There's nothing like the VCR. They come cheap and ready to go," says Dallas businessman Jim Stewart.
Last holiday season, Stewart came home from an electronics store with two VCRs for his study. Stewart, married with 6- and 10-year-old daughters, wanted a second and third machine for household harmony and flexibility.
The girls can watch their favorite movies while their parents record and play videotapes on other machines.
Stewart's little venture didn't cost much. Two videocassette recorders, $99 each. The total was less than half of what he paid for a fully loaded model five years ago.
"Now I would never bother to repair a VCR," Stewart says unwaveringly.
Twenty years ago, buying a VCR on impulse might have seemed extravagant, because the machines that ushered in the home video boom cost well into four figures.
But today, low-end VCRs, 19-inch to 32-inch TVs, calculators, handheld stereos and other ubiquitous consumer electronics have become so inexpensive that many consumers consider them disposable.
Even professional fix-its say that buying a new machine often makes more sense after considering the cost of repair, the equipment's life span, the inconvenience of doing without while it's in the shop, the bells and whistles on new machines and falling prices.
Technological advances have helped electronics companies make more sophisticated machines for less money, says analyst David Goldstein of Channel Marketing, a consulting firm specializing in technology.
"Manufacturers are able to get more things on fewer chips as opposed to on several parts," he says.
Consider the compact disc player. In 1999, the average price of a home deck will be $112, according to the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association. In 1983, when CEMA began tracking sales, the figure was $350.
With his two new VCRs, Stewart got features he'd never had: on-screen, multi-event programming, a self-setting clock and high-fidelity audio. He also recently bought a combination TV/VCR. According to CEMA, these will cost an average of $240 this year, compared with $420 in 1990.
Other examples abound. In 1972, Texas Instruments introduced the first electronic handheld calculator. The TI2500, which sold for about $120 and weighed 12 ounces, had an eight-digit display and could add, subtract, multiply and divide.
Today the company's basic handheld, the TI503SV, can figure percentages and square roots, deal with negative numbers and store calculations with memory recall. All this by a 1.6-ounce, $6.95 device.
"Now you don't bother to get a calculator fixed," Goldstein says.
The cost of VCRs has fallen so far that they're given away as incentives to buy major appliances.
Informed electronics consumers -- excluding those who pine for the first of everything -- play the game. Stewart says he knew prices would come down on VCRs and televisions; he expects the same to happen with digital TVs.
Jim Barry, CEMA spokesman, agrees that waiting is part of consumerism. When Sony introduced the Betamax video recorder in 1974, he says, only 34,000 of those pricey machines were sold.
"The reason we bought 17 million VCRs last year is because the prices are lower and you get more, he says."
Repair costs are a consideration in the buy-or-fix equation.
"That part needed to repair the broken VCR is going to be cheap," Goldstein says. "But add the costs to ship that part, and the [rising cost of] labor, and you're looking at a lot more money." At H&H Electronics, a long-established repair shop, owner Richard Hawes says: "Before we do diagnostics, we will give the customer an at-the-counter assessment and tell that customer exactly what he's in for."
The most common problem with VCRs brought to his shop is that they've stopped while playing a tape, Hawes says. The repair cost is $69.95 plus tax -- including $55 for labor and $14.95 for parts.
"We don't charge by the hour; our minimum labor charge is $45. We have a ceiling of $84," he says.
Clyde Nabors, executive director of the National Electronics Service Dealers Association, says the news isn't good for his group: "There are so many disposable electronics items today that it's hurting the service industry."
According to Goldstein, customers are most likely to get a device fixed if it's under warranty. "But once the warranty's over, you can almost always get a new item with more stuff at a much more reasonable price," he says.
Not everyone throws out a malfunctioning machine.
Hawes says his customers fall into two categories -- those who want to be told, "It's time to trash it," and those who would rather fix than switch.
"But you have to be cautious," Hawes adds. "When some of these customers come in, it's like they are dropping off their baby. Depending on how long they've had the VCR, you can't just tell them to dump it. They take it personally."