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Abt Electronics' Longevity, Service Breeds Loyalty

Both customers and the store's own staff stick with this Chicago-area retailing fixture
for many reasons which transcend — and outlive — competitors' discount pricing.

By Nancy Klosek

Abt from outside

On a rainy, dank weekday afternoon in October, the low-key yet expansive, dark-brown building with subdued signage that marks Abt Electronics' single, suburban Chicago location blends in so well with the surrounding landscape that one would not think of going here on impulse for the purchase of either consumer electronics gear or appliances. Yet the Glenview, IL parking lot is brimming with vehicle brands ranging from Mercedes-Benz to Chevrolet and everything in between, proving that this family-owned-and-operated business is a successful destination store for a good deal of both categories' major brands.

Mike Abt poses near a home theater vignette

President Mike Abt relates that the dealership, which was opened in 1936 by his grandparents at a small-footprint location in Chicago's Logan Square, moved to the 'burbs in 1975 — taking a loyal clientele base, for the most part, with it. Active in the business today are his father, CEO Robert Abt, and his three brothers. Abt's newest facility, which hung up its "Open" sign in mid-2002 and is 29 acres large versus the previous eight-acre venue, is out to challenge notions of traditional consumer electronics retailing, blending the conventional — rows of flat-panels, stereo equipment and camcorders — with the decidedly unconventional.

Upon entering the store, customers are greeted by a "History Wall" where photos of the famous (like Chicagoan Oprah Winfrey) underscore Abt's reputation as the region's "go-to" independent CE dealer. Also at the entrance is a mini museum of 1930s and '40s washing machines and refrigerators, testifying to the company's longevity in the marketplace.

The fountain is a central element of the Abt atrium, where (backgtround) a four-panel windmill slowly rotates as images spill from one display to another

Besides history and reputation being strong sales points for Abt, there are also elements of Las Vegas pizazz which pepper this maverick retailer's approach to the market. For one thing, there is a 7,000-gallon exotic-fish aquarium (think Mirage Hotel), where camcorder customers are encouraged to try their hand at videography. And, for another, there is a vast atrium/mall that is separated from the electronics retailing portion of the store, where focal points include a separately run Bang & Olufsen store, a dancing water fountain (think Bellagio), and a four-plasma-panel "windmill," rigged specifically for Abt by Panasonic. The windmill slowly rotates, while a specially synchronized video loops through its routine, with images flowing from one panel to another. Ringing the fountain is a series of home theater vignettes/demo rooms, and a couple of selling niches that feature kitchen displays and cookware for sale and evoke both the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace and a Williams-Sonoma high-end housewares store. There is even a sub-section where Abt sells designer kitchen faucets.

For every CE category, "we do all our own service here," says Abt, "plus, we make and repair our own retail displays in our wood shop."

The 12-car installation bay at Abt

The facility boasts a 12-car 12-volt installation bay, signaling Abt's commitment to mobile electronics, which it began selling just four years ago. "Maybe against the industry trend, it's a category that's doing well for us," says Abt.

Also bucking the industry trend are audio sales. Says Abt, "In the industry, audio sales may be down 18% to 20%, but they're up for us. We're selling more high-end audio equipment to video customers. We're not scared to sell a $10,000 system attached to a video screen sale. It's OK, in our sales culture, to sell ‘expensive.'" And video sales at Abt are true to industry indicators, unsurprisingly. "LCD and plasma are doing really well for us," he says. "If not for these, this industry would really be crying."

A kitchen vignette, where cabinets and faucets (inset) are displayed and sold in addition to complementary lifestyle electronics
Of course, a hot ticket in the profitability department for Abt is home theater/custom installation. Abt, a CEDIA member, now counts 60 field salespeople and a support staff of 15 devoted to custom. And the atrium is used to best effect in showing both the very affordable and the crémede- la-créme in custom options.
Abt's camcorder demonstration/display area uses a 7,000-gallon aquarium (background) as its video focal point
One room, a Theo Kalomirakisdesigned theater, lists its "menu" of components with a grand total package price of $212,000. Another room features an Abt Showcase Theater package, for $45,000. Actively demonstrating the high-priced gear, says Abt, goes far in influencing customers to purchase complete packages at the "Showcase Theater" price level. Custom installation sales are wide-ranging, says Abt, "from $500 all the way up to $545,000 — a system we're working on now. That range is just like our client base, which is all over the map. We sell $200 dryers and basic DVD players all the way to $400,000 systems. That's because everyone likes to come into a nice store. But we are more unique in our region at the high end."

The fitness center in Abt's facility, along with basketball and racquetball courts, is for the use of its employees
The flat-panel display at Abt offers myriad model choices from various brands
The bose niche at Abt

Abt has just over 1,000 employees — a number that has stayed consistent for the past several years. "The best thing we do is attract good people to work for us," he relates. "Some have been here for 20 or 30 years." Workers for the company are treated just like they are a part of the family that employs them. For the staff's use, the building offers a weight-loss center/ gymnasium with at least a dozen machines, racquetball and basketball courts and separate men's and women's locker rooms. The Abt family, says Mike Abt, takes great care in its hiring practices — and so, those hired tend to stay. "We know what our core is, and we know what we need to hire for," he states. While Abt has, throughout its history, always sold TVs and radios along with appliances, it took the company several years to nurture its CE business to its current level. "Because we were perceived as just selling dishwashers, our challenge had always been to cultivate the confidence of CE brands. It took a while before those vendors wanted to sell to us, but we persisted," and as a result, Abt and its brands now enjoy a mutual admiration that transcends mere business."That's because we represent all our manufacturers' products in the most perfect light possible," says Abt. "We support our vendors."

The B& store, located in Abt's atrium

As for customers, Mike Abt says they are as admiring of his business and new facility as are his suppliers. "The new building is definitely a warm kind of place. That, and our great service: that's why customers come back.

"We've been around since the 1930s, and people tend to trust us automatically — they come in and say their friend said to come here."

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