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The Internet’s First Audio and Video Retailer

This article is largely an abstract from a story that originally appeared in It Is Innovation (i3) magazine, published by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)®.

Overview Home electronics retailer Crutchfield Corporation started before internet retail was popular. Founder and CEO Bill Crutchfield shares his views on innovating, technology in retail and his journey with his company.

On a journey to restoring his classic Porsche 356 coupe and hitting a bump in the road finding an aftermarket stereo, innovator Bill Crutchfield formed a new business concept. Now named the first company in the consumer electronics category of Newsweek’s Best Online Shops 2021, Crutchfield Corp. launched online when selling products over the internet was still a novelty and became the first vendor-authorized audio/video retailer on the internet.

Crutchfield, who was inducted into the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)® Hall of Fame in 2007, shared his views on artificial intelligence (AI), sustainability and more with It Is Innovation (i3) magazine.

What roles do research and AI play in enhancing your website?

Crutchfield’s website went up in September 1995. That was only one month after Amazon’s. At that time, we did not know of Amazon’s existence. From our beginning in 1974, we have always invested heavily in research. This ranges from collecting an enormous amount of information on each product offered, developing sophisticated digital marketing tools, inventing and building our robust vehicle selector and creating our patented virtual listening technology. Developing the vehicle selector required us to collect data on the makes, models and years of roughly 30,000 car and truck permutations. We are developing AI and ML tools to improve the efficiency of certain operational functions and to enable our website to perform more like a human sales advisor.

Can you talk about some of your retail innovations?

We have been pioneering all along. For our third catalog, I invented the magalog — a hybrid between a catalog and a magazine. Prior to that all catalogs were strictly products, basic features and price. I introduced the concept of having articles and soft content and that became the world’s first magalog in April 1975. Other companies like Patagonia and Lands’ End have used that format.

How have you led in sustainability including biodegradable packaging?

Our customers see this as another way in which Crutchfield is a responsible corporate citizen. But we have been ahead of the game on sustainability and environment issues since almost the beginning. I started the design work in 1977 on our first building at this site. It was the first passive energy efficient building in central Virginia. It is mostly underground to keep it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Since then, as we have built new buildings, they have all been designed for energy efficiency.

How is technology changing the retail experience?

We are in an era where technology is changing virtually everything in life. Retail is no exception. Retailers who don’t appreciate this paradigm shift will suffer.

What technology areas do you find exciting?

Personally, I am very interested in consumer electronic health products. With the aging population, the sophistication of smartphones and different technologies coming together, I think consumer health products will become bigger. My father was a doctor and I am on the board of the University of Virginia Health System so medicine is an area that I am very interested in.

Read more about Bill Crutchfield, including his advice to entrepreneurs, in i3 magazine.

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