A Tale of Two Cities: The Circuit City Story

A feature-length documentary film

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Do you have a personal perspective on the rise and fall of Circuit City?  To share your story, memories, or opinion, use the Contact Us form.   The moderator will post only your comments. 

If you are interested in having producer/director Tom Wulf speak and share documentary clips at your next meeting or event in Central Virginia,  use the Contact Us form or send an e-mail to info@wulfteamproductions.com

Thank you for helping to keep the spirit of the once-great Circuit City alive as an inspiration to those following in Sam Wurtzel’s footsteps.

Here are a few images you may remember (click to enlarge):

Richmond story from “Andy” on 08-16-12:

Memories of Circuit City as a customer and then years later as an
employee. My first shopping experience was as a teenager walking into
the WARDS Loading Dock store on Thalbro Street in Richmond, VA in
August 1981. I was about to go off to college and needed a stereo
system. I recall walking down this cattle chute with windows where you
could see the repair techs at work. At the end of the chute it opened
up into this dark room that didn’t seem all that big. For whatever
reason my mind was set on an all-in-one stereo and not individual
components. Try as he might the sales counselor could not convince me
otherwise so I walked and went down the street to the Best Products
store on Marshall Street where I got my “high-end” Sony all-in-one
for the ridiculous price of something like $500, which to a hayseed
like me was a fortune. One problem though – it had a cassette player
and no 8-track, a format that I could not let go! So, back to WARDS
where I bought a $99 Panasonic 8-track component that could also
record – who had heard of such a thing! I’m sure the sales counselor
thought I was nuts, but I bet he got a heckuva spiff for moving that
thing off the shelf! Fast forward to March 1987 when I went to work
for the company. Worked with some great folks and learned a lot. It
was really starting to roll across the country by this time and it was
a fast ride. When we hit the Baltimore market it infuriated the
competitor there, Crazy Eddie, so much that he rushed to Richmond and
opened stores near our stores. In fact he opened one literally across
the street from the Midlothian Turnpike store. What a great sales
driver it was for our stores! Also remember a bunch of us would meet
after work once a week down at the Ginter Park Recreation Center and
play basketball until late into the evening. It was an old place in a
sketchy area at the time. No matter your level in the company we were
all equal on the court and the likes of Rick Sharp (CEO), Mike
Chalifoux (CFO) and Richie Burnbaum (VP) got as good as they gave –
it would get pretty physical. Jerry Lawson (GM) came with us a few
times when he was in town and that made an impression because he had
skills on the court! When the corporate office moved from Thalbro to
the new digs at Deep Run in 1990 the whole vibe changed. Maybe it was
just symbolic, but I think a lot more was left behind than just empty
offices.

West Coast story from “Del” on 12-16-11:

I can’t wait to see the documentary. I know nobody can tell the CC
story better than larger than life Jerry Lawson. His contribution to
that company was simply monumental.

I worked for CC for 18 years. I was one out of approximately 26 people
that Jerry hired to open the first seven stores on the West Coast.
There were 7 store managers and the rest were mostly sales managers.

I was sent to the Midlothian store in Richmond to complete a 2 week
training program, and I am sorry to say that I learned absolutely
nothing there. Then, for the next several weeks we sat in an plain
room of an old building in the City of Industry to be trained for the
challenging task ahead. Jerry Lawson, Charles Roe, Tom D’Amato and a
funny guy by the name of Don ( a sales trainer whose last name I
forgot) did the training. There were others but their contribution was
minimal.

Those early days were simply extraordinary. We were about to open the
company’s first super stores in one of the most competitive market in
the U.S. Charles Roe said : the future of this company is right here
in this room. We were prepared, trained, fired up and motivated. We
knew exactly what we needed to do. We were paid well, and were treated
with respect. Jerry made sure of that. Needless to say, that culture
became contagious. We treated our people the same way. We hired the
cream of the crop, trained and motivated them. That was the winning
formula. We all worked our tails off and we loved it. Our customers
loved it! The grand opening of the first 5 stores was a huge success.
Within a couple of years, scores of well established electronic stores
closed their doors. We just put them out of business. Sounds
familiar?

This may sound overly simplistic, but I truly believe that credit
should be given to Jerry Lawson and his crew for that early success.
We were opening new stores at a frantic pace. Few years later, Circuit
City became the darling of Wall Street.

I was promoted to store manager in 1986, managed several stores till I
left the company in 2003 to start my own business. I saw the writing
on the wall as far as CC is concerned. So what happened?

