SIC 5731

This category encompasses establishments primarily engaged in the retail sale of radios, television sets, record players, stereo equipment, sound reproducing equipment, and other consumer audio and video electronics equipment (including automotive). Such establishments may also sell additional product lines, such as household appliances; computers, computer peripheral equipment, and software; musical instruments; or records and prerecorded tapes. Establishments in this industry may perform incidental installation and repair work on radios, television sets, and other consumer electronic equipment. Establishments primarily engaged in the installation and repair of these products are classified in SIC 7622: Radio and Television Repair Shops. Establishments primarily engaged in the retail sale of computer equipment are classified in SIC 5734: Computer and Computer Software Stores, and those selling electronic toys are classified in SIC 5945: Hobby, Toy, and Game Shops.

NAICS Code(s)

443112 (Radio, Television, and Other Electronic Stores)

441310 (Automotive Parts and Accessories Stores)

Industry Snapshot

Despite a sluggish economy that turned stagnant following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and exacerbated by U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 and Iraq in 2003, the sales of consumer electronics continues to grow. Americans spent $96.2 billion on electronic goods in 2002, a 3.7 percent increase from the previous year. Total expenditures in 2003 were expected to top $99.5 billion. Although consumer electronic giants Best Buy and Circuit City retained their dominant market shares, high-end consumer merchants did feel significant negative effects of the recessive economy as consumers refrained from big-ticket purchases.

According to the Consumer Electronic Association (CEA), digital products have led the industry's growth. DVD players were in 35 percent of U.S. homes in 2001 and expected in 50 percent of all homes by the end of 2004 and over 60 percent by 2006. Spurring the sales of DVD players is the unprecedented deflationary prices. The average price for a DVD system in July 1998 was over $500; by December 2002, the price had fallen to $129, with some units selling for as little as $59. Along with DVD players and systems, the industry has also seen extensive growth in sales of flat panel televisions, portable MP3 players, and "Home Theater in a Box" units.

Organization and Structure

Many radio, television, consumer electronics, and music stores were chain stores in the late 1990s. This structure enabled larger companies to purchase equipment at a sharp discount and to pass those savings along to the consumer. Chain stores have become more prevalent in the industry because smaller stores have found it increasingly difficult to compete with the chains' low prices.

One major change in the retailing strategy of consumer electronics stores has been a shift toward scrambled merchandising. This trend has been evolving since the 1970s and refers to the growing tendency for stores to become larger and to carry more diverse product lines. In 1998, there was 20 square feet of retail space per person in the United States. Most retailers expanded their merchandise lines to fill this space, and the superstore became prevalent in the industry. Radio, television, and consumer electronics stores fit into this niche nicely, because their broad scope encompassed many aspects of consumer product lines. In addition to providing a wide variety of products, most large retail outlets are able to offer their goods at substantially lower prices. Such discounters reflect changes in consumer buying patterns and the need to adapt to the reality that adults between the age of 40 and 50, the largest single group of consumers, are making purchases to replace current equipment. Consequently, as middle-aged Americans begin to save money and are more hesitant to purchase on credit, they are purchasing fewer expensive items.

Superstores typically carry an inventory of 40,000 items, compared with the 25,000 items that are carried by an average store. Because chain stores and superstores purchase such large quantities of products for their stores, manufacturers offer them substantial discounts on merchandise. For this reason, chain establishments and superstores are able to sell their merchandise to consumers at prices substantially lower than those found in small stores. Additionally, the largest chains are cutting back on sales staffs and stores display merchandise in a warehouse style without expensive displays.

Background and Development

The Industrial Revolution that began in the late 1700s was the genesis of modern retailing. The mass production of saleable items began as factories started to manufacture formerly handcrafted goods. The western frontier and the movement of railroads also created a demand for goods, and marketplaces helped to distribute merchandise to remote locations. The general store was the first outlet that offered a variety of merchandise. As retail became more sophisticated in the mid-nineteenth century, the general store was replaced by specialty stores grouped together. The chain store, a configuration utilized by most modern consumer electronics outlets, had its beginnings in the late nineteenth century when the concept was pioneered by such retailers as the F. W. Woolworth Co.

