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As Long as We Remember...

June 15, 2009

Stereo Daze

Steven R. Berryman

As complex as life and electronics are these days, I cannot help but look back fondly to my first big job and the consumer world of the 1970s, before computers, cell phones, and even home theater and large screen televisions.


There was passion in the world for music; what had been the “high fidelity” of my parent’s generation had become transformed into a world of stereo and audio shops.


Stereo was simply shorthand for stereophonic, which was an acoustical trick to send different portions of the musical performance to each speaker, typically two, to give the added illusion of depth and reality, and this was in addition to the enhanced sound quality inferred by “high-fidelity.”


In 1978 I joined Circuit City and became a professional salesman. Not bad for a college job and at 19 years young; I had pestered the Richmond company’s division president for weeks to get the opportunity.


“Where the streets are paved with bargains” was the ad slogan, if that tells you anything. I didn’t even know at the time it was mid-level quality equipment being hawked to the customers at the time, and it didn’t matter.


You got a lot of bang for the buck, and more importantly, I was in the game!


These were the big boys of consumer electronics retail, and they had huge expansion plans to dominate the entire mid-Atlantic market. I had joined up exactly in time to sell on a commission basis from their Beltsville MD regional headquarters operation.


This was on the exact one year anniversary sale of the founding of Circuit City, and their roots were the old Custom Hi-Fi and Dixie Hi-Fi companies. There was so much pent up demand for the merchandise, that the motto was, “stack-em high, and watch em fly,” this in reference to the ubiquitous mountains of stereo system and loudspeaker boxes in the aisles.


Part of the awakening to stereo equipment – as almost a mass hysteria – in the United States came via the military. Everyone returning from service, and there were hordes – from Asia and Europe – spent all of their last pay checks on Pioneer receivers, Sansui cassette decks, Onkyo, Denon, Harmon-Kardon, and an endless list of other mainly Japanese audio components.


Cassette decks replaced 8-Track decks with far better quality audio sound. Turntables played vinyl records to amazing dynamic range.


Some sound systems of the day – even at a modest price – easily out perform the CD digital based systems of today.


Loudspeakers sold in pairs made the most difference. Advent, Bose, Polk Audio and Boston Acoustics, and Ohm were frequent sales. In the end, the speakers defined the customer.


More exotic products like equalizers and noise reduction systems and reel-to-reel tape decks were also gaining a cult following that eventually bridged into the mainstream home.


The exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Japanese yen was a big element fueling the commerce. This facet alone doomed American giants such as Marantz and Motorola to the point that about the only American manufactured electronics at all were stereo loudspeakers, until you looked at the “money is no object” class of merchandise, such as McIntosh, the famous black glass front gear with the green backlighting made in Binghamton, NY.


On my first day at Circuit City, what I lacked in specific product knowledge I more than made up in enthusiasm! I had qualified for this job via my hobbyist interest and passion. The rest was filled in by two weeks of video taped training that was mandatory.


This during the format wars of Beta vs. VHS video recorders when the outcome was far from certain to be the larger-sized VHS system.


To save money, Circuit City substituted a regular polygraph test for actual in-store security or a loss-prevention department. Just like you see on TV, with the belts around the subject’s waist, measuring respiration, and clips on the fingers measuring changes in heart rate; and I will never know how I was able to fool the machine!


Truthfulness was tested, and all were queried about drug usage. After all, this was 1978!


The marijuana smoking was so prevalent at the time, again supported by returning vets, in order to get enough sales counselors to pass the test, they had to formally take pot smoking off of the questions asked upon indoctrination, via a letter from the main offices.


Well, that about sanctioned it. But we won’t go there this time…


Back to the sales floor that first day, it was quite the feast of learning for me. Wearing a jacket and tie, and holding an information clipboard and being asked for professional advice!


That day I relied mostly on the personal approach, as in the testimonial: “Yep, I’ve got one just like that at home myself,” said I. Each box going out the door paid around $5 or more commission each.


We even sold service contracts and provided easy credit terms, both very new concepts at the time. And I was selling on commission against full-grown adults who were making much more than a living wage at the job. It was exceedingly competitive.


Being genuine and sincerely helping the customers made this an easy transition for me into a work routine. $100 per day was quite the nut for a 19 year old in 1978.


My being a technology geek and aficionado helped but…


My secret was that it was fun, and I would almost have done the job for free! Taking folks into a “sound room” to get blown-away by the “good stuff” was my treat.


I would pick the gear in the price range that fit, tell the audience of customers what they were going to hear, and then let them hear their favorite artists perform just for them – in stereo. From Fleetwood Mac to Foreigner, from Pink Floyd to Crosby Stills & Nash, I had what they wanted to hear.


And in the end that made all the difference.


In the end it was sell yourself, sell the company, and then sell the merchandise!


Over the years of experience and ongoing sales and merchandise training, I became a master at it.


In later columns I will convey my further experiences working for the next step up, the high-end merchants such as audio associates, and Myer-Emco…


And other daze representing electronics factories as a manufacturer’s representative.


Some of these stories can only now be told!


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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