A Brief History of Defunct Electronics Chains in the Form of Old TV Ads

Vintage TV spots for long-dead gadget merchants? They're not just goofy, nostalgic, and entertaining--they're insaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaane.

By  |  Monday, November 10, 2008 at 5:59 pm

crazyeddie1Today’s news that Circuit City, American’s second-largest electronics retailer, has filed for bankruptcy left me sad. And, oddly enough, nostalgic. The City isn’t going out of business, but as I reflected on its woes I thought about all the electronics chains I’ve shopped at over the years–the vast majority of which are no longer with us. (If Circuit City were to close its doors, it would leave only Best Buy and RadioShack as truly national chains focused solely on consumer electronics of all sorts, right?)

Once I got nostalgic, I did what I often do in such situations: I headed to YouTube. Which is rife with old commercials for defunct electronics retailers. Many of these chains basically did themselves in through poor management or inability to change with the times, and I thought some of them were shabby even when I did business with them; But it’s fun to get reacquainted with them through the miracle of streaming video.

After the jump, a look back, mostly in chronological order sorted by the year of the chain’s demise (click on the year for more details on the circumstances of its death).

Highland (died 1993)
A deeply moving 1985 minidrama, explaining that you can get your busted turntable fixed right at the store–Highland apparently operated a sort of prehistoric ancestor of the Genius Bar.

Another Highland commercial that–as you’ll see if you watch it–unquestionably dates from the Cold War era.

Fretters (died 1996)
A 1985 ad for this chain, which was so unmemorable that I’d forgotten it ever existed even though I was once a semi-regular customer.

Silo (died 1996)
Fretters also ended up owning one-time Silo. Same bland personality, except for the farmland-themed name. Here’s a 1992 spot.

Incredible Universe (died 1996)
Actually, I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t find any Incredible Universe ads on the Web. But I’m including it here anyhow, because it’s gotta be one of the most memorable defunct electronics retailers. Founded by RadioShack owner Tandy Corporation, its stores were sort of anti-RadioShacks: astoundingly large. In fact, at 185,000 square feet, they were more than seventy-five times as a large as a Shack. The VCR aisle went on as far as the eye could see. Despite being a gadget nut, I found the Universe unnecessarily huge, which was probably a bad sign; the chain lasted only four years. But I digress–let’s get back to commercials.

Lechmere (died 1997)
Lechmere had a fabulous reputation for good prices and salespeople who knew their stuff when I was growing up in Boston–before Montgomery Ward bought it and did everything in its power to drive it into the ground. This ad from 1995 is a good reminder of just how much consumer electronics have changed in recent years: It features CD players, VCRs, tape-based camcorders, film cameras, and tube TVs, all of which were hot products.

This ad with Patriots coach Bill Parcells dates from around 1996. He may have led the Pats to the Super Bowl, but he couldn’t save Lechmere–it died in 1997. (I still miss it.)

Computer City (died 1998)
This chain, also owned by Tandy, was sort of a slightly more pleasant clone of CompUSA, which eventually bought and liquidated it. Watching this 1990s commercial, I’m once again struck by how much has changed–remember when computer stores had mammoth sections of CD-ROMs?

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17 Comments For This Post

  1. wendell Says:

    How could you possibly do such a roundup without including the Mother Of All Defunct Electronics Chains TV Ads: Federated Electronics, aka The Federated Group, featuring Shadoe Stevens aka Fred Rated.

    It started as radio commercials he did as part of a DJ gig in L.A., which led to him being the voice for the chain at all the CA radio stations where they were advertising, and when Fed started doing TV, he did the commercials cheap and wacky. Since he and Crazy Eddie were on opposite coasts, he could steal the ‘price smashing’ schtick, but he did much more, getting into experimental video while getting noticed a lot by Holllllywood. At its peak, Federated was all up and down the west coast.

  2. Ralph Riccardi Says:

    I see you saved the best for last. Crazy Eddie Antar. Jerry Carroll, an awesome talent. the link is pretty factual, but these commercials stand on their own as rare but often imitated art. Insane!

  3. jmanley Says:

    Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Circuit City has been getting hammered for years. Best Buy offers better pricing, selection and service in a physical store and Internet stores offer infinite selection and better prices. This is just another example of a bad company that can’t survive a downturn.

    jmanley

  4. kevin Says:

    Incredible Universe was purchased by Fry’s. http://www.frys.com/

    The CEO is notoriously frugal, you can still see IU trucks being driven around town here in San DIego.

    Another chain in San Diego was D-O-W DOW.

  5. Rich Says:

    What about SUN TV and Appliances, and their subsequent death, rebirth and final demise.

  6. John Says:

    A small correction: It’s “Fretter,” not “Fretters.”