The discount store became popular when the population shifted from cities to the suburbs after the end of World War II. Demand for household items increased, and new homeowners were anxious to purchase goods at less-than-retail prices. At the same time, the trend toward reducing customer services also developed. Discount stores kept their costs low by maintaining low-rent facilities and a minimum sales staff. Suburban consumers were receptive to this opportunity to save money, and discount stores grew substantially during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Technological advancements have made consumer electronics equipment available to the general public at an affordable price. Consumer electronics have proliferated in American homes and have become more reasonable as new developments drive the prices for existing technology downward. The formerly prohibitive costs for television sets and radios have become affordable to almost all households, and the development of videocassette recorders and compact disc technology has placed sophisticated electronic equipment into the hands of all interested consumers.

Retail sales of home electronics equipment continued to grow slowly and were less sensitive to changes in business conditions than were durable goods. During 1991, for example, sales of nondurable goods, such as those included in this category, increased by 2 percent. During the same period, however, total retail sales of durable merchandise decreased by more than 1 percent.

Overall, the sales increases that were once seen in this industry dropped because of market saturation. Approximately 98 percent of American households own at least one color television set, and future sales growth was expected to be seen due to replacement and upgrading. Similarly, more than 77 percent of all U.S. households that own a television set also own a videocassette recorder; consequently, this product line also was nearing saturation. Despite an abundance of electronic equipment, the sales of the top 10 best-selling consumer electronics products totaled nearly $28 billion in 1990. These products included televisions, car stereos, home computers, and VCRs. Potential for increased growth existed as new technology was refined and enhanced.

While sales continued to rise slowly, future growth depended upon technological improvements. Long-term growth depended on such promising innovative products as home theater equipment, compact discs, large-screen televisions, and high-quality loudspeakers. Demand for camcorders, televisions, videocassette recorders, and auto sound equipment was expected to decline as these technologies reached their saturation points.

There were more than 10,000 radio, television and consumer electronics stores in the United States in the early 1990s. Many of these stores were owned by nationwide chains, such as Tandy Corp., the parent company of more than 7,200 Radio Shack stores.

A mini-shakeout of firms took place in the early 1990s as market saturation became more prevalent. Some companies began dropping out of the U.S. electronics market, and some chains were similarly closing their doors. Highland Superstores Inc., for example, pulled out of the Chicago and Midwestern markets after performing as the area's largest-grossing electronics and appliance retail chain. Competition in many markets continued to pit superstores against each other and led to increased price wars.

At this time, the retail trade sector accounted for more than 20 percent of all jobs in the United States, according to U.S. Industrial Outlook 1993. Radio, television, and consumer electronics stores sold nondurable goods, a category that accounted for 60 percent of all U.S. retail sales in 1991. These establishments were included in the department stores category, and 1992 sales totaled $189 billion. Between 1987 and 1992 the industry grew slowly but steadily, with annual sales increasing an average of 5 percent.

Overall retail sales improved in the mid 1990s, after battling the recession of past years. Consumer electronics retailers reported an increase in sales during the 1993 holiday season, with the highest sales in large screen TV and CD players. Profit margins were affected by intense competition between retailers, which resulted in below-cost retailing according to Television Digest. Smaller retailers were the hardest hit, with the giants like Best Buy and Circuit City benefiting most.

Tandy Corp. started another trend during the mid-to late-1990s with new Gigastores. Tandy opened its sixth Incredible Universe Gigastore in Hollywood, Florida, attracting 35,000 shoppers on the opening day. This store had 185,000 square feet of retail space and featured a 40-foot magazine department and an in-store McDonald's restaurant. However, Incredible Universe Stores steadily lost business.

The factors that led to this failure included customers' dislike of the theme-park atmosphere, a nationwide consumer slowdown, and an overly aggressive expansion strategy. Tandy Corp. reorganized management, reduced expansion plans, and changed its advertising campaigns. The Incredible Universe superstore chain was redesigned with the baby boomers as the target audience rather than teenagers, focusing on products rather than the store itself. The efforts of Tandy did not pay off, however, and Incredible Universe was sold in the mid-1990s.

