CompUSA's Jacobs wants to help clueless consumers

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Even before Phil Jacobs became the top marketer at CompUSA, he got a taste of what his customers go through.

"I was a customer before I was an employee ... and a good customer at that," he said.

Mr. Jacobs-then exec VP-chief marketing officer of Publicis Groupe's Publicis in Mid America, Dallas-just wanted to install a router and a wireless card to connect his two home computers in a wireless network. He was impressed that CompUSA provided him a free home installation service.

"If I had tried to do it myself, I probably wouldn't have a connection at home," he said.

While an admitted "tech geek," Mr. Jacobs understands the frustration consumers get when they can't connect their equipment. And that's the sweet spot for his new employer.

Mr. Jacobs joined CompUSA in early July as exec VP-chief marketing officer, charged with repositioning the Dallas-based computer retailer, which is increasingly facing competition from big-box consumer electronics stores such as Best Buy and Circuit City and from the ubiquitous Wal-Mart. CompUSA, a privately held company, does not report sales figures, but a study by consultancy Retail Forward estimates it is ranked 8th among consumer electronics retailers with $4 billion in annual sales. It was ranked No.3 in 1998.

`new dimension'

"Phil brings us a new dimension of experience and innovative thinking," said Tony Weiss, president-chief operating officer, CompUSA, in a statement. "His marketing successes and diverse background with consumer and business-to-business brands will help provide focus and fuel for our expansion into converging lines of business and consumer electronics retailing."

CompUSA has evolved from a technology superstore to add a more wide variety of electronics. In the last two years, it has added high-end consumer electronics such as flat-screen TVs and portable DVD players and last year began retailing Virgin Mobile cellular phones. After a failed run at Circuit City stores, it acquired the Good Guys electronics chain in February and has begun retailing computer equipment in those stores.

What sets CompUSA apart is a staff that is more knowledgeable about computers than salespeople at consumer electronics stores, and the computer training and installation services it offers, Mr. Jacobs said. But the company hasn't done a good job communicating those points of difference, he said. "The category sort of grew up around CompUSA," he said. "We were the category killer for computer stores."

Computer sales continue to grow, with consumers increasingly interested in adding on to their existing setups or moving into wireless networking, thanks to cheaper and more advanced equipment within their reach, said Richard Hastings, VP-retail sector analyst at Bernard Sands, a New York-based credit consultant specializing in the retail industry.

"It's not like it was five or seven years ago, when only the passionate hobbyist opens the back of a computer to add things on," Mr. Hastings said. "It's a mature industry, but healthy."

While maybe not enough of a passionate hobbyist to install his router, Mr. Jacobs is no computer novice, either. Before joining Publicis, he was chief marketing officer of Data Return-a Dallas-based Web-hosting company that managed Web sites including the Victoria's Secret fashion show and online dating service Match.com-from 1999 until 2002.

Mr. Jacobs wouldn't say if he would tap his old alma mater for advertising, but new advertising is coming soon. CompUSA's most recent ad campaign, from Italia Partners, Dallas, featured actor Martin Short, as his Jiminy Glick TV character, showing clueless consumers how to use digital cameras and other electronics.

"I want to get my arms around our consumers," he said. He's also still trying to determine ad spending, some of which, he noted, may be reallocated.

Résumé

Name: Phil Jacobs

Age: 49

Now: Exec VP-chief marketing officer, CompUSA

Who: A self-described "tech geek" (who nonetheless needed professional help to hook up his home wireless network), he worked as CMO of the company that hosted Victoria's Secret online fashion show and Internet dating service Match.com before he joined Publicis in Mid-America's Dallas office as exec VP-chief marketing officer.

Challenge: With consumer electronics giants such as Best Buy and Circuit City encroaching on its hardware business, CompUSA seeks to reposition itself to leverage its ability to provide non-geeks with assistance and instruction as its advantage.

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