  7. thespiritdog Says:

    Brings back fond memories, those Crazy Eddie commercials. If you lived in the New York area back then, you must remember the other electronics store that was kind of in direct competition with Eddie, Battling Barry’s House of Audio.

    I can’t remember if Barry had any TV spots or not.

  8. Mike Says:

    Here in the Seattle Area, we didn’t get many of those – Good Guys arrived here just in time to win a few customers over, then go belly up. Computer City was big, as was CompUSA… Long before BestBuy ventured up here, we had a chain of Future Shop stores. They’re still around in Canada, but the U.S. stores lived a very short, fast lifecycle. I went into their stores a few times, and they just felt really, really sleazy. Never actually bought anything…

  9. Jim Says:

    Original San Diego regional chain Dow Stereo which was acquired by Tweeter hosted the USA debut numerous new products. Including “Sony’s first HDTV for the North American market was designed and developed at the Sony Technology Center in Rancho Bernardo. The sets started rolling of the assembly line at Sony de Tijuana Este in Tijuana late last month. Debuting at Dow Stereo/Video and selling for $8,999, the 34-inch wide screen is the industry’s first HDTV to use a picture tube instead of a rear projection system. Sony says the set quadruples the apparent picture density of conventional TV broadcasts. ”

    Also, “When the first high-definition TV sets in the country went on sale in San Diego in August at Dow Stereo/Video, Allan Farwell was one of the first in line to plunk down the $5,500 for the 56-inch Panasonic set, which was developed at Panasonic’s research and development center in San Diego and assembled in Tijuana”

  10. Gary Pillon Says:

    In Michigan, two strong regional chains went at each other for years.
    I was doing sound on Ollie Fretter commercials back in the early ’70s. The successor company, ABC Warehouse, still features the owner, “Gordie”,
    At the same time, the Mondry brothers expanded Highland Appliance, hiring Doner advertising to create a quirky, consistantly funny, big-budget style. These ads had contextual tag lines that have lasted, like “Any second now”
    and ’50 watts-per-channel, babycakes”

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  12. Joe Snow Says:

    You didn't get a commercial from Savemart. They starred Don Adams from Get Smart and the tagline was Get Smart, Get Savemart Smart. I haven't been able to find any of the commercials so I wish you better than I had in digging one up. Maybe someone has one on an old VHS recording from the 80's they could upload to Youtube?

  13. odocon Says:

    What about leos Stereo

  14. pamela Says:

    thanks

  15. Quincy Says:

    So while the East coast had Crazy Eddie's, those of us here on the West Coast had Crazy Gideon's which retired it's business in the year 2010.

    Crazy Gideon's was known as "The 99-cent Store of Consumer Electronics." Owned by Gideon Kotzer, known for doing his own TV commercials . Crazy Gideon's has commercials in the middle of the night where Kotzer yells about how he's crazy and his prices are crazy, and he smashes TVs or pretends to be dragged off to the mental institution by a busty nurse and a cop. "they stock them deep and sell em cheap". Just say "830 Traction Ave" to someone in L.A., and most likely they will know what you are talking about. Crazy Gideon's was the king of effective advertising. No matter how ridiculous looking the commercials were to some people, they were unforgettable and easily implanted into your brain.

    If you were looking for a 10 year old 20" t.v for $30 Crazy Gideon's was the place to go. They sold nothing cutting edge there, and everything was pretty much close out material that other stores couldn't sell. Crazy Gideon's made its money by flipping product. They purchased close out items and sold them to the public. They were the salvage yard of home electronics. All of their merchandise was awkward, outdated, covered in a thick grime and looked as if they had been stolen for re-sell..

    As you would enter through the door, to your left under a blue tarp, unfortunately it became too easy to be aware that they have a poorly partitioned section for adult DVDs. I'm talking about eally old porn (from the early 90's?), bland, low-production titles. The staff at Crazy Gideon's was inadvertently offensive and seemed creepy yet friendly. Gone but not forgotten!! Many people who have been scorned and ripped off by this thief of a store and poor excuse for a company are delightfully dancing with joy over it's retirement. Many are crying "Good Riddance Crazy Gideon," but your commercials will always be "Gone but not forgotten!a"

  16. Carson Destiny Says:

    Old TV ads or should I say classic ads are worthy of one's time. Actually, I prefer old ads than some of the ads today because the former is more enticing and realistic unlike today wherein some ads are really deceiving.

  17. meetoo Says:

    I didn’t see anyone mention the electronic chain called “Tarts” in the Charlotte NC area. They went under in the late 80s if memory doesn’t fail me….

    I looked up the name but couldn’t find anything listed about them anywhere on the web…Anyone here remember them, also?

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