Consumer electronics retailers descended on this desert gambling town over the weekend in search of a blockbuster product that can pull them out of a two-year sales slump, but odds are they will come away empty-handed.
More than 90,000 manufacturers, buyers and retailers are trekking here for the winter gathering of the International Consumer Electronics Show, where the lastest in audio, video and other electronics gear will be on display through Tuesday.The show opens just days after the close of the all-important Christmas season, which was not the disaster some in the industry had feared. Brisk sales of camcorders, compact disk players and video games offset sluggish sales of color televisions, video cassette recorders and microwave ovens - hot items of past years whose sales have slowed since most households already own them.
The outcome was a year in which sales by consumer electronics manufacturers grew a modest 2.5 percent, less than the rate of inflation and just above 1987 growth of 2.4 percent. That compares with double-digit gains in 1985 and 1986, boom times the industry hopes to recapture.
But industry executives and analysts say the outlook for 1989 calls for more of the same - weak demand, ample supplies and no new products exciting enough to bring customers into stores like VCRs and microwave ovens once did.
"There is no startling new product out there to make people stand up and take notice," said industry analyst Terence McEvoy of Swergold.
In the meantime, the industry is counting on VCRs, camcorders and CD players with sophisticated new features to attract customers. One bright spot is pricing, which has stablized after years of steady declines. This is a result of the strong yen, which has prevented many Japanese vendors from raising prices.
According to the Electronics Industry Association, the trade group sponsoring the show, sales inched up to an estimated $42 billion in 1988 from $41 billion the year earlier.
Last summer, the group tentatively estimated 1989 growth at 5.6 percent. It will issue a revised forecast on Saturday, and many in the industry believe it will be revised downward.
"We expect growth to be flat to slightly up," said Ann Collier, manager of financial relations for Circuit City Stores Inc., a 122-store chain based in Richmond, Va.
With demand on the wane, Circuit City is relying on geographic and market share expansion to keep profits rising, Collier said. The chain keeps costs low and has automated much of its distribution operations in order to squeeze out as much profit as possible while promising to offer the lowest prices in town.
The industry has pinned its hopes for a recovery on high-definition television (HDTV), which would provide near movie-quality video on a television set costing more than $1,000. But a squabble over technical standards could keep HDTV off retailers' shelves until 1993.
Another prospect is a CD player that can also record and erase. But the technology has not been perfected and it may be some time before the systems reach consumers.
Ironically, one product that could rekindle sales, the digital audio tape (DAT) player, has been kept from the United States because of opposition from the recording industry. It is worried that DAT players will be used to make copies of CDs, cutting into CD sales.
"DAT has been kept off the shelves to the point where I'm not even sure you could generate any consumer interest at this point," said Tom Jacoby, vice president of marketing for Washington-based Harman International Co.