Thoughts on the Passing of a Scoundrel: Crazy Eddie Antar (1947-2016)
Blog: The industry can blame New York retailer Crazy Eddie Antar for perfecting the race to the bottom that typifies consumer electronics today.
Have you ever wondered why that certain prospect—the one driving the brand new, never-even-seen-a-mud-puddle GMC Yukon Denali with the wife’s Lexus in the garage and Sub-Zero kitchen appliances in the house—squeezed every drop of blood out of your proposal?
Blame Crazy Eddie Antar.
Antar, who died earlier this month, did not invent disruptive, destructive race-to-zero retail pricing in consumer electronics but he pretty much perfected it. Some would say he made it an art form. No one in the business would dispute that he was the most famous retailer this industry has ever seen. All that and a bag of chips… a very big bag of chips.
There are scores of retailers in the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) Hall of Fame, none of whom who reached his name recognition and very few who ever generated his sales volume. That said, let me be the first to assure you that, “accomplishments” notwithstanding, Eddie Antar will never be elected to the CTA or any other Hall of Fame.
For millions of New Yorkers driven to Eddie’s stores by the constant cacophony of his TV and radio ads, Eddie’s prices were indeed “in-saaaaane” and they bought. For the few who walked away, Eddie’s salespeople would follow them out the door to their car screaming “What’s it gonna take?”
I was convinced this practice was just hyperbole and urban legend until I saw it first hand at the grand opening of the Eddie’s Norwalk, Conn., store.
Crazy Eddie became an international phenomenon. New York DJ Jerry Carroll, who voiced and acted in the ad spots, became a superstar. He was parodied by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live and spawned a recurring character on Futurama. As for Eddie and his family, as recently as a year ago Danny DeVito was allegedly still in negotiations with the whole Antar clan, as well as attorneys still trying to find money for swindled stockholders, to produce and direct a major feature film. There are a ton of roadblocks.
Shrewd Buyer with Ubiquitous German Shepherds
In the real world Eddie was an incredibly shrewd buyer. According to legend he would often conduct business while lifting weights. It was no legend that his German shepherds came to the Brooklyn office with him every day.
He wanted his discounts, everyone else’s discounts and discounts that didn’t exist. Once he was satisfied, Eddie would offer a round of drinks he’d mix from a bar in the office. The alcohol also flowed after every commercial taping. There was a table for 12 at Brooklyn’s world-famous Peter Luger Steak House that remained empty, regardless of how busy the joint became, waiting for Eddie and his entourage whenever they just decided to show up for some cow.
The whole operation was quite the cast of characters — many brothers, cousins, in-laws and neighborhood friends. Most all were close-knit Syrian Jews.
One of them was David Pardo, a childhood friend of Eddie’s. Pardo was an accountant and started helping with the books for the company all the while listening and watching Eddie interact with vendors from an adjoining office. That Pardo was handicapped and wheelchair-bound from childhood polio had no effect on his becoming one of the most notorious buyers this industry had ever seen. Along the way he developed a near pathological taste for Cristal, Dom and lovely young female companions who were seemingly always at his side, even during buying meetings with vendors at CES. (I was there.)
The vendors — a goodly number of whom you’re still doing business with this very moment — lined up and were all too happy to indulge him.
Such was consumer electronics in the 1980s.
43 Stores, $350M in Sales
Despite building a retail empire that reached 43 stores doing $350 million in annual sales, Eddie couldn’t get authorized for every hot product line. Even after going public and reaching a valuation of $600 million, some retailers and distributors had better spot deals than Eddie’s direct vendors or simply wanted to unload some merchandise at a small loss to generate some much needed cash.
Full disclosure, I bought and sold Crazy Eddie stock a lot in the 1980s relying on tips and rumors right from Brooklyn. I made a small fortune that I have long since flittered away. Don’t bother dropping a dime on me—the statute of limitations was just 5 years.
Virtually every night of Crazy Eddie’s existence a fleet of anonymous rented vans and box trucks would leave Brooklyn for warehouse docks up and down Interstate 95 and across I-80. From Pittsburgh to Boston to Baltimore to the borough across the bridge, thousands of boxes were unloaded and hundreds of thousands in cash changed hands. No paperwork necessary. A hug and handshake sealed the deal. I saw this happen live and in person a bunch of times.
Even after the Crazy Eddie went public and there were stockholders to answer to, Eddie was still obsessed with the top line. Now that’s a fatal flaw for many an (usually) unsuccessful retailer. But Eddie was no ordinary CEO. The reason he was unfazed by the bottom line is that there was no bottom line. At least none for the stockholders or even most of his kin.
In a scheme that undoubtedly made fellow New Yorker Bernie Madoff smile, millions of dollars went direct from store cash registers to secret Israeli bank accounts in Eddie’s name while reported to shareholders as profit. When the SEC ultimately came calling to talk, Eddie followed the money to Israel living there for nearly 3 years on a phony passport.
He was extradited, charged, pleaded guilty and started wearing his new jumpsuits in 1997. Eddie didn’t spend as much time as he should have in prison. That said, every other family member flipped on him and none spent as much as a moment behind bars.
A number of attempts to revive the company by both family members and outsiders all failed miserably and quickly. The magic was gone.
Most of the magic was captured by Nobody Beats the Wiz, a Manhattan-based company run by the Jamel brothers. The chain eclipsed Eddie with 94 stores and $1.4 billion in sales at its peak. But that was after the Jamels declared bankruptcy and the company was purchased by Cablevision.
It’s difficult to say “rest in peace” to a guy who set out to swindle everyone in his path for sheer greed. Some, especially those he screwed, might utter “burn in hell.”
What you say is between you and Eddie.
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Chuck Schneider is a freelance writer with a long history in consumer electronics. He started and restarted his award-winning manufacturer’s representative firm - Value Added Marketing - and was also a vice president and general merchandise manager for a multi-regional CE chain, as well as a buyer for Lechmere's (a division of Target). Today, he is a freelance writer. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Chuck at firstname.lastname@example.org
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