Circuit City: The Lost Years
I started my professional career as a programmer with Circuit City in 1985 and I remember vividly how very cool a place it was to work. Not only were you part of a company that sold a cool product, but the organization treated people like family. On top of that, consumer electronics retailing was a specialty back then and Circuit City was the king of the mountain. There were many reasons for their dominance but the biggest was that for all intents and purposes, it was still a family business and the values that founders Sam Wurtzel and Alan Hecht built the business on were ingrained in the culture.
I’ll digress for a minute to share some very early Circuit City trivia as a way to convey how savvy a businessman Sam Wurtzel was. Bear with me, there is a reason for this detour. It was the summer of 1948 and Sam was driving his family to Florida for a vacation. Coming through Richmond, VA, Sam saw a billboard announcing that WTVR – “The South’s First Television Station” was on the air. Sam figured that with a TV station here, Richmonders were going to need a TV store. With that as his business idea, Sam rented out a corner of a Sears tire store and went into business selling TV’s door to door. The concept of Tryvertising has been talked about in recent years, but it’s basically how Sam approached selling TVs. He would deliver the TV on Tuesday and let customers keep it for a week to try it out, which of course meant that they got to see NBC’s hit Texaco Theater with Milton Berle on Tuesday nights. The following Tuesday, Sam was to pick up the TV, but not wanting to miss that evening’s Milton Berle show, most customers decided to purchase it instead. Simple idea, brilliant approach!
Sam and Al developed the WARDS TV business during the 1950’s. The “W” stood for Wurtzel and the “ARDS” were Sam’s kids’ initials. During the next three decades, several other store formats were experimented with. The name change accompanied a regional expansion and public stock offering in the 1980s. All along the way, Wurtzel, and later his son, Alan, built the business on the the 4-S Model: Service, Selection, Savings & Satisfaction, which was credited in Jim Collins’ 2001 classic “Good to Great” as the differentiator that allowed Circuit City shares to perform 18.5 better than the market between 1982 and 1997.
The 4-S model was the customer lens through which every “associate” viewed their work. Whether developing software or working on the sales floor, everything you did was about delivering those four S’s to the customer. Earlier this week, The Consumerist posted a video compilation of old Circuit City TV spots from the company’s heyday years of the late 80s and early 90s. The messages in these spots rang true then, but sound like empty promises a decade after the 4-S model was abandoned and management stopped focusing on what mattered – The Customer. The results speak for themselves. With a stock price now around $0.28 (yes, that’s 28 cents!) and likely to follow CompUSA into retail oblivion, it’s sad to think about how the leaders of this company were able to destroy it in just ten short years. The comments on The Consumerist post tell the story of how the brand is perceived today.
Take a walk down memory lane (if you’re old enough), and remember that you brand is not what you say it is, but rather what your customers say based on their experience with you.