Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Whatever Happened to Circuit City?



- Retro advertisement for the now defunct Circuit City "big box" electronics chain featuring the slogan that was popular on their radio and television commercials.

I only got a half hour break and it was still my first week. So far I didn't mind the job. I was supposed to be selling cameras, but somehow ended up selling computers. The sales floor was stressful at times, especially for a 16 year old, but Best Buy paid better and was a lot more prestigious of a part time job than most other high school kids had at the time. All I wanted to do on that break was eat my McDonalds cheeseburger, but the guy next to me kept talking to me while he sipped on a Mountain Dew.



"So, where do you see Best Buy in your future?"

Couldn't he see that I was more focused on my fast food dinner than I was on my career in consumer electronic sales? I was sixteen, I didn't really care and I was off the clock just trying to enjoy my few minutes to eat. I got it though, I knew what he was doing. Mike was ambitious, in his early 20's and wanted to move up the ranks at the store. He was my supervisor and was going along with the company verbiage found in training videos, trying to "develop" his team.

I gave some half-hearted bullshit answer trying to be nice. A few days later, Mike disappeared and no longer worked at the store. I saw him a few months later working at the same Circuit City my friend Jon worked at. Mike had jumped to the "competition." I said hello to him and this time Mike gave me all the Circuit City verbiage, telling me how much better of a company it was and how they were poised to take the market back from Best Buy. I laughed on the inside. Who was he kidding? Best Buy didn't give a shit about "the city," they were old news and fading fast. "We" were concerned about Wal-Mart with all their mega stores, low prices and awful service. I had the same argument many times with Jon. We'd meet up after our respective retail shifts for wings, sitting at a table watching sports highlights and arguing over who's company was the best. People would glance at us awkwardly sitting together in our contrasting "Best Buy Blue" and "Circuit City Red" uniforms - like two rival soldiers in some lame geek comedy sitcom.

Looking back, why did we care and why did we argue? We were in high school and had higher ambitions than big box sales floors. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with selling electronics for a living, but neither of us were interested in doing that long term. Six years later, I'm a photographer and Jon's in The Navy, both happy with what we do.

I got the last laugh though. Best Buy reigned supreme and Circuit City faded from the suburban strip malls. Which begs the question:

Whatever Happened to Circuit City?

Circuit City interior
- 2008 photo of a Circuit City sales floor. Photo by Flickr user RetailByRyan95.

Before the strip mall showdowns of two retail giants sporting their "red plug" and "blue box" stores at the ends of massive parking lots, we have to go back to where Circuit City began to understand how it got so big and why it fell.

Samuel Wurtzel started his first WARDS retail store in Richmond, VA in 1949. Within ten years he was making nearly $1 Million per year operating four television and appliance sales/repair shops. After acquiring a few other similar retail chains and small stores, he takes his company public in 1968. Throughout the 70's and into the 80's, Wurtzel picks up steam and begins acquiring more electronics retailers. In 1984, Wurtzel's empire re-brands entirely as "Circuit City," gets listed on the New York Stock Exchange and Wurtzel steps down as chairman. Wurtzel dies in 1985 and two years later the company he left to his son Alan is making $1 Billion a year.

In 1988, Alan Wurtzel leads the company into aggressive and bold expansion. All across the nation they begin building "big box" stores with large showrooms. These new stores feature the "plug" design; a red, protruding structure resembling an electrical plug that serves as the store entrance. The "plug" becomes a familiar consumer culture icon as Circuit City adopts the slogan: "Where Service is State of the Art."

- An original Circuit City big box store featuring the red "plug" entrance in San Antonio, Texas. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The American suburbs kept growing and growing, trapping older Circuit City stores in "bad locations," while Best Buy kept expanding to the newer suburban developments. Circuit City counters in 2000 by launching its new "Horizon" concept, smaller stores and interactive showrooms that strongly resemble Best Buy's. The old "plug" branding is dropped in favor of the more modern brand theme and the company spends $1.5 Billion updating its older stores. Emphasis is placed on electronics such as computers, software and video games. On February 5, 2003 the company keeps all its stores closed till noon in order to inform sales employees that they're switching to an hourly pay structure and are dropping commissions. Nearly 4,000 workers are laid off nationwide and the day becomes known as "Bloody Wednesday" within the company.

Despite ever increasing competition, Circuit City continues expanding throughout the US and into Canada during the early 2000's. In 2007, they lower their starting hourly wage and lay off 3400 "better paid" associates. Circuit City stock prices plummet each year.