In my humble opinion, 2 things happened:
(1)Best Buy opened the first few stores in Los Angeles, and CC started
to loose market share to them, and (2) Rick Sharp hired Bernie Andrews
“to save the company”. The first was a no-brainer: consumer buying
behavior shifted in favor of self serve discount big box retailers.
Price club, Costco and Walmart expanded their consumer
electronic/appliance offering, and customers liked it. Best buy saw
that and they came in with their 100,000 square foot well lit, well
merchandised stores. There was nothing that CC could do. We had long
term leases on our dark, outdated and small stores.
Then (2) Bernie Andrews came in and managed to not only kill the
company’s culture but also to demoralize the store’s and field
managers. And he bought in with him some shady characters like Dave
McGomas and the like. That was the beginning of the end.

The visionary Rick Sharp left, and McCullough took over. The events
that followed were nothing but disparate attempts to reverse the
downward spiral. A sad ending to what was once a great company!

One last final story during Bernie Andrew’s reign of terror: I was
standing outside the front doors of the West Coast Corporate office
when Jerry Lawson showed up carrying a very heavy load of binders and
briefcases. He looked like he has not slept in days. He said to me (no
Hi, no good morning): open the door for me, will you Del?

What happened to Jerry’ smile?

Great story from “Mike” on 11-30-11

Hey Tom – as a former employee I’m very excited to find your
documentary, and I will be ordering a copy. I notice I’m sort of
late to the party with my comments as new ones haven’t been posted
in a while, but I’ll share some thoughts in case they are still of
interest.

I was hired as an ACE Sales Counselor for the grand opening of the
Bloomington, IL location (3168) in spring 1995. This was a smaller
25,000 square foot superstore that we opened the first week of June.
Management liked me and the way I talked to customers, but I’ll
freely admit that I stunk at selling ESP (or “cheese” as it was
often referred to in our market). After a few months they needed some
help over in Majors so they offered me the chance to move there.
Majors had a decidedly more mature clientele than ACE and I believe
they thought that might suit me better – and by extension my ESP %
might increase. It didn’t, and I soon learned all about
“performance management” from being on the receiving end of it.

Some others in this situation ended up unemployed, but I was liked by
the store manager and offered a chance to move to customer service. I
couldn’t sell ESP but they liked the way I dealt with customers.
Being a CSA is where I had success for Circuit – it didn’t pay
squat, but after 10 months I was promoted to Customer Service Manager
at the larger Champaign store (3170), about 45 miles away. It was
August 1996 and I wasn’t quite 22 years old. The promotion was the
beginning of my Circuit experience really going sideways, and I left
the company for a management position at another retailer in October
1997. It wasn’t a pleasant 14 months.

After I left, as Circuit’s fortunes started falling in the 2000s, I
still kept an eye on the company. I wish I could say the slide
surprised me; if anything it was merely the speed at which it occurred
that was shocking. I’ve spent my share of time kicking it around in
the years since I left, and I really think the groundwork for failure
was being laid by the time I started with the company in 1995. Circuit
was still in massive growth mode, on its way to 600 locations and
opening stores at a rapid pace. The arrogance exhibited in things as
basic as store setup training was astounding. I remember sitting in a
training session in our empty store and being informed that every
single thing we did was superior to Best Buy: whether it was store
design, inventory control, the point of sale system (good ‘ol DPS)
or our ability to more quickly react to a competitors’ sale price,
we were told that Circuit’s methods were superior in every way. It
took only a couple of years for Best Buy – and more importantly, the
customer base – to prove on a broad scale that those beliefs were
sadly mistaken.

This could easily turn into a book so I’ll try and tick off the main
points. I see a lot of love given to Rick Sharp, but I view him as
part of the problem. Circuit had a big issue with holding on far too
long to a business model that had served it very well on the rise to
the top – the commissioned sales counselor wearing a blazer and tie.
I could tell in 1996-97 that customers were rejecting the Circuit
model wholesale in favor of the hands off, grab-it-and-go approach
being offered at Best Buy. It’s why all their stores were bigger and
their parking lots were always full, whereas we kept hitting budget
but were really only busy on weekends. It’s why I heard so many
customers informing sales counselors that if they didn’t cease and
desist with the high-pressure ESP pitch they were going to walk out
and buy the product across the street. Times were changing, but Rick
Sharp apparently didn’t see the need to change with them. He was
married to the business model that got them there. I’ve always sort
of suspected that when he did figure it out, he knew they had waited
too long and the task of changing over to a Best Buy-style format was
more than he wanted to deal with, and perhaps that was the reason for
his retirement. I believe Sharp was also a main driver behind DIVX,
which even as it was being developed seemed to be an idea that only
Circuit execs and the movie industry liked. There seemed to be a “we
know best” arrogance working on that one too – it ended up
engendering bad will with proponents of “free DVD”, making the
company look silly and losing a ton of money. I think far too often
Rick Sharp gets a free pass he doesn’t deserve; I am interested to
see how your film assesses his leadership.