During the mid-to late-1990s, large superstores started increasing their product lines to include retail computers and related products, resulting in a growth in their clientele. Evolution of new technology resulted in a great demand for new electronics products like Web TV, digital satellite television systems, and home theater systems.

Toward the late 1990s, consumer electronics once again were seeing profits. According to Electronic Business , "consumers increased the amount of discretionary income spent on televisions, stereos, computers, telephones and emerging new technologies like digital cameras and DVD players."

Among those consumer electronic stores reaping the benefits of the stronger economy and consumer confidence were large superstores such as Best Buy and Circuit City. Sales at Best Buy increased 21 percent in 1998 and a 25 percent growth was predicted for 1999. Circuit City increased its electronics sales by 48 percent in 1998, and the store expected to see a 20 percent gain in 1999. Tandy Corp. also was turning a profit with its Radio Shack stores. In October 1999, sales increased by 15 percent, the tenth consecutive month of double digit gains.

These profitable stores were growing in size, too. In 1998, Circuit City opened 37 new superstores and also focused on targeting smaller markets. Best Buy added 28 new stores to its business—up from 13 in 1997—and planned on opening 45 in 1999. Radio Shack also was growing in size. According to Tandy Corp., 94 percent of Americans live or work within five minutes of a Radio Shack store or dealer.

As new technology was being introduced, many stores teamed up with high-profile electronics companies. In 1999, Radio Shack agreed to sell Sprint PCS phone service in its stores as well as DirecTV satellite service. It also struck a deal with Microsoft in 1999 to offer Microsoft's Internet services to Radio Shack customers.

The Internet played a role in the consumer electronics industry. Offering products online— e-tailing — became more popular in the late 1990s. In October 1999, Tweeter Home Entertainment Group and offered audio, video, and consumer electronics to online shoppers. Circuit City also opened an E-Superstore in 1999. The Web site was fully integrated with its stores, allowing consumers to purchase items online and pick them up at the closest retail outlet. Radio Shack and Best Buy also were online-shopper friendly. With online sales expected to increase dramatically by 2003, consumer electronics stores focused efforts on remaining competitive with online sites that offered electronics products.

While sales gains were being seen in 1998, there was consolidation and bankruptcy as a result of the success of these larger chains. Tandy revamped its image by renaming itself RadioShack Corp. and sold its Incredible Universe as well as its McDuff Computer Chain businesses. Campo Electronics, Lechmere, and Sun TV closed. Smaller regional stores that survived the hard economic times of the early 1990s and the onslaught of the superstores either changed ownership or decreased in size.

Current Conditions

By the early 2000s, consumer electronic sales were being led by DVD players. According to the CEA, in 1997 approximately 350,000 DVD players were sold in the United States, for a total market value of $172 million. By 2001, sales reached 12.7 million DVD units for a total market value of nearly $2.5 billion. Sales were expected to continue to rise, reaching near 20 million units sold per year by 2005. However, because the DVD unit saw such a rapid decline in price (from an average of over $400 per unit in 1998 to under $100 in 2003) units sold will grow at a much faster rate than total market value. In an attempt to stem the price erosion, DVD player manufacturers were adding new features and upgrades to push prices back up. DVD players that have the capacity to record hit the market, with a price tag between $700 and $1,500 per unit. When the price of the DVD recorder is pushed down around the $300 level, sales are expected to increase significantly.

The future of the videotape and videocassette recorder (VCR) brings mixed reviews. Some in the industry see the rise of the DVD player as the death for the VCR. For example, Circuit City, the industry's second largest performer, has stopped selling videotapes, focusing strictly on DVDs. However, others see a continued long life for the VCR alongside the DVD player in U.S. living rooms. According to Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA), although 35 million U.S. households owned a DVD player by the end of 2002, 94 million U.S. households owned a VCR. Even though DVD sales were expected to outperform VCR sales in 2003—with an estimated 45 million DVD players in U.S. homes—95 million were expected to own VCRs. The recording capabilities of the VCR as well as well-established public and private libraries of videocassettes would keep the VCR a viable product in the near future. However, when the DVD recorder hits the watermark prices of $299 and then $199, consumers might expect a more rapid decline in VCR sales.