In November of 2008, Circuit City closes 155 stores while laying off 17% of its workforce and the company files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.

In January of 2009, Circuit City switches to Chapter 7 Bankruptcy filings and begins liquidating all of their stores. 30,000 employees are let go during the liquidation and all stores close for the final time on March 8, 2009. 567 stores are left empty across the United States and Canada.

- Liquidation advertising in front of a "horizon" branded store.

Today Circuit City as a company exists in name only. Its branding and naming rights were purchased and re-emerged as a discount electronics website, but it's a completely different Circuit City. The original is dead and gone with many of their stores left behind as both empty shells and re-purposed as new retail ventures. This lead me to wonder, what's left of the stores in the Cincinnati market?

This website and my photography have often chronicled the beautiful and architecturally significant structures left behind in the urban history of this city and region. What happens though, when something so common and cheaply made is left behind over night as a retail giant shuts its doors? We're not talking abandoned subways, art deco buildings or architecture crafted with great design and precision. We're talking about strip mall anchors constructed from cheap materials and duplicated hundreds of times over across our country. They lend to the monotony of suburban America. In the middle of the night, amongst fluorescent lights and asphalt parking lots, can these things be photographed with any beauty?

The adventure begins by heading out to "Eastgate."

One of the newer "horizon" models that Circuit City abandoned, this location became a Borders Book Store after "the city's" demise. Like the electronics store before it, the Borders is gone too - its logo faded over the red branding that once belonged to Circuit City. A Kroger supermarket anchors the strip mall's other end.

Edit :: 6/5/12 @ 7:22 AM :: According to QC/D Reader "RSN," the Circuit City located here was actually a "plug" store and was once located nearby. It appears to now be gone and can be seen in this photograph here. The closed Borders had the same address as an old Circuit City listing I found. Maybe they moved? If you have more info, please leave a comment below!

Edit :: 6/5/12 @ 2:10 PM :: Thanks to reader Joseph who pointed out that the store in Eastgate is now a Marshall's clothing store. Not sure why the building below had the same listed address?

CircuitCity_0001
- The former Eastgate Circuit City.

Up North, in the middle of the Mason/West Chester suburban craze, the Circuit City has been re-purposed. Its iconic "plug" entrance has been pasted over with imitation brick. American flags dot the roof and a new paint job ushers in the era of a Merridian furniture store.

CircuitCity_0002
- Former Fields Ertel Circuit City.

In Tri-County, the location at which Mike and Jon from the beginning of this article worked at, now stands as a T.J. Maxx department store. Originally a "plug" store, it was re-branded as the "horizon" model at some point.

CircuitCity_0003
- Former Tri-County Circuit City.

[The Ridge Rd. store is now a Conway discount fashion store. It too was once a "horizon" branded Circuit City.

Edit :: 6/5/12 @ 7:25 AM :: Also according to QC/D reader "RSN," the Circuit City at Ridge was located over by the "Center of Cincinnati" shopping center. This Conway storefront however had the exact same address as another old Circuit City listing I found. Again, if you have more info, please leave a comment below!

Edit :: 6/5/12 @ 2:10 PM :: The location below was once the original Circuit City on Ridge. It had once been a "plug" type store and then moved over to Marburg Rd before the entire company went under. Nevertheless, this is still a former Circuit City space. Thanks to osurigbee, iagomega and Dave for the info!

CircuitCity_0004
- Former Ridge Rd. Circuit City.

In Western Hills, the iconic "plug" still stands over a parking lot. It's now painted an ugly shade of brown and serves as a union job training center.

CircuitCity_0005
- Former Western Hills Circuit City.

Last, but not least, in a shopping center still ironically labeled as "Circuit City Center Plaza," a Phantom Fireworks outlet has taken up residence in the former Florence "plug" store.

CircuitCity_0006
- Former Florence Circuit City

To my surprise, expecting to see abandoned "plug" storefronts, all six of the former Cincinnati area Circuit City locations have been reborn as new businesses. Hopefully these establishments will be economically beneficial members of their respective communities while they still sport the consumer culture iconography of a dead retail giant. One can not help but wonder as our nation and culture grow into the future: is this what we're leaving behind? Will whoever runs Queen City Discovery after I'm dead explore abandoned strip malls, parking lots and convenience stores?