I second the thoughts of many others that it was all about the numbers
and nothing else, at least by the time I started in ’95. I never got
the impression that Circuit cared about its employees at all. “Hit
your numbers or be replaced by someone who will” was the only
message I ever saw being pushed. Your experience working for Circuit
really came down to the quality of the people that comprised the
management staff at your store – and rapid expansion caused issues
there as well. A lot of people were jumped into management before they
were ready, and some just weren’t qualified at all. I saw sales
managers promoted who weren’t ready to be store managers, and store
managers who were terrible DMs. Our DM at grand opening, Gary Crowley,
seemed like a decent guy. I wish I could say the same for the guy who
replaced him – Wade just hollered stuff like “baby you’re the
HEAT!” and had absolutely no use for you if you weren’t #1. He was
truly one of the worst human beings I’ve ever had the displeasure of
meeting. His first year running the district, he actually forgot to do
performance reviews on his managers so he just put all of us in for
the minimum raise. When you’re asking people to work 50 hours a week
and 70+ through the Christmas shopping season, you need to act like
you care about them a little more than that. The executives who
visited once a year weren’t any better. John Froman always came
across as humorless, abrasive, dictatorial and interested only in the
numbers. Not once did I get the slightest impression that he cared
about anyone in our store beyond their product knowledge and what kind
of numbers they were putting up. Those store visits were one of the
most unpleasant things I’ve witnessed in my working life.

Clearly the bulk of the crushing mistakes were made from 2000 on. When
they finally made the move from commissioned sales, they had waited
far too long and did it in a revolting way that targeted their best,
most loyal employees without warning. Good companies plan a major
transition like that in an orderly fashion and try to impact their
employees as little as possible. The folks running Circuit at that
time obviously didn’t care about their employees or loyalty. It was
compounded by the fact that they had probably waited 7 or 8 years too
long to make a necessary decision on the future of their business
model.

If you’ve actually read this far I’m impressed; this is one of
those subjects that even when I set out intending to limit my
comments, the words just seem to keep coming. Maybe it has something
to do with being my first “real” job, but the Circuit City
experience really sticks with me. After the shut down was announced,
the first weekend the liquidators took over I headed down to my old
store in Champaign. I’d probably been in the place all of four times
since I left in ’97, and it had always been to stop in quickly and
buy something. This time I wasn’t interested in spending a dime –
I just wanted to take one more look around the place that I used to
have keys and alarm codes for, where I used to sit in the cash office
every night and count down 21 registers. I spent about a half-hour
walking the entire store and was struck by how far things had
deteriorated in 12 years. I noticed the dingy ceiling tiles and the
walls that needed painting; the threadbare carpet that didn’t appear
to have been replaced since I left; the missing home theater rooms in
Video; and the demo room in Home Audio that had long ago been
dismantled in favor of being used for storage. I worked my way around
the old red racetrack – Champaign never even got the upgraded wood
flooring – and headed out past the customer service counter I used
to be responsible for, kind of sad that the place ended up like that.
I’m certain it didn’t have to.

Thanks for reading – looking forward to seeing the film.

13 Replies

  1. Received the following message from “lowrypg” on YouTube:

    “Just saw your short on the fate of Circuit City. Great stuff.

    If you need any input on the full length and how/why it went wrong, please let me know. I was only there 2.5 years and could see the writing on the wall after about the second meeting. I was riding the wave until it crashed, luckily for me it was the second/final round of cuts.

    I was in Space Planning/Supply Chain and the interaction between Space Planning and the other departments gave us a great vision into what was happening both at a corporate level and at the store level as we were the pipeline to the stores.

    The first round of cuts were nerve-racking. Please let me know if you want more info on this, but needless to say, it was brutal.

