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Washington home electronics staple MyerEmco pulls plug after more than 50 years

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

Electronics retailer MyerEmco Audio Video, a Washington family-run fixture since 1955, is going out of business because of financial difficulties and changing consumer habits, the founder's son said on Thursday.

Company president Jon Myer said the business is out of money and unable to secure further loans. MyerEmco is selling its remaining goods for half-off and will continue markdowns as inventory decreases.

"From my perspective, there's no financing out there," Myer said. "I think it's very tough for any small business to get financing at any rate, particularly in a down economy when you have to go in showing 30 percent sales declines. I can't even get a meeting."

Specialty retailers such as MyerEmco have been hammered by the recession, which choked off discretionary spending at higher-end shops, whether they sold home-theater products or diamonds.

The housing downturn worsened MyerEmco's slide. Until the credit bubble burst, many customers had used home-equity loans to buy home-theater systems, Myer said. The company also had an installation contract with NV Homes, but revenue from that dwindled as new home construction stalled.

The death of MyerEmco can also be blamed on changing consumer behavior. In the past, specialty stores such as MyerEmco could charge more than big-box rivals, such as Best Buy, because they employed highly trained sales-and-service staff who were knowledgeable about the products they sold.

But with the proliferation of product information on the Internet, consumers are far less likely to walk into a bricks-and-mortar store and spend time speaking to an expert about a premium audio receiver than they once were. Consumers can learn about the receiver by consulting online experts and reading customer reviews. Then, they shop online for the cheapest price on the product, altogether bypassing specialist retailers. And even if prices at a specialist retailer were comparable to Big Box and online sellers -- as they were at MyerEmco in recent years -- the smaller stores carried a reputation for higher prices, and that perception has proved difficult to change.

"Our sales staff used to be the oracle," Myer said. "People would come in and ask questions and we'd hand out our wonderful knowledge. Now, a lot of consumers have so much education they come in more educated than the sales staff."

Jon Myer's father, Ed Myer, founded the company as a ham radio shop in his Silver Spring home in 1955. Ham, or amateur radio operation, was a popular hobby in the post-World War II era, when radio technology had become cheap enough for even boys to build their own radio sets with kits and communicate wirelessly with other operators. Myer expanded into electronics retail with the early-1960s rollout of the stereo receiver and birth of the hi-fi age.

MyerEmco's business peaked with the flat-panel TV boom, pulling in a high of $39 million in revenue in 2006, Myer said.

Three former MyerEmco executives and managers left last year to found their own home-theater store, IQ Home Entertainment, located in Fairfax.

On Thursday, IQ president David Glassman, a 17-year MyerEmco veteran, said he was sad to hear about the chain's demise, adding that the Myers gave him his start in the business. "I have a lot of love and respect" for the father and son, Glassman said.

Glassman said his business, which is privately held, is profitable, partly thanks to the fact that he belongs to a buying group that allows him to band together with owners of other small electronics stores to negotiate with big producers such as Samsung for prices that rival online competitors.

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