Abt Dives Into Autosound
BY JEFF BERMAN
As part of its recent store expansion, Chicago-area Abt Electronics has made room for autosound for the first time and boosted its overall audio and video floor space, too
Although Abt Electronics is only a single store, this family-run business has manages to remain a major retail force in the Chicagoland area for quite some time. Despite the ever-increasing strength in the region by large national competitors, including Best Buy and Circuit City, Abt a member of the NATM Buying Corp.-has been able to build a loyal customer base over the years thanks in large part to its dedication to customer service and its wide selection of electronic appliances.
And with the recent expansion of its current Morton Grove, IL location, Abt has been able to add an auto sound department for the first time, and expand its overall space also.
Abt's long history
David and Jewel Abt opened the business back in 1936. David had worked at a radio store "so he had some knowledge in radios and stuff like that," says Mike Abt, their grandson. They sold primarily appliances and radios at that first location which. like their second spot, was located in downtown Chicago.
From the downtown Chicago area, Abt wound up moving to a suburban location in Niles, IL (the next town over from Morton Grove). They went on to eventually expand that store into a 22,000 -square-foot space from one that was only about 12,000 square feet, according to David and Jewel's son. Bob Abt, who is now the company's CEO.
Then. in December 1990, Abt moved to its current location in Morton Grove. In the process, from a location that only offered customers about 20 parking spots. Abt was now able to make room for a total "of about 350 to 400" spaces, says Bob. When the Morton Grove location first opened, it was about 81,000 square feet, according to him. But since a recent remodeling, the store is now up to "about 131,000" square feet.
Bob notes that he been working at the store for "about 37 years" and has been "probably running it for 33 year." Although his father passed away, Jewel still plays an active role in the business Bob points out that she comes in "five days a week-sometimes six." And also very involved in the store's operation are Bob's sons, Richard, William and Mike. Mike points out that "we all work the floor"-something that the customers really seem to like. "They love to have the owner to complain to and to congratulate," observes Mike.
Why expand now?
As it turned out, 81,000 square feet just wasn't big enough for Abt. According to Bob; "We were busting out at the seams, and we didn't have enough presence-especially on the electronics side. When you walked in, it looked more 'appliance-y."' But that has turned around now. "You walk in" and on "both sides of the aisle" one can see electronics and home theater products, he says. And, on a visit to the store in May, Audio Video saw that this was indeed the case. "You didn't see that at all before," says Bob. He notes that "70 percent of the [new] floor space" has gone to electronics, while "30 percent" was added. to appliances. In addition, the whole office, customer service area, and warehouse in hack have all become larger. (He says the warehouse has expanded from about 55,000 square feet to about 80,000.)
Along with the floor. space, the staff at Abt has also increased by about 100 people as a result of the expansion. Abt now has 350 full-time employees and about another 100 part-time workers. There are now 70 full-time salespeople-up from about 50.
Other additions include a huge globe of the world that greets consumers who walk into Abt from the side entrance. Weighing 5,381 pounds, the German-made globe floats on 12 pounds of water pressure. In addition, they have been able to find room for a bunch of kitchen vignettes. This is designed to let them expand their custom kitchen and furniture business, which they delved into for the first time about a year ago.
And, of course, the expansion has made more room for Abt's first autosound room, as well as an installation bay.
Bob says adding autosound was Mike's idea, but points out that going into this business made perfect sense. For one thing, autosound brings in a younger profile, which is attractive." Mike adds: "'Customers wanted us to be in it."
Car audio lines Abt is carrying include MB Quart, Rockford Fosgate, Kicker, Sony ES, Clarion and Kenwood.
The autosound room itself. is quite eye-catching, containing separate walls for speakers, amps, head units, etc. In the center of the room is a white Pontiac Formula 350 with a system installed by "Team Abt."
Of course, Abt has autosound competition in its market from such dealers as Circuit City and Best Buy. But Mike is optimistic about their chances for success. For one thing, he observes: "There's other parts of the country where one independent really dominates car, but in Chicago there is no one. It's a fragmented market."
The autosound department had only been open for about a month when Audio Video visited the store and there had been no advertisements telling the public about the store's addition of autosound and its expansion overall. But Mike says that early feedback from their customers has been "awesome." And they do plan to start advertising the store's new features.
According to Bob, there's been a "pretty significant" increase in store traffic since the overall expansion. He notes that the expansion process itself - which took about two years-caused some minor hardships . "It was a mess," he points out. But, now that the expansion is done, it appears to have been worth it.
Although the autosound room, located towards the back of the store, is basically finished, Mike notes that they are thinking of putting an eye-catching car on display somewhere in the middle of the store, not far from the autosound room, to help draw more customers back there.
A 'natural fit'
Warren Mann, group director of NATM, says that Abt Electronics and mobile electronics "is a natural fit."
Mann observes: "Here's an operation which has geared itself around catering to its customer base and providing the breadth of product: I mean, they have inexpensive appliances and they have some very, very top-of-the-line expensive products....They cover the gamut because in the neighborhood they serve, their customers cover the gamut. But one thing's for sure: almost all their customers have cars. So it seems like just one more way to provide good service to the people they've been selling for 62 years."
Mann recalls that back when lie and NATM executive director Saul Gold "were considering them for membership in the group," before he went to the store, he wondered: "what can one store do?" But he was impressed with what lie saw at Abt.
Calling Abt "a local institution" in the Chicago area, Mann says: "They all work hard. It's a family operation. They put in the hours. They invest the time. They're always trying to get better. This is a place that you would think - with the kind of business they do and the volume they do - they wouldn't change. And actually just the opposite is true. They're always expanding and looking for better opportunity." In addition, he points out, "they have a strong sales staff and they keep their people a long time....They're just doing a lot of things right right now, and with business taking an upward turn this year, they're probably the beneficiaries because they expanded just in time to catch that wave."
Part of a continuing process
Bob notes that even prior to the expansion, "we've been moving more (into) upscale electronics." Among the new lines Abt started to carry within the last year are Mirage, M & K, Sonance, Niles, Parasound, and Onkyo. Abt also started carrying Yamaha's line about two years ago. Mike says the main reason why they've ventured into more higher-end product is "customer demand," but says it's "always helpful" to have certain brands that their national competitors, like Best Buy and Circuit City, don't.
As their custom installation business has increased, so has their number of high-end customers, says Mike, who notes that from two installation employees, Abt now has 18 plus two support people.
But, despite the changes at Abt, most parts of the selling floor have not been re-modeled with the expansion. For example, there's still a huge fish tank in the middle of the camcorder section. In that tank are about 50 fish and R.J., an eel that has been there so long Jewel says "it's part of the family."
There's also still an Abt Hall of Fame wall, which features photos of celebrities like Michael Jordan and filmmaker Harold Ramis.
And Abt Electronics also still offers one feature on the floor that most places don't: a variety of old products that Mike says the customers get a kick out of seeing. Among them are an Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph, a Frigidaire refrigerator manufactured in 1938, a Maytag wringer washer manufactured in 1936, and an Easy washing machine manufactured all the way back in 1912. Taken altogether, these things help make Abt a unique retail operation.