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Architecture + Branding: Iconic Circuit City store design sparks instant recognition although plug pulled on retail business model

1-Formidable failure

Profiled in Jim Collins’s “Good to Great” business management book, Circuit City had earned an enviable position as best-performing stock for any 15-year period between years 1965 and 1995. In a dramatic fall from grace, then second largest consumer electronics retailer in the United States, the company declared bankruptcy mere weeks into 2009. Following a massive liquidation that would last into early March 2009, the 500-plus stores were shuttered and Circuit City ceased to exist in its current form.

In 1949, Samuel Wurtzel opened Wards Company, a Richmond, Virginia based television retail store, which would eventually morph into the Circuit City of the 1980s (source: wikipedia.org). Wards Company grew, acquired other retail stores and experimented with various retail formats, creating brands such as “Sight-n-Sound” and “Circuit City” along the way (source: wikipedia.org). Subsequently, the Circuit City name was formally adopted in 1984, and the company became publicly traded, listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Wards Company history of experimentation and reinvention would lead to notably significant retail innovations throughout the sixty-year history.

2-Stumbling onto warehouse format

Opening its first big-box format retail operation in 1974 was serendipitous. In an effort to utilize excess space in the newly purchased headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, Wards carved out some space for retail use, effectively launching “Wards Loading Dock” (source: wikipedia.org).

The positive customer reaction to the big-box retail model prompted the company to build upon the concept. The “Wards Loading Dock” model, renamed Circuit City Superstore in 1981, would prompt further expansion (source: wikipedia.org). Rolling out the concept and spurring a nationwide expansion, smaller “Sight-n-Sound” and “Circuit City” stores were displaced and replaced by the emerging and strongly favoured Superstore format (source: wikipedia.org).

Awash with department store retail space under lease, and acquiring additional retail spaces, the Circuit City Superstore concept proliferated.

3-From instantly recognizable…

The superstore concept’s main premise being size, the potential for greater selection, lower prices, as well as economies of scale become natural by-products. Likewise, large footprint, elongated, low-rise, basic rectilinear (square and/or rectangular) shapes are equally by-products.

In an attempt to brand the stores, Circuit City focused fervently upon the entrance point as the differentiation factor. In 1988, Circuit City began displaying the “plug” design Superstore (source: wikipedia.org). The design interpreted the entrance as an enormous electrical plug added to the basic storefront, a theme that was introduced and reinforced in television advertisements.

(1989) Circuit City The Intelligent Choice for Christmas Commercial

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UasNZjRnXIw

In its fullest expression, a bright red tower was effectively grafted onto the façade, stretching from the ground plane to above the roofline, stepping over the parapet and extending above and onto the main roof. Protruding towards the front, the entrance produced a pronounced change in plane against the flat façade.

Circuit City, Plug design, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

Cohesively, the plug entrance seemed embedded into the storefront. Bold and bright, the red “plug” was ever more vivid when viewed against the backdrop of a white, beige, tan, earth tone, or other significantly lighter field colour facade. The bulk of the architectural expression was concentrated at the arrival/exit focal point.

Ross, Former Circuit City, Plug design, Riverside, California (source: maps.google.com)

Ross, Former Circuit City, Plug design, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

In some instances, the red plug element was truncated, limited to the section above the doors, resulting in a less dramatic effect. Projecting from the main building façade, the canopy element provided a place for signage and provided cover for customers during inclement weather near the entrance doors.

Circuit City, Plug design, truncated, Vestal, New York (source: maps.google.com)

The remainder of the building was fundamentally an afterthought, largely devoid of aesthetic relief or artistic expression. Minimal attention was expended to mask or break up the massive wall surface area into smaller sub-parts. A near complete absence of windows and natural daylighting was the norm. Limited articulation was requisite. Few architectural features of noteworthy value existed.

Circuit City, Plug design, truncated, Cheyenne, Wyoming (source: maps.google.com)

Circuit City, Plug design, truncated, Spokane, Washington (source: maps.google.com)

The “plug” design spawned a derivative design, popularized in the latter half of the 1990s that was referred to as the “half plug”. Of note, the “half plug” variant included interior changes resulting in more open showroom space (source: wikipedia.org).

Circuit City, Half plug design, Compton, California (source: maps.google.com)

Circuit City, Half plug design, Cincinnati, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)

Circuit City, Half plug design, Houston, Texas (source: maps.google.com)

Circuit City, Half plug design, Saint Cloud, Minnesota (source: maps.google.com)

However, from the exterior, the essential change saw the “plug” design turned 45 degrees, embedding deeper into the main building and projecting further outwards towards the front. The entrance/exit point typically would happen at the half plug element, but several examples exist where the access would be adjacent, leaving the bright red tower as an integrally whole design element.

