Electronics fix-it shops lose business to throwaway items

Inexpensive VCRs, CDs drive local repairer to turn to retail

Bryce Waldemar runs an electronics repair shop and is fighting an uphill battle -- with relatively inexpensive VCRs and TVs on the market, fewer and fewer people are bringing in old equipment to get fixed.

The revenue for Service Central, 2429 Lyndale Ave. S., has been flat for two years, he said. The only thing that keeps it from dropping is competitors are going out of business.

Waldemar, 43, is also president of the Minnesota Electronics Service Dealers Association. By his informal count, 30 independent repair shops have closed in 30 months, he said.

"With so many shops closing, we are getting more business," he said.

John Eubanks of Jacksonville, Fla., president of the National Electronics Service Dealers Association, said the decline in repair shops is universal.

"In your lifetime, you can think of nothing else besides electronics products where the price has gone down yet the technical difficulty and the requirements of servicing has been on the increase," he said.

Waldemar bought the company 7 years ago when it was called VCR Service Center, he said. VCR repair has dropped from 95 percent of his business to 5 percent, he said: "They have become a disposable item."

He used to buy junked VCRs for a couple of bucks each from a garbage hauler, fix them up and resell them, he said. He could get more than $100 for one. With new models selling for $79, however, few bring them in for repair, and the market to sell used VCRs is dead.

And Waldemar is stuck with a basement-load of old VCRs.

"We've taken two full pick-up loads -- 2,200 pounds of VCRs -- to the recycler," he said.

Two years ago he changed the name to Service Central, Waldemar said. Until recently, he ran his repair shop out of basement space.

He couldn't make it in the repair business alone so a year ago Thanksgiving he added first-floor space so he could sell new TVs, VCRs and other consumer electronics. He just got in his first high-definition TV. It has a 43-inch screen and sells for $2,900.

Retail sales now make up 20 percent of his revenue, he said.

His business plan is to work both ends of the technology spectrum.

He is eying the potentially lucrative market of in-home service for home entertainment centers. When items cost thousands of dollars, people will still pay to get them repaired, he said: "That is our future."

He is also making 20 percent of his revenue from repairing vintage phonographs, he said.

Tom Hultberg and Patricia Berg of Prescott, Wisc., recently stopped by the shop to have Waldemar fix a 1960s-era tube-style Columbia 360 phonograph they had bought used for $25.

"I see a lot of these," he said.

Waldemar said businesses like his struggle to find technicians to hire.

"There are not a lot of guys entering the consumer electronics field," said Waldemar, who graduated from Brown Institute in 1980. "A year ago, I ran an ad in the Star Tribune for two weeks straight. I didn't even get one call inquiring 'How much do you pay?'"

Bob Knight, the marketing manager for Brown College (formerly Brown Institute), said there is a trend away from traditional consumer electronic repairs.

"Enrollment in that field is not what it once was, but enrollment is growing in leaps and bounds in areas of computer programming and information and networking technology," he said.

Mike Ness, president of St. Paul-based Ness Electronics, a parts supplier that does business with Waldemar, has also seen the changes.

Repair is definitely going down, he said, estimating that 5 to 8 percent of independent repair shops have closed in the past few years. And it's not just VCRs that are becoming disposable.

"Anything under a 25-inch TV, that has happened," he said. "If you have a 13-inch or 19-inch TV -- you are looking at a $99 retail on a 13-inch and probably $129 retail on a 19-inch set -- they aren't going to repair those pieces."

Jeremy Wolfson, owner of Connect Electronics Service in Minnetonka and a friend of Waldemar's, shut down his repair business the first of the year, he said. He is focusing on custom design and installation.

"It is not profitable anymore," he said of the repair business. "I don't think it has a bright future."

Waldemar said he is trying to build the business as an asset, but as a business owner he makes less than what he used to as a technician working for someone else.

"I keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel," Waldemar said. "I like what I do. It's the big reason I'm here."