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Repair or replace?

As prices for home electronics fall, repair shops are discovering that consumers will buy a new VCR or TV rather than pay to have a broken one fixed.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 1999

Today's tech quiz: A 31-inch TV cost $599 new about two years ago. The picture tube goes bad. To replace the tube will cost more than $1,000 -- just for the part. Replace the tube or toss the set and buy a new one?

For one of Leroy Carver's customers, the choice was simple -- repair. But it is a trick question.

"If the set had not been under warranty, no one in their right mind would have fixed it," said Carver, owner of Central Gulf Coast Electronics in New Port Richey.

More and more consumers face the replace-or-toss question when an electronic product needs a repair and is no longer covered by a warranty. And as prices for electronics plummet, more people choose to throw away devices rather than pay a repair bill that often matches or exceeds the purchase price.

That, in turn, is having a major effect on the electronics repair business, which is seeing more shops fold. The trend also worries some environmental groups, concerned about anything that increases the dumping of electronics into landfills.

Figures from the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (www.cemacity.org) show just how much cheaper gadgets are becoming: The average price of a videocassette recorder dropped from $218 in 1994 to a projected $128 this year; camcorders from $625 in 1994 to $465 this year; color TVs from $292 in 1994 to $273 this year.

Taking a longer view, compact disc players cost $350 in 1983 and are expected to average $112 this year. Texas Instrument's first hand-held calculator in 1972 cost $120; a model today with more features is $6.95. Even some computers cost less than $500.

At those prices, a substantial repair bill doesn't make sense.

"When you can buy a VCR for less than $100, just think of what it costs to have somebody with skills sit down and try to figure out what's wrong," said Conrad Persson, editor of Electronic Servicing and Technology magazine. "Thirty dollars is probably a minimum."

Repair shops are trying different approaches to stay in business.

Carver began imposing a $25 inspection fee on VCRs because so many people abandoned their machines at his store when they didn't want to pay the repair bill. The fee is applied toward the repair bill, which can range from $59 to $65 for checking belts and cleaning, with major work ranging from $75 to $100. A repair bill over $100? "That's death."

Carver estimated that maybe two dozen people have balked at the fee since it was imposed 18 months ago, and it may have scared off some customers who called for information before bringing in a device.

"It's a constant battle to try to entice the customer to look at the machine and at least try to repair it," Carver said. It also is difficult to get customers to consider that lower-priced new equipment may not have the quality or features of their old model. "They're looking at the bottom dollar."

In fact, part of the problem with the cheaper machines is that they break more easily, Carver said. "Everything is plastic in these things," Carver said. A child pushing in a tape the wrong way or too hard is enough to break a gear and make the machine a candidate for tossing.

To make up for the slim profits on repair work, Carver says he is trying to expand into installing satellite dishes and working on antenna systems for commercial customers. "We have to search for (business) wherever you can find it."

At Southern Photo Tech Service in St. Petersburg, owner Bruce Spooner doesn't charge a fee for estimates but does have a flat fee of $70 for VCR repairs, no matter what needs to be fixed, including labor. He hopes increased volume will translate into higher profits.

"It's getting tougher to make a profit on this business," Spooner said. "We make less money per hour than we were five years ago, so we have to be more efficient."

Aside from the shrinking gap between the cost of repairs and buying new, Spooner says fewer people choose repairs because the booming economy has improved their personal finances. "Good times are always tougher on repairs," said Spooner, whose shop specializes in photo equipment.

While VCRs are the most obvious candidates for tossing, Spooner says it is beginning to happen with camcorders, though the price difference between repair and replace is larger for those.

The result of throwaway electronics is clear: More repair shops are going out of business.

"We're seeing reductions almost daily," said Clyde Nabors, executive director of the National Electronics Service Dealers Association (www.nesda.com). "Smaller companies unable to compete, sole proprietors retiring and no one to take over the business."

One factor cited by Spooner, Carver and Nabors in shrinking profits for repair businesses is the high cost of parts. For a cheap VCR, a few parts can cost more than the unit sells for retail. "Sometimes it's cheaper to buy the product and take the part out of it," Nabors said.

Eventually, Nabors said, the industry will evolve into fewer but larger repair shops in urban areas, with rural shops keeping a mom and pop flavor.

Whatever the fate of the repair industry, the environmental consequences of filling up landfills with broken electronic equipment bothers some.

"The price of a cheap, new stereo sound system does not include the true environmental cost of abandoning a system that could easily be repaired," said Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Center for A New American Dream (www.newdream.org) in Takoma, Md., a not-for-profit group that advocates careful consumption to preserve resources and protect the environment.

The organization conducted polls that showed 93 percent of Americans think our lifestyle produces too much waste and 85 percent said we consume too many resources, Taylor said.

But, Taylor said, with so many repair shops disappearing and with cheap replacements available, people forget their reservations and discard repairable equipment.

Few states or communities are addressing the issue.

Raoul Clarke, environmental administrator with the hazardous waste management section of the state Department of Environmental Protection (www.dep.state.fl.us), doesn't think throwing away most electronics creates a substantial environmental hazard. While circuit boards and other parts can contain heavy metals and other potential pollutants, they are not in a form that is likely to cause problems. They do take up space in landfills, however.

Last year, Florida considered a rule to ban from landfills the cathode ray tubes that come from computers and TVs because of their lead content, a move that is on hold because of the transition from the Chiles to Bush administrations in Tallahassee. Such a restriction could be imposed under current law without going through a time-consuming rule process, Clarke said.

Adding a disposal fee to the purchase price likely would be opposed by the electronics industry, said Clarke, who is watching a proposal in the North Carolina legislature that would do just that.

So the economics still seem to add up to a growing mentality of disposable electronics.

"As long as the manufacturers continue to price (VCRs) like jelly beans," said Persson of the electronics magazine, "they're going to be thrown away."

-- Times news researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which includes information from Times wires.

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