Back in the days before I had a wife, kids, mortgage, 401(k), PPO, lawn mower, colonoscopy results and other trappings of a severe case of adulthood, I owned a $700 VCR.
My ridiculously expensive VCR had four heads, fast rewind, slow-motion, could record TV shows onto VHS tapes in stereo sound and was successfully programmed so that the LED clock was not constantly flashing 12:00. I was living large.
Living much smaller these days, I get my kicks just watching shoppers check out the latest TV at Abt Electronics in Glenview. Strolling past the easel displaying the massive 85-inch screen of the Samsung S9 Ultra HD TV, people stop and open their eyes wide in amazement. Then they spot the $39,999 price tag and their jaws drop. A few even bring their hands up to their faces as if they are Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone." The reactions are almost as entertaining as what's playing on the screen.
That shock and awe is understandable, says Jon Abt, one of four Abt brothers who are co-presidents of one of the nation's largest appliance and electronics retailers.
"It's startling when you look at the quality of the picture," Abt says, noting the local store is one of only a few in the nation offering this revolutionary TV. "We do intend to sell them. We love introducing new products. That's part of who we are … Our store's an experience. There's always something new. We like to keep it fresh."
But $40,000 for a TV? You can purchase a 2-bedroom home in my hometown of Goodland, Ind., for $38,000. Drivers can buy a new C-Class Mercedes-Benz for $35,000. Last year's tuition at Harvard was $37,576. Who spends 40 grand on a TV?
No one, as of my deadline, but customers will, Abt predicts.
With some improvements in the economy, the "premium shopper" is back, says Abt salesman Sean Hardesty, who notes people recently have been buying TVs in the $17,000 to $25,000 range.
"We've sold plenty of them," Abt says. "We've been surprised at how many we sold."
The buyers of high-end TVs often have a deep appreciation for movies, like to entertain and want to be on the cutting edge of technology "almost like a hobby," Hardesty says. Screens on the new 4K Ultra HD TVs feature four times the pixels found in those HD TVs that are the norm now.
"Remember the 'HD-ready' sets?" Abt says, recalling how people bought HD TVs before networks even offered decent HD programming. Now, all TVs (even the 19-inchers Abt sells for $98.03) are HD. Soon everyone will be streaming 4K movies, shows, video phone calls, social media and games onto these new 4K TVs, predicts Abt, who, at 45, is old enough to remember being wowed by innovations of an earlier generation.
"We had a black-and-white TV and a remote that was stuck to the TV with a cord," Abt recalls. Color screens with cordless remotes seemed "so Jetsons," admits Abt, referring to the 1960s' cartoon show in which the space-age Jetson family used many futuristic devices we now take for granted.
Buyers of a new "Smart TV" can use hand gestures and voice commands to change channels or control settings, Hardesty says. Kids can play games on this TV without having to resort to split-screen views, as the 3-D picture lets them see only their part of the action. The TV has Wi-Fi, a quad-core computer processor, a camera and even a killer sound system.
"Hopefully people keep innovating and there will always be something new," Abt says.
People like new. Some people crave the newest. And Americans have a long history of buying TVs far too expensive for most of us.
In 1949, this newspaper ran an advertisement for a "big-screen," black-and-white TV that boasted a "not 7, not 10, but big 12-inch picture." It cost a whopping $445 at a time when you could buy a really nice suburban home for less than 10 grand. Abt remembers when his store sold a 130-inch plasma TV for almost $100,000.
"I had a 32-inch Sony Trinitron and I thought that was massive," remembers Hardesty. He jokes that he doesn't have room in his condo for an 85-inch TV but notes that prices on 65-inch 4K TVs are at $7,000 now and will continue to drop.
I can't see me spending more than my car is worth to replace our perfectly acceptable flat-screen TV set that is small by today's standards. But if I did, I'd need help hooking it up to my old VCR.