Home Audio/Video A Store Visit With DataVision CEO Jimmy Garson

A Store Visit With DataVision CEO Jimmy Garson

DataVision inside view
Inside DataVision's flagship store on 38th St in Manhattan.

What’s the history of DataVision? 

I’ve been in the consumer electronics and PC businesses for a long time. Before DataVision, I ran a company called United Computer. We were one of the first Apple dealers and then launched the Next computer before Steve Jobs went back to Apple. Then, in 1990, I started DataVision, primarily as a mail-order catalog business, back when everything was thriving in the PC and consumer electronics businesses. For the first two years, before we opened our first retail store, we were catalog-based. We’re one of the first actual computer mail-order businesses, for both consumers and B2B. Then, in 1993, we opened our first flagship store on Fifth Avenue and 39th St. We advertised in Computer Shopper and other magazines, and customers would just call an 800 number to order what they needed.  

We’ve always been a major part of the retail landscape in New York, but since we’ve been online since the start of the Web, a big part of the focus of our business is online sales. We’re authorized to sell all the major brands — Apple, Samsung, Sonos, to name a few — online. We also have a very strong B2B business, which has been our focus for the past five years. And then, over the past three years, we’ve built up a strong custom install business, which handles everything from small and medium businesses, to private homes. We do a lot of networking for the businesses, and our sweet spot is $3 million to $25 million homes. We also have a complete service center to service all the major PC brands. So we’re a jack of all trades. 

How many stores do you have now? 

Right now, we have one store located on 38th St. in Manhattan. Our original store was a 35,000-square-foot showcase on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th St. It was three floors. It was like the Henri Bendel of computers. If you wanted an $8,000 IBM ThinkPad, we had it in stock. If you came in and said, ‘I want this, and I want Adobe Premiere and this specific configuration,’ we did it on the spot for you.  

We moved out of our Fifth Avenue store about six years ago. Then we were on 23rd St. between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, then we moved back up to 38th St. because we ended up capturing more square footage for a big difference in terms of reduced rent. We were about to do a grand opening when corona hit, but now we’re looking to expand and take more space, now that rents are so cheap. We’re going to use the extra space to do local fulfillment, so we can stock more products in the city and do same-day fulfillment — an hour or two — anywhere in the city.  

DataVision CEO Jimmy Garson

We’ve mostly always been online, and the one flagship store, though we did expand many years ago into Long Island, and we were looking to expand further than that, but we always knew that brick-and-mortar retail wasn’t the avenue to go. We’ve always really focused our business on B2B, custom install, and online sales. I could open 10 stores tomorrow, right? But I’m doing more online than most companies with 150 stores, so why do I need a storefront? I think not opening stores is one of the greatest things we ever did. We’re still in business after 31 years.  

In what ways is DataVision different from the competition? 

We’ve always been very different in the New York landscape, and we’re still the only true computer store in the city. B&H is more like a pro video store that sells computers, for example, but the smart home means that everything has become so much more about computing and networking. A lot of times, these audio-video guys don’t know what they’re doing when they’re installing networks. Either they’re not configuring it the right way or they don’t have access to the right product — there are a lot of things that can go wrong with it. Right now, the network is super important. Internet providers all over the country are overwhelmed. You may be paying for 400Mbps bandwidth but you’re only getting 30. You want to make sure you have the right equipment.  

We’ve always been very service-oriented. From a service standpoint, our quick turnaround is a big differentiator — we provide end-to-end solutions, everything from AV to networking to iPad rollouts to your employees. We work with Douglas Elliman, one of the largest real estate companies in the country. We work on its internal systems, but we also have a relationship with the 3,500 brokers it has. If they need service, we’ll send them a label and they’ll ship the product right back to us. How we can turn things around really differentiates us from the competition. 

Also, I’d say [what’s also unique is] our access to A1 brands — we’re on par with Best Buy as far as the brands you can purchase, but we often have a bigger selection on-site, and, most important of all, we have items in stock. It spread itself so thin. Say you want to get a specific iPad. The odds are that if you walk into a Best Buy, it won’t have it, but if you go to my website, we’ll have it in stock. We try to make sure that everything that’s hard to get is in stock. That’s the key to the business right now. You have to have what people want. 

What is DataVision’s e-commerce or omnichannel approach? 

Right now, we’re obviously trying to sell everything everywhere, but the key is having the product. It’s the biggest game-changer, especially now, due to the chip shortages. There are shortages of audio, TVs, Apple products, gaming, monitors. I’ve been using my relationships to get as much merchandise as possible because the truth is, if you’ve got it, you’re gonna sell it. In addition to more local fulfillment, we have a warehouse in Philadelphia and another warehouse in California. 

It’s also just about immediate demand, making omnichannel really deliver; it shouldn’t matter that you can’t go into the store.  

Name three things that the management team at DataVision has implemented that you attribute to the success of the store. 

Right now, people are afraid to come into any store, and I’d say the last thing a customer wants to do is sit in a store and wait for answers. So we make sure our sales team is very educated. Most of my salespeople have been with me for anywhere from 10 to 25 years. These are seasoned people; this is their livelihood; they know the product — and they know how to deal with a customer. Whereas at most department stores, the salespeople are part-time; it’s not a career to them. They’re clerks, not salespeople. If you want a clerk, you go to Whole Foods and ask, “Where are the canned tomatoes?” And then turnaround time is a big thing for us, along with having items in stock. 

Andy Grove, the late, former CEO of Intel, once gave me the best advice. He said always invest in your company in the worst of times. And so every time there’s been a downturn, we have invested so that we are prepared for the upturn. Real estate prices have gone down over the past year, for example, so we’ve been able to expand our retail space to use for local fulfillment at a significantly reduced rent. 

Did the pandemic affect how you do business in any way? 

Not really, because we were already doing business the way we do it now. That said, the demand is just so much higher online than it was two years ago. It’s the same reason why Amazon and Walmart grew their businesses. I think for retail and shopping habits, what would have been five years from now is now. People that are buying online are not going to go back and buy in-store. Shopping habits have changed for good. 

What are your goals this year? 

Well, obviously, to do more business, make more money, drive more traffic. Online’s going to do what online’s going to do, so again, we are focusing on securing as much product as possible. And also on B2B. From a customer standpoint, we think there’s going to be a huge uptake in back-to-office sales. Come September, you’re going to see people’s offices spending money, upgrading the networks, and upgrading security. They’re going to be either downsizing or upsizing — either taking less space with a remote workforce or taking advantage of office space at 50 cents on the dollar.  

Do you have any plans to expand in other ways or sell other categories? 

Not really. Besides the extra retail space for local fulfillment centers, we’re looking to open more distribution centers around the country to meet demand quickly. 

Is there anything in the building of your business that did not go the way that you expected, and that you learned from? 

Sometimes I wonder if I should have expanded more in terms of retail stores. We had plans to open 12 stores at one point. Whether I ultimately didn’t do it because I was concerned about my quality of life or because I wouldn’t have control doesn’t matter.  Ultimately, I did the right thing in not expanding. All these other companies that expanded over the years — CompUSA, CircuitCity, Fry’s — never really had staying power. Either they expanded too quickly or made bad decisions. It’s hard to manage one store, much less 50. You have to be able to sleep at night. I really think the best thing we ever did was just focus