A Careful Buyer At The Electronics Show

There's a different vibe at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, the annual industry showcase that wraps up Sunday in Las Vegas. There's a bit less glitz and a lot fewer customers than in previous years. Tony Kennedy, a retail buyer, is trying to choose which gadgets will sell even with the economy in the tank.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Glitz and gadgets, those are the staples of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, which wraps up tomorrow. There is still some glitz. The show is set in Vegas, after all. But it's tough to move those gadgets in an economy that's stuck in neutral. NPR's Laura Sydell tagged along with one retailer who's got a very different view of CES this year.

LAURA SYDELL: Televisions are blaring, speakers are booming in a cacophonous battle for the attention of Tony Kennedy.

(Soundbite of woman talking)

Unidentified Woman: There's something here for everybody, and it's all made possible by the new Intel...

SYDELL: Kennedy is here to buy stock for his three stores back in North Carolina. Elite Audio and Video sells and installs televisions, stereo systems, entertainment servers, and a variety of home entertainment products. He's not one of the big players like Best Buy or Costco. He's just trying to support his wife and 19-month-old twins. Usually the big box retailers get a lot of attention from the vendors here. But this year, he's feeling more important.

Mr. TONY KENNEDY (Owner, Elite Audio and Video, North Carolina): In the past, I was just coming and seeing what's the new stuff and knowing that we were going to have to commit ourselves to so much inventory for these guys to even look at us. This year has been a little nice knowing that they're needing us more so than we're needing them.

SYDELL: Kennedy is enjoying the attention, but the truth is he hasn't got much to give back. He didn't have a great Christmas. He downsized all three of his stores, and he isn't stocking up as much this year. Part of his business is installing the home entertainment systems that he sells.

Mr. KENNEDY: It's not really like depression, but you start thinking that way, you know. How can you save every little bit? Where it used to be, if you were doing a pre-wire and you dropped a screw, oh well, it's a screw. Now you're like getting down and looking for that screw.

SYDELL: Kennedy goes from booth to booth carefully examining TVs and speakers. Some companies he knows. Others are unfamiliar. He stops to examine some film screens for people who want home movie projectors. He's never heard of this company, although its name, Elite, is the same as his company's. Kennedy likes the look of the product. Right now, he stocks screens by Draper and Stewart. He approaches a salesman.

Mr. KENNEDY: As far as price point, how do you guys compare with, like, you know, Stewart and Draper?

Unidentified Man: As to be honest to you, Stewart is overcharging too much.

SYDELL: There are words that perk up Kennedy's ears. He's got other questions.

Mr. KENNEDY: How long should it take you, on average, to put like that screen right there together?

Unidentified Man: Assembly, we are - I would say, 15 minutes.

SYDELL: Assembly time is important to Kennedy. He has to factor in how long it takes staff to install. He examines the screens, asked questions about delivery time and support. He likes what he sees.

Mr. KENNEDY: Him saying that the price quoted is half of what Stewart is, is pretty impressive.

SYDELL: So, do you think given the current economy, that you're going to consider a company like this one?

Mr. KENNEDY: I think I'll be considering that and a lot more.

SYDELL: Kennedy is not completely happy about Elite screens. They aren't manufactured in the U.S., and he'd rather support American workers.

Mr. KENNEDY: This is just a bad time, but we're trying to do all the right things to weather it. Just going to depend on how long the storm is, you know.

SYDELL: He may have to buy goods made outside the U.S. He employs nine people, and he doesn't want to lay them off. The way he sees it, these times are about survival. Laura Sydell, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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