- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

Crutchfield Corp.'s (www.crutchfield.com) success and the World Wide Web have something in common. Both found early acceptance based on the delivery of information.

"Twenty-five years ago I differentiated myself from other consumer catalogues by providing information about a complex category of product car stereos and their installation through articles I added to the catalogue," said Bill Crutchfield from his Charlottesville, Va. home office.

"And we are continuing to do that with the Web site, creating a synergy for the customers whether they access us via a printed catalogue, through the call center or on line."

Over the last quarter-century Crutchfield has been working on creating a relationship with consumers by delivering electronics products, ranging from subwoofers to high-definition televisions, at a competitive price with thorough installation and operating instructions.

The company's personalized, hands-on formula for catalogue sales has allowed the data and expertise it has collected to transfer to its Web site. Comparing the Winter/Spring 2000 catalogue to the Web site, they basically provide the same products, pricing and information.

"The philosophy is that there is one Crutchfield that you deal with and each offers the same services regardless of how the customer decides to interact with us," said Dave Dierolf, vice president, information technology. "It was a conscious decision not to become a dot-com company spin-off. It is all one company, and this is just another way to communicate."

For Bill Crutchfield who, in 1974, began his business from a dining room table with $1,000, the key to his success in the catalogue and cyber-world is the same customer service combined with employee knowledge.

All new staff members are required to take an eight-week training program along with a few weeks of on-the-job training. This training is especially crucial to call center employees, who must answer any consumer questions about anything that has anything to do with the car and home audio/video market.

The company has 600 employees and operates two call centers one in Charlottesville and one in Norton, Va.

"Of all the calls I receive I would guess that about 45 percent of them have at least seen the Internet site while maybe half of those callers have only seen the Internet site," said Tyler Kilgore, an operator in Norton.

"I find that those who have been to the Internet and have a catalogue have really done a lot of research regarding their purchase and all that training becomes very important. The Internet user has the same questions as the catalogue shopper, including product specifications and installation procedures."

Mr. Kilgore and the other call center operators get help from a large database of product information and installation specifications that Crutchfield has been collecting. One element of this database, the Crutchfield Vehicle Selector, can be accessed through the Internet site. The vehicle selector works by the user selecting the year, make and model of his car. The site then responds with a list of audio items that are compatible with that vehicle.

Last year Crutchfield Corp. mailed 32 million catalogues, and anticipates mailing more than 37 million this year. And though the print run is expected to increase by 15 percent, the company is expecting its overall growth to increase by 20 percent due to the Internet's ability to bring consumers to Crutchfield without the cost of printing and shipping the catalogues.

"The Web site does offer benefits over the catalogue such as ease of updating and the ability to add more products," Mr. Crutchfield said. "Yet for some customers the catalogue is easier to index. The Internet is more of a left-brain medium, while the catalogue is a right-brain medium. Shopping via the catalogue has an emotional element that is lost when shopping on line.

"For Crutchfield, we recognize that our consumers are both kinds of people, and we service both."

The catalogue and Internet company also has two brick-and-mortar retail stores located in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg.

Have an interesting site? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at the Business Browser, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail ([email protected]).

Site of the Week

Site address: www.crutchfield.com

Recommended user group: Individuals looking to purchase a wide range of consumer electronics.

What's to like: Each product page on the site is filled with information. For example, being that I am interested in the newest digital video disk technology, a search for the term DVD brings up 19 players ranging in cost from $279 to $999. Choosing a Sony brand for $599, I learn that the vendor delivered the world's first five-disc DVD/ CD changer and that I can load this machine with a combination of movie and music entertainment.

Most product pages also include a lengthy key features list and under the heading More Information, consumers can learn an item's features/specifications and accessories. Other sections include "Nitty-Gritty," which explains what a unit is compatible with, comments from product experts, and discussions on its dependability; and "What's In The Box," which provides an inventory list of everything shipped in the box with a particular product from the warranty and advertising cards to remote changers and batteries."

What's not to like: Crutchfield will have to continue to work hard to succeed in the competitive e-commerce market of the Internet. I found DVD units at the same price on other sites with plenty of product information and was offered enticements like $75 worth of free movies. The guy who knows how to hook up basic audio and video equipment might be more concerned with the cheapest price and incentives rather than thoughtful customer service.

Plenty of links to go around: Stop by the Site Directory to find a links area to a wide-range of product manufacturers sold by Crutchfield.

Monster Cable Inc. (www.monstercable.com) makes 1,000 accessories to assist audiophiles and sound professionals in creating a high-quality listening experience. The Web site features a complete list of products, founder Noel Lee explaining the difficult life of an audio signal and diagrams to hook up a multitude of electronics components

Founded in Hong Kong in 1976, VTech (www.vtech.com) has become a major player in the world of consumer electronics. Its World Wide Web presence highlights the company's growth potential through five-year financial statements and annual reports; describes a complete line of products ranging from personal computers to educational software to cordless phones; and displays a Shockwave demo of the Little Smart, Sort 'n' Go Car perfect for the high-tech toddler.

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