Circuit City, Half Plug design with offset entrance, Fort Myers, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

Circuit City, Half plug design with offset entrance, Port Richey, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

The “plug” idea was a significant concept at Circuit City. Introduced in 1998, the “Pluggie” mascot appeared in television and in-store advertising, deliberately featured in television commercials plugging into the storefronts (source: wikipedia.org). The introduction of a new logo in 2001 saw Pluggie be discontinued (source: wikipedia.org).

Derided and vilified, the “plug stores” became instantly identifiable and recognizable, resonating with the brand and heritage. Establishing a clear brand association, the stores became iconic, unmistakably Circuit City.

4- … to intensely forgettable

Exiting the large appliance business in 2000, and attempting to respond to growing competition from Wal-Mart and Best Buy, Circuit City would recast its Superstore model with the launch of the “Horizon” store concept. Fittingly, a new circle logo, introduced in 2001, ushered in a new wave of Circuit City retail experimentation and reinvention.

Circuit City, Horizon design, initial version, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (source: maps.google.com)

Many Circuit City stores were hampered by bad locations complete with store designs and layouts that did not fare well against newer competitors. The new Horizon stores featured a more open sales area, lower fixtures heights, upgraded interior finishes, self-serve shopping carts better attuned with the expanded product mix, a centralized checkout area near the front of the store, and the use of non-commissioned sales staff (source: wikipedia.org). The reinvention resulted in stores that were cleaner and less cluttered.

Circuit City, Horizon design, final version, Harvey, Louisiana (source: maps.google.com)

However, the newer Horizon stores also elicited a me-too feel of its competitors that would become harder to ignore.

hhgregg, having taken over Former Circuit City, Horizon design, final version, Tampa, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

Following the established trend of evolutionary changes, a new smaller footprint store concept that afforded the company greater flexibility in better serving newer and existing markets was introduced in 2007 (source: wikipedia.org). Dubbed “The City”, it would quickly dominate the new store opening mix by 2008 (source: wikipedia.org).

Embracing perpetual new concepts would prove costly for Circuit City, from a brand standpoint, and financially. An unprecedented projected 100 to 150 new store openings in 2007 and 2008, a ten-fold increase to the established trend, would prove unattainable (source: wikipedia.org). Already saddled with a glut of unused real estate spread across the country due in part to the relentless expansion phase of the 1970s-1990s, many of these newer stores opened in 2008 operate for several weeks, while others never opened at all (source: wikipedia.org). As it now emulated and copied so many of its competitors in so many ways, it became increasingly difficult for Circuit City to stand out, rapidly transforming from incontournable to incognito.

5-Re-purposed

Glaring lack of foresight, questionable strategic business decision, overly-limiting and restrictive exclusive arrangements (gaming, cellphones, ..), stale product mix, non-anticipation of changing market conditions, less than ideal locations, declining customer service, numerous culprits could be blamed for the eventual implosion of once dominant Circuit City. As the business model changed around one of its pioneers, it never quite managed to reclaim its former lead position.

Former Circuit City, Half plug design, Compton, California (source: maps.google.com)

Acquired out of the bankruptcy proceedings by Systemax, owners of the TigerDirect and CompUSA brands, the Circuit City brand name, logo and website have been repositioned and re-purposed as an internet-only electronics retailer, devoid of any physical bricks-and-mortar stores.

Suggesting that the downfall of Circuit City was due, even in part, to the safe and timid architectural redesign would be self-serving. Yet it is plainly obvious that adopting a me-too aesthetic, while striving to repair a falling business plan did not aid in protecting Circuit City’s built brand equity, ultimately escalating brand and positioning confusion.

Examples of re-purposed Circuit City stores

http://www.goodwillnne.org/updates/press-coverage/goodwill-set-to-open-in-former-circuit-city-building/

http://losangeles.grubstreet.com/2010/06/sprouts_opening_in_culver_city.html

http://www.fireworks.com/locations/phantom-florence/

Although somewhat indulgent, but just perhaps, once Circuit City began to focus more feverishly on copying its competitors, it lost some of the boldness that once defined the company, and which was previously self-evident and vividly emblazoned across the Superstore storefronts. For better or worse, the “plug” association, which was exploited in graphical design, promotional communications, and in crafting an architectural identity, ultimately became ingrained and unalienable to the Circuit City brand.

Willamete Family Medical Center, Former Circuit City, Plug design, Salem, Oregon (source: maps.google.com)

Willamete Family Medical Center, Former Circuit City, Plug design, Salem, Oregon (source: maps.google.com)

Disclaimer: All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

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About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.

Discussion

One thought on “Architecture + Branding: Iconic Circuit City store design sparks instant recognition although plug pulled on retail business model

  1. Excellent article! I loved the plug design and enjoy spotting refurbished ones, too. It’s so funny that even today…if you are of a certain age, you immediately will id the “plug” buildings as a former Circuit City…no matter who the new occupant is!

    Posted by Giselle | February 4, 2015, 8:20 am

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