Baltimore area's first computer superstore looks forward to this week's official grand opening

STACKING THE SHELVES WITH TOP NAMES

April 20, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Alan Bush expects his new store to make quite a splash.

"You have to look at the existing market kind of like a goldfish bowl," said the ebullient president of Tandy Corp.'s Computer City Supercenter chain. "You ever see the movie 'Problem Child' where the kid sticks the vacuum cleaner into the goldfish bowl?"

Mr. Bush will dip his vacuum cleaner into Baltimore's computer fishbowl this week as he officially opens the area's first computer superstore in Timonium.

Buying a computer -- or anything having to do with computers -- in Baltimore may never be the same.

The 25,000-square-foot store in the Yorkridge Shopping Center is the 10th to open in Tandy's 7-month-old national drive to join the "category killers" of the retail world: chains that use rock-bottom prices and extensive inventory to seize dominance in their markets and shake out the weaker players.

Computer City is much more than a Radio Shack on steroids.

Mr. Bush is quick to boast that his chain is the only national retailer to carry all five of the leading computer brands -- IBM, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq and Tandy.

Its selection of computer programs is at least as comprehensive as those in the leading specialty stores, and a sampling of its prices showed them to be competitive with the most aggressive mail-order houses.

While competitors often refer to Computer City as a warehouse store, that is not really accurate. The broad aisles and brightly lighted merchandise are reminiscent of a Wal-Mart, the discount department store.

A sizable section of the store is devoted to computer repair, and there is a separate service desk for business customers. The salespeople dress in bright yellow shirts so customers can spot them.

On the face of it, Computer City seems poised to draw customers from a wide radius.

Mr. Bush said he expects the Timonium store, which will hold its grand opening Thursday, to draw customers from as far away as Washington, Frederick, Harrisburg, Pa., and Delaware.

But while Computer City has the local computer-superstore niche to itself for now, its monopoly will be short-lived.

Its chief national rival, CompUSA Inc., announced late last week that it would open two stores, just as big as Computer City, in the Baltimore area within the next six months.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush has been scouting locations for a second store in the Columbia and Glen Burnie areas.

"It's too early to say what will happen when they compete head-on," said Lise Buyer, an analyst in the Boston office of Cowen & Co. "Certainly the consumer will win."

According to Mr. Bush, the Computer City concept is based on extensive research of consumer preferences.

RTC He said Tandy executives buttonholed people outside existing stores and asked what they wanted.

Their priorities, he said, were name brands, broad selection and low prices.

As a result, Computer City has taken a different tack from CompUSA, which has comparable selection and prices but less of an emphasis on well-known brands.

"We are a name-brand house," Mr. Bush said. "You get a warm, fuzzy feeling buying a Hewlett-Packard or IBM rather than a Compudyne or something."

Whether a name brand actually makes a difference is a matter of some disagreement, with many hard-core computer users insisting that clones perform just as well.

Mr. Bush said Computer City, with its massive buying power and state-of-the-art inventory control systems, will take a megabyte out of smaller computer merchants who have not established a strong presence in a specialized niche.

"If they're doing their job properly they probably will survive," he said. "Any time someone hasn't been a good merchant and grown their business, we'll flatten them up."

For the most part, Baltimore's current computer distributors, many of whom have a strong base of corporate clients, profess to be unconcerned by Computer City's arrival.

Johanna Brown, owner of Software Mania in Towson, said Computer City is likely to cut into her business over the next month or so as customers check out the new kid in town.

"We're not really worried over the long run because we're kind of unique," she said. "We can give you more attention than some of those warehouse stores can give you."

Ms. Brown said she had no concern about being underpriced by Computer City because her store belongs to a software-buying consortium whose buying power is at least equal to the superstore chain's.

Customers who wandered through the store for an unannounced preview last week had mixed reactions.

Home users and small-business owners were excited, but corporate computer buyers were more blase.

"This is perfect for a home purchaser," said Rob Cramer, who purchases computer equipment for Chevron Corp. in Towson. "There's a lot of boxes, but the knowledge is questionable."

Mr. Bush dismissed the questions about the store's service, contending that his sales staff is as well-trained as any in the industry.

He said some 40 percent of his business comes from corporate clients.

For Mr. Bush, who now works out of Tandy corporate headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, the Baltimore opening is a kind of homecoming.

During his 15-year career with Tandy, he has been based here three times; with many old friends watching, this is not just another store opening for him.

Mr. Bush said there are times when a Computer City grand opening resembles "a feeding frenzy," and he's doing everything possible to make sure the predators turn out en masse for the Timonium store's official debut.

Computer City has begun advertising heavily in newspapers and on the airwaves, and the store has called in extra stocks of hard-to-find Hewlett-Packard printers to satisfy the opening day hordes -- that is, if they don't run out earlier in the week.

"I'm willing to bet cold, hard cash," Mr. Bush said, "that this will be our biggest grand opening to date."

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