    In the end, specifically the final day/days of CC, I was all set employment-wise. I was planning to enter my wife’s family business if/when it all went down. In fact, I took an extended vacation around the holidays knowing in my new job I was likely to work more in the next year. Not only that, but we had just put on a contract on a new home just days before the end. All that being said, possibly because I had only been there a couple of years and/or I was not worried about work, I felt like I was an outsider looking in on the meetings that ensued that morning the company went down. The shock on people’s faces, the crying, the anger, it was all so surreal. No only that, but we (the minions) actually found out from the Times-Dispatch that the company was closing. Crazy.

    I can answer any questions you may have on this or reflect on my time there versus what I am doing now. I sort of had an Office Space moment there in the end of what I don’t want to do again, which is be in an office environment and where work, specifically my work is out of my control. Again, if you want any of my insight as to how/why it went wrong, I have some thoughts.

    Regardless of whether you contact me, thank you for doing this.”

  2. Thanks for your comments and your story. Click on the “Contact Us” link in the upper right hand corner to confidentially provide your contact info, and I’ll be in touch.

  3. Tom and Ellen:

    Thanks to you and Ellen for being such wonderful friends and colleagues for many years at both Circuit City and CarMax.

    Being with Circuit City during its best days in the late 80′s and early 90′s makes it even sadder to see what happened to this company. As I have shared with you, I think the elimination of the consumer appliance department was one of the major factors leading to the downfall. At the time CC decided to get out of the appliance business we were a strong number two only behind Sears. The decision to replace appliances with computer software because of gross margin concern failed to realize the dollar volume being given away to Sears. Best Buy, and others. The appliance business was not nearly as cyclical as other parts of the business and provided a one stop shopping experience for people moving. Of course later in the company history there were many other moves that continued the downward death spiral. A company that during the Rick Sharp – Bill Rivas era truly cared about its employees fast became a company that only cared about it’s top executives.

    I hope the company that was spawned by CC (CarMax) learned some valuable lessons from this legacy. Time will tell.

  4. After having just moved to Richmond, I vividly remember at age 6 in the fall of 1949 standing with my family on West Broad Street in front of Wards TV with a crowd of people looking at the miraculous television in the store window. Daddy (an early techie!) surprised us with a 15″ Olympic little console television for Christmas that year, one of, if not the first, in our neighborhood. We loved it, of course, and eagerly sat in front of the Channel 6 WTVR test pattern every Saturday morning waiting for “Sights for Young Eyes” to come on “The South’s First Television Station.” In 1966 that old Olympic that Daddy had passed down to me broke and I went to Wards for a new one – bought a B&W TV for $299 that was delivered and didn’t work and they took it back to the store to be fixed. I decided that was a bad omen and that night went to the Wards store and bought a 19″ Sylvania color TV for $399 on “time,” the first color TV in my family, for my own three very young children and me to enjoy. Wards and later Circuit City were a part of my family for many years. I have lived in North Carolina for many years, and at this very moment in my kitchen am watching a Samsung 23″ LCD TV from the Asheville, NC, Circuit City, which I purchased a couple months before the store closed. I hated to see that happen. Thanks for the memories.

  5. p.s. I found out about this site from Paul Garrison, an old friend of mine, who told me how good you were to him while you both were at Carmax.

  6. What a GREAT story!!! Keep your eye out for more video clips about WTVR — I’m sure they will bring back more fond memories. Say hi to Paul for me.

  7. Don Savage Jun 9th 2010

    I was one of the original 7 store managers of CC when the California market opened. We blew away every budget presented to us, we were the king of the hill. Jerry Lawson and Charles Roe helped us thru the times we had and I still consider them some of the best people I have ever worked for. The cared about the people, business came because of the people. They asked questions, and listened to our input. I would still follow Jerry Lawson anywhere, and still consider him a friend first. I remember a meeting where we were getting our monthly budgets given to us. Another store manager, Val Sainz, and I told Jerry we didn’t want our budgets, let’s just see what we could do and how it turned out. Well it turned out we blew everything away.

    I met my darling wife at CC. 25 years later, we still talk about the good fun times we had. I would say that the period of time at CC was the best times of our work careers and made lifelong friends. Jerry Lawson walked my wife down the aisle to me when we married. Diane, his wife, was my wifes close friend. These were the kind of people that made CC.

    Things started to change in 1990. New blood, new expectations. I was not convinced then that they were the right changes, proven right too. As a DM, life was miserable. It was no longer about the people, it was bottom line driven. We used to say burn em and turn em was the new strategy. People were forgotten about and many great people started to leave. Eventually, I did.

