around yourself, video games, fountains, cooking demonstrations.

"My idol in business is Steve Wynn," Abt said of the casino tycoon. "He puts a show on."

Did I mention the restaurant? If you never get to the nearby design center - Kohler wanted to display bathroom fixtures, but there wasn't room, so Abt built a facility across the parking lot - you might not realize Abt runs a restaurant, Jolane's Cafe, with a polished wood interior, a glass-ceiling bar, Julius Meinl coffee, soy glazed salmon and Hungarian ribeye on the menu. The restaurant is two years old, and not yet as successful as they'd like.

"It's much easier to sell a television than sell a sandwich," Abt says.

I suppose, to preserve my reputation, I should find something critical to say: There is a whole lot of choice. I counted 110 types of televisions before I gave up, defeated. The place can be overwhelming.

But that's the best I can do, too much selection if you have decision anxiety.

The scope of Abt busts the confines of this column, and rather than turn it into a weeklong series, I'd better wind up now. Despite being in the business his entire life, Bob Abt seems to take nothing for granted - every night, he walks the store at closing, scrutinizing the place.

He surprised me by expressing reservations about my even mentioning the Consumer Reports praise.

"I don't know if you can really write about it," he said. "They're so touchy."

Who isn't nowadays? But not so touchy that we've voided the First Amendment. Anyway, in summary: Abt, a great place and under-appreciated local treasure, and if Consumer Reports wants to come and get me for spilling the beans, well, they know where I am.

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