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New Abt Store Tunes In A Winning Signal

By Neal Stern

January 28, 1991

With the recession slowing retail sales, particularly of big-ticket durable items such as refrigerators and TVs, independent appliance retailers are facing tough times.

In a down market, chains such as Fretter Inc, Highland Superstores Inc. and Silo Inc. are forced to manage big stores and big advertising budgets. Meanwhile, traditional powerhouses such as Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward & Co. have become much more aggressive with their ''power formats" called Brand Central and Electric Avenue, respectively.

A final blow to electronics and appliance retailers has been a lack of breakthrough new products - such as the videocassette recorder in the early l980s --to draw customers into stores.

These factors would appear to spell certain doom for local competitors like Abt Television & Appliance Inc. Yet this family-run business has just moved its store again, to a much larger location at 9000 Waukegan Road in Morton Grove.

The new store is infinitely superior to the older, cramped location in Niles. And, as before, Abt appeals to customers in several ways.

Prices are extremely competitive --a must in today's environment. Selections are excellent, with surprising assortments of higher-end merchandise. Service, judging from our limited experience, is also good. Lots of little extras, such as free delivery, help make Abt a powerful competitor.

Abt's new store offers a pleasant shopping experience. The floor is carpeted in some areas, and the display area has an open, clean look. Also, all products are clearly priced --unlike products at other in-dependents, such as Polk Bros. Inc.

The "let's make a deal" atmosphere of the old location is notably muted here, and that fact probably will attract a broader range of customers.

Abt eschews fancy design, preferring to allow the merchandise to shine. For example, a huge aquarium surrounded by camcorders is used as a demonstration area. And a 43-inch Sony improved-definition television set (IDTV) with a price tag of $40,000 is a dramatic focal point.

Merchandise selections distinguish Abt from many of the superstores. While its ads slug it out with the big boys on price, Abt's in-store assortments lean toward upper-middle price points. For example:

  • In appliances, we noted excellent selections from Maytag, Amana, Kitchen Aid and Whirl-pool. Upper-end brands such as Sub Zero and Gaggenau—which are not sold by most appliance chain—are also available.

Abt also excels in built-in appliances, with a broader selection than we've seen anywhere else. However, General Electric-brand appliances are not carried, a significant omission, given their strength in the market.

  • In video equipment, ]there's a huge selection of camcorders, all available for demonstration. VCRs are plentiful, and priced competitively. And the assortment of televisions includes top brands such as Sony and Toshiba. In addition, Abt carries the latest wrinkles, such as liquid crystal display television. The big-screen television selection is good, but we missed the Mitsubishi nameplate, which has a major presence in this market.

The audio section was the biggest disappointment. Although this area is obviously larger than in the old store, it does not follow Abt's upper-middle thrust; middle-market brands such as Sony and Technics predominate. We would like to see an upper-market brand such as Yamaha or Denon included in the mix. The same is true in speakers, where we missed the Bose brand. There are some obvious improvements to be made here.

One final note on merchandise: Abt does a superior job of featuring leading-edge products, which shows that management knows the trends. Among the state-of-the-art merchandise available here: digital audio tape players, laser disc players, IDTV and items such as quartz halogen heating units.

In most areas of the store, we were approached by sales people who seemed knowledgeable and not overly aggressive. Prices at Abt have traditionally been negotiable, but the shelf prices were very strong. A phone inquiry about an advertised item revealed that Abt would meet any competitor's price.

In short, there are few reasons not to shop Abt. For an independent, it's well positioned against the competition.

The store is capable of slugging it out on the price side, and its merchandise assortment moves it upscale against the superstores. Times are tough, but Abt is finding ways to succeed and thrive.

Neil Stern is a partner in the Chicago retail consulting firm of McMilla/Doolittle. His retail critiques appear in the marketing section every other month.

© 1991 Crain Communications, Inc.