Along with DVD players, other digital consumer electronics were storming the market. Digital television, which provides high-definition, flat-screen capabilities, continued to post impressive sales numbers. Digital television sales exceeded 2.1 million units in 2001, and digital satellite systems neared a 20 percent penetration level. According to research conducted by Strategy Analytics as reported by Communications Today, 29 million U.S. households were expected to own high-definition televisions by 2008, with over half of those households connected to a high-definition television service.

Industry Leaders

In 2002 Best Buy, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was the largest retailer in this industry with sales revenue of $19.6 billion. Salespeople did not work on commission, and merchandise was arranged by brand name instead of by price range, both unusual practices in the superstore industry. Additionally, Best Buy limited the number of brand names it carried in order to keep costs down in the firm's more than 550 stores.

The success of this chain was largely attributed to the rollout of its Concept II, III, and IV stores. These concepts highlighted marketing features, increased store size, reduced expenses, and increased sales. In fiscal 2002, Best Buy's net income was $570 million, an increase of 44 percent over the previous year. The company employed 94,000 workers, a 25 percent increase from 2001.

Circuit City Stores Inc., the nation's second largest specialty retailer of brand name electronic equipment and consumer appliances, operated more than 620 Circuit City Superstores and 20 mall-based stores. The company carried a full line of merchandise at its superstores and posted sales of $12.8 billion, resulting in a net income of $219 million.

Founded in 1949, Circuit City was run by Richard L. Sharp, whose computer programming skills helped the company to design a sophisticated inventory system that provided for efficient movement of equipment in addition to trimming shrinkage losses by as much as 30 percent. By working to reduce theft to less than half of the industry average, Circuit City added as much as one percentage point to its pre-tax margin of 4.5 percent. Other strategies that contributed to the firm's success included knowledgeable salespeople and a wide product selection.

Each successful industry leader has taken its own road to success. Best Buy succeeded by using barebones display techniques and relying on consumer knowledge, while Circuit City focused on in-house efficiency and knowledgeable salespeople. Tandy blanketed the United States with stores that stock the company's own merchandise.

RadioShack (formerly Tandy Corp.) was America's third largest retailer of consumer electronics, with a 2002 sales revenue of $4.6 billion and 39,100 employees. The company's operations included more than 5,100 company-owned and 2,000 franchise operations.

Tandy was incorporated in 1960 and purchased Radio Shack in 1963. The company became a leader by emphasizing the importance of gross profit margins and focusing on a small inventory of its best-selling items. In addition, Tandy worked to keep Radio Shack's prices competitive by limiting its inventory to private label items and investing in advertising. Finally, the firm paid its workers a modest salary and used bonuses as incentives to promote hard work.

Tandy has a strong history in the electronics industry despite a miscalculation in the personal computer market in the 1980s. Because Tandy's TRS-80 computers were not able to run IBM software, Radio Shack's 19 percent share of the PC market dropped to less than 9 percent in the early 1980s. Tandy built its name by focusing on improving on other's developments, rather than on innovation, and by utilizing its own in-house manufacturing divisions. However, the corporation began changing its original focus in the early 1990s by funneling money into research and development to keep abreast of new computer developments.

Additionally, Tandy reevaluated its focus on computer manufacturing and securing its roots as a retailer. Incredible Universe outlets and mini-malls that imitate the European "hypermarkets," were Tandy's latest venture. The huge emporiums contained karaoke contests, childcare facilities, restaurants, and extensive product lines including more than 300 types of television sets, and 40,000 audio and video titles. The stores had to sell $100 million annually at each location to be profitable, and their focus was expected to remain on maintaining the lowest prices.