Whether American society continues to push suburban sprawl further and further or reverts back to urban centers - this is what we're leaving in our wake. Massive parking lots, cheap facades and super centers dot an often monotonous and mundane existence around interstate exits. Retail giants will come and go (recently Best Buy began closing stores amongst growing competition from the online market), cheap storefronts will be reborn as Halloween Expresses for one month, asphalt parking lots will crack and symbols of consumerism will live on. We'll tell people how that USED to be a Circuit City, a Best Buy, a Wal-Mart, etc. Maybe new ones will open a few exits down by that new subdivision, maybe companies will go under, but how will we remember this period in American history?

This.

This is the culture we leave behind.

17 comments:

  1. Hey Gordon--

    I think you might have a couple of things wrong above. At Eastgate, the CC and Borders occupied different storefronts. Circuit City was slightly north of the old Borders. You can see in this link (http://binged.it/Lu66PU) that the Borders signage and the "plug" architecture are separate. I'm not sure what, if anything, are in either now.

    As for Ridge, CC may have once been in the current Conway location, but they also occupied another - now Halloween Express - store further south at the Center of Cincinnati. It's between PetSmart and LA Fitness.

    Anyway, great post. I was always a Best Buy man myself.

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    1. Hey RSN,

      Thanks for the corrections! Oddly enough, I assumed that Borders was once Circuit City since it had the big red "bar" underneath it and the address on that building was the same as an old Circuit City address I found. Maybe it was the entire complex's address, not just that particular storefront? Thanks for adding the Bing maps photograph, I've amended the post to reflect your correction! I'll have to get out and make some new photographs!

      Oh and as for the Ridge store, that was the address I found and those storefronts each had individual addresses. Are you sure on that one? Thanks again!

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  2. The Ridge Store you have pictured was the "plug version" and was there from the late '80's-early 90's through 2005-ish. The store moved to the Center of Cincinnati and was a "horizon" style.

    Interestingly enough, the old CC sign in front of the Ridge store still stands, albeit cut down in half.

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    1. I thought that sign was once a Circuit City sign, thanks for confirming it! I had no idea that they built a new store over by the Sam's and stuff. Thanks for the info!

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  3. Also, this storyline begs the question "whatever became of Swallen's or Stienberg's"?

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  4. The Ridge Rd store is sorta there. It's on Marburg. Right down from LA Fitness, Target, Meijer, and Sam's Club

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  5. Aha!! Street view showing the Horizon store :)

    https://maps.google.com/?ll=39.162544,-84.422352&spn=0.000832,0.004393&t=m&z=18&layer=c&cbll=39.162617,-84.421893&panoid=QaHgHqk4gh7o5R0934E1tw&cbp=11,215.47,,0,-3.98

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  6. First time commenter, I live near Eastgate and the old CC store has been redone and is now a Marshalls clothing store.

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    1. Thanks for the updated info! Was I just right by the Marshal's and completely missed the Circuit City?

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    2. Nope, they tore down the plug entrance and made it into a basic entrance.

      Delete
  7. Great post. I was pleasantly surprised to see the former Western Hills CC building reopen as another business. I had feared that the building would sit empty for a long time.

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    1. Thanks! I was surprised to see all of them somewhat repurposed.

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  8. Gotta correct you about the Tri-County store.... It was originally located at Cobblewood Plaza in Forest Park, and was of the circa 1990 plug design. It relocated to Springdale Plaza around 2000, and had the "horizon" design, never the plug exterior. The plaza had a makeover: The building that once housed Burlington, Steinberg's electronics, and Drug Emporium was torn down, and replaced with a new one featuring Circuit City, DSW and Bed Bath & Beyond. Sometime in 2010/11, TJMaxx relocated from Princeton Plaza into the Circuit City space, as shown.

    Cobblewood Plaza also had a makeover several years later: much of it, including the old Circuit City, was demolished to make way for Walmart.

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  9. The fact that the old Western Hills CC location became repurposed is surprising. Most of Glenway Crossing mall across the way is abandoned and most of it has been that way for many years. This past winter, the long abandoned west end of Glenway Crossings air conditioning units were stripped by theives leaving the roof open to the elements causing well over a hundred thousand dollars of damage.

    That whole part of town is becoming a mini Detroit. I watched it die living there most of my life.

    You should do a story on the west side of town. Plenty of meterial for stories.

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  10. "Yesterday I bought this, and today I saw this."

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  11. what is Conway?

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