    It was so painful to see the demise happening before our eyes over the years that followed. When CC closed, many people I had not talked to in a few years were calling in tears, sharing memories and good times. That has remained the case, we still stay in touch. CC was a common bond for us and will continue to be.

    Thanks for the good times and good memories CC.

  8. Corey Greenland Jun 19th 2010

    I only worked at CC for 4 months. But it was the best 4 months working a retail store. The people i worked with were honest and helpful. I think i can speak with most people and say the announcement was a surprise. I will never regret working there.

  9. Joel Sherman Oct 26th 2010

    Called on Circuit City for over 20 years as a vendor.
    What always stood out for me was the quality of the buyers and later the supply chain team.

    Almost without exception it was always a pleasure to work with the buyers and support teams.

    At one point when offered a promotion with the company I was with which I turned down, one of my thoughts was that if I took the new position I would no longer be able to interact with my friends at CC.

  10. B. Jones Nov 12th 2010

    Wow!!! Good stuff, can’t wait to see the documentary. I am a former associate of CC, 18 years with the Company. I was there during the good times and the beginning and middle of the bad times. I saw the writing on the wall and made the decision to step out on faith and GET OUT!!! I even sold every last one of the 700 shares of stock I had. Some of my friends lost it all (can we say Enron) Best decision I ever made. Man, I’m no retail expert, but even I could see the dumb, stupid mistakes that were in the making. Getting out of the white goods business??? What a joke!! It was one bright (or should I say “bad”) idea after another. Putting it in laymen’s terms, it was basically a case of going this way, going that way, no, let’s go back that way, yes, let’s go back this way, no let’s use the same compensation model that Best Buy has, hourly associates, yeah, that’s it. Let’s FIRE all of our experienced commissioned sales associates and hire all new inexperienced sales associates with zero personalities and zero customer service skills and pay them hourly wages, and by the way, we don’t even have to take the time to train them properly. Let’s just drive all of our customers away. I was an associate and I didn’t even shop in the store anymore. You could count on the experience being unpleasant. We won’t even talk about the botching of a perfectly good payroll system. If it wasn’t so sad, it would have been comical. When the new regime came in (and we won’t call names, the smart, polished, well-rounded Ivy leaguers know who they are), it was never about the associate and keeping them happy, it was always about the $$$$, including keeping their pockets fat. Theeee most top heavy company I have ever seen in my life. Salaries were a joke, bonus potentials were a joke 2-3-5% for the underlings, seriously??? and forget about associate appreciation events…dead in water. Did they really think they could fill Rick Sharp’s shoes? Unknowledgeable egotistical elitist will do you in every time. While thousands of people are out of jobs, and stock, I’m sure they collected their millions and ran for the hills or should I say Hilton Head. I could go on and on and on, but I’ll jump off the soapbox for now. That’s my story, sticking to it, cant wait to hear yours.

  11. EDDIE BROWNING Dec 2nd 2010

    Circuit City as a whole was a great company.The customer service end was rather weak.I had an embaresing situation with Circuit city over a warrenty issue.It was not but $100 dollars,but by the time it was over it was my last trip to a Circuit City store.Do I miss Circuit City,yes.But they were a victom of their own creation.They got big,and forgot what ,made them…the customer….Eddie

  12. EScott Dec 8th 2010

    WOW! Sounds so much like macy’s today… “it was always about the $$$$, including keeping their pockets fat. Theeee most top heavy company I have ever seen in my life. Salaries were a joke, bonus potentials were a joke 2-3-5% for the underlings, seriously??? and forget about associate appreciation events…dead in water. Unknowledgeable egotistical elitist will do you in every time.” You got that right buddy. My aunt worked for them for years during the 70′s and 80′s & she loved it! When companies start to put numbers ahead of the people making the money for them, these employees will come to resent and hate the customer.
    Yes I know macy’s should be a capital “M”‘ but they don’t deserve it!

  13. I was there from Dec 1993 – Oct 1998 in So Cal. Went from seasonal associate to manager then took a step down when I got another job in April 1997. I worked another year+ as an PT associate. Sad to see them go, but horrible management is the reason. They would throw money at the worst people, all while watching the great folks walk out the door, not to return. I miss all my friends from those days (at least there is facebook) but do not miss the drama.

    I will say, CC provided the best management training (basics) out of any company I have ever worked for. They actually took the time to teach you how to performance manage, etc…Too bad most of the higher ups ignored the training.