Unfortunately, the concept never caught on. Tandy sold its Incredible Universe and focused on its Radio Shack stores in the late 1990s. With the company's alliances with Sprint PCS, Microsoft, and Compaq, its sales were seeing strong gains in 1999. To accentuate the company's new direction, it changed names to RadioShack, Inc.


The consumer electronics industry employed 477,560 people in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of this total, over one-third are filled by retail sales associates, who earn a mean annual salary of $21,840. All sales-related positions account for over 56 percent of industry's workforce. Nearly 15 percent of the workforce is in office and administrative support positions, with a mean annual salary of $23,990, and nearly 5 percent are management positions, with a mean annual salary of $70,660. Like other retail environments, consumer electronic stores depend heavily on part-time sales associates and cashiers and tend to high additional help during busy seasons, such as Christmas.

Research and Technology

While technology advancements and research focused mainly on e-commerce and the Internet in the late 1990s, the need to rely on functions at a store level remained strong. According to Bruce Van Kleeck, a vice president of the National Retail Federation, "the Internet and electronic retailing as well as other back office enhancements, are occupying a lot of attention and investment, but retailers can't afford to neglect their stores. They should be thinking about what technologies are available to beef up their store-level productivity and improve the shopping experience for the customer."

Some technologies that retailers were taking advantage of in the late 1990s were: traffic counters, designed to analyze consumer traffic in stores; shrink reducers, which gave details on customer-employee ratios; wireless networks, which utilized Ethernet systems that enhanced in-store networking and extranets, as well as simplifying upgrades and inventory checks; and digital video ITEC, a network designed for digital video and audio programming within the stores.

At a consumer level, research and development continued to drive the markets and create demand for more sophisticated electronic equipment. Prices subsequently reflected the demand, with costs for new products gradually dropping as technological advances became more widespread. Developments such as recordable compact discs became vital to the audio market as it became more saturated in the late 1990s. Overall, the market for consumer electronics is predicted to rely heavily on new innovations and technology. As market saturation of electronic items rises, innovations are expected to fuel consumer purchases of improved equipment and replacement units.

Further Reading

Ahles, Andrea. "Tandy Attributes Earnings Increase to Sprint PCS, DirecTV Sales." Chicago Tribune, 24 October 1999.

Arensman, Russ. "DVD Sales Soar, While Prices Plunge." Electronic Business, March 2002, 34.

Consumer Electronics Organization. Digital America. Available from .

Delano, Daryl. "Solid Growth For Consumer Electronics." Electronic Business, February 1999.

Desjardins, Doug. "High-End CE Chains See Recovery After Long Year of Tough Losses." DSN Retailing Today, 24 June 2002, 3-4.

"DVDInsider: DVD is the Fastest Growing Consumer Electronics Segment." DVD News, 29 January 2003.

Evans, Ian. "Surveys Predict Demise of VHS." ERT Weekly, 8 August 2002, 4.

"Flourishing Economy Boosts Hard Lines Spending." Chain Store Age Executive, August 1999.

Fulton, Charles. "2003 Electronics Sales Near $100 Billion." Videomaker, March 2003, 11.

"HDTV to be in 29 Million U.S. Homes by 2008, Study Predicts." Communications Today, 31 October 2002.

Koloszyc, Ginger. "Transforming the Stores." Stores, May 1999.

Masters, Greg. "In Position for Growth?" Retail Merchandiser, January 2003, 49-50.

National Industry-Occupation Employment Matrix, 1999. Available from .

" Adds High-End Consumer Electronics Customer Service, Delivery Key to Tweeter Introduction to Internet." PR Newswire, 19 October 1999.

"Radioshack's October Total Sales Increase 15 percent." PR Newswire, 4 November 1999.

Schaeffler, Jimmy. "Ten Trends in Consumer Electronics." Satellite News, 31 March 2003.

Tandy Corp. Company Information, November 1999. Available from .

"Top Consumer Electronics Retailers." DSN Retailing Today, 8 July 2002, 31.

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2001 National Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, 2001. Available from .

"Videocassettes Alive and Well." MMR, 7 October 2002, 24.

Wallich, Paul. "Digital Hubbub." IEEE Spectrum, July 2002, 26-31.

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