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Abt Electronics: Part CE Design Center, Part Circus

Chicago-area Abt Electronics is also a recycling plant, wedding venue, Apple store, kitchen showroom and more.

By: Julie Jacobson
July 28, 2010

TVs at Abt

When you talk about Abt Electronics, it's hard to know where to begin. You don't even know what to call the place, which is located in the Chicago suburb of Glenview.

It is just as much a recycling plant as it is a store. And the store sells everything from dishwashers to iPads to watches to almost every popular home control system. The décor is one part nostalgia and one part Vegas.

Most of all, though, Abt is a destination.

"We're the Bellagio of the industry," says co-president Mike Abt, my tour guide for the day. About six weddings have been held in the idyllic Abt atrium, a sunny space with a fountain and gardens. And when one guy proposed to his girlfriend in front of the store's TV section, it made national news.

It wasn't always that way. When Jewel and David Abt opened Abt Radio in 1936, the three-person shop sold only small electronics.

By the time the couple was inducted into the Consumer Electronics Association's CE Hall of Fame

in 2008, the store occupied 37 acres, employed over 1,000 people, and operated 70 large delivery trucks, 45 custom installation trucks and 100 service vans.

Abt Electronics

  • Location: Glenview Ill., outside of Chicago
  • Website:
  • Principals: The Abts: Bob (father/CEO) and sons Mike, Jon, Rick, Billy
  • Revenues: $25 million (2009, based on CE Pro 100 data)
  • Years in Business: 74
  • Number of employees: 1,100 (total, all departments)
  • Residential/Commercial Split: 60%/40%
  • Internet Sales: 18%
  • Specialty: Top quality across all products and services, from watches to home theaters to automation to BBQ grills.
  • Top 5 Brands: M&K, Sony, Samsung, Deno

FYI: The dated Abt logo... isn't so dated after all, according to Mike Abt. It was "modernized" about 15 years ago, but maintains the flavor of Abt's former neighbor, Zenith, which inspired the lightning bolt.

Situated on the current property are the main showroom and warehouse at 350,000 square feet, a 22,000-square-foot design center with leased space (kitchen and bath, cabinets, stone, lighting and a Viking cooking school), Abt's very own restaurant called Jolane's, and an 8,000-square-foot recycling facility. Plus, the sprawling space is home to Jewel and David Abt's son Bob (CEO) and his four sons Mike, Jon, Rick and Billy -- all principals in the family-owned business.

What's in Store
In addition to major appliances and home electronics available in the namesake Abt store, customers can purchase any number of seemingly random items at any of the adjoining shops. There's a dedicated store for Sony, Apple, Thermador, Tumi and other popular brands. At 3,000 square feet, Abt's Sub-Zero showroom is the largest independently owned Sub-Zero space in the country - about three times the size of similar stores. All of the shops are managed and staffed by Abt employees.

You can pick up some fancy coffee beans and Viking skillets at the gourmet kitchen boutique. Or shop elsewhere for sunglasses, fitness equipment, breathalyzers, water heaters, mosquito repellent systems and power generators.

There's so much to do at Abt Electronics that you can easily lose track of the time... not. Just stop by the newest "Time" store in the Abt village. There, you'll find a variety of watches, some of which cost more than a high-end big-screen TV. The difference is: watches are much easier to transport and no problem to "install."

Abt Time Store

"We're just looking for things to make us more profitable," Abt says. "As I looked into the [watch] industry, it seemed profitable."

To manage the Time store, Abt hired a watch specialist from Macy's. The luxury products are a nice fit for the typical Abt shopper, and Mike Abt is confident that when customers get wind of the new offerings, they will buy.

"The challenge is to get our existing customers -- over one million of them -- to learn about it," he says.

Custom Installation & Service
Most hybrid retailers and custom installers focus on one or two home control brands, but Abt sells and installs just about all of them.

On the high end, it all started with AMX, which currently runs many of the in-store demos, most notably the theater and music rooms. On the lower end, Abt has offered URC products for quite some time and added Philips Pronto to the mix. In the middle is Elan Home Systems, another long-time offering from Abt.

When Control4 entered the scene in 2005, Abt couldn't resist the moderately priced whole-house solution, but it gave the startup some time before picking up the line.

"We waited one year," says Abt. "We let Tweeter try it first."

And then came Prodigy from Crestron, the mainstream line from an otherwise high-end control company. Abt picked it up because of Crestron's name recognition and substantial household penetration.

"If a customer is looking for Crestron or they already have a Crestron system in the house, they will ask for it by name," says Rob MacDougall, who manages Abt's Control4 business.

It goes to the Abt mantra that is posted throughout the store: "The answer is always 'YES' to any reasonable request."

Each control system has a dedicated team of specialists, numbering about 64 in all. That's in addition to the other custom techs who install TVs, computers, home theaters, refrigerators and air conditioners... plus an arsenal of providers who deliver products (almost always free of charge), service equipment in the field, and pick up recyclables.

As for home control systems, if customers do not visit Abt with a specific brand in mind, a sales associate will qualify them and direct them to appropriate specialists.

For its part, MacDougall's team has installed more than 250 Control4 systems in the Chicago area, with the typical system running about eight zones of audio, and the larger projects featuring more than 300 Control4 dimmers. Most Control4 installations fall into the $5,000 to $25,000 range including A/V gear and labor, with the largest job running more than $150,000.

MacDougall believes the iPad will have a significant impact on Control4 sales, especially since the app is demonstrated in the company's Apple Store. Employees there were just getting introduced to Control4 during my visit - about one week after the iPad launch. Because of brisk sales, the product is the only one that Abt employees cannot buy at a discount.

A Thing for Green
Abt may very well have the greenest electronics store in the country. First of all, the 350,000-square-foot namesake store is "completely off the grid," says Mike Abt, a self-professed hippie.

Biodiesel fuels the facility, but Abt nevertheless has a couple of wind turbines and solar panels for good measure. The company is starting to sell and install these products.

"Whatever the next new power thing is," he says, "we're on it." In fact, he says, "We're one of the few companies that recycle Styrofoam."

Abt Recycling Center

The Styrofoam is heated up and dispensed as a thick stream of goo, which hardens into something like a plastic ruler. The hard stuff is ground up into pieces, and then sold as insulation.

Scrap metal is fairly lucrative these days — about $215 per ton.

Abt recycles gear from its own customers, of course, but it also accepts junk from the general public. By law, no Illinois recycler including Abt can charge for electronics recycling. Abt gets reimbursed from participating manufacturers, but eats the cost on everything else. In the end, he says, the Abt recycling plant just about breaks even.

Besides the feel-goodness of recycling, though, there is a possible side benefit: "We might get the customer to buy from us when they drop something off," Abt says.

Not surprisingly, Abt has its own car wash to clean the company trucks. The water is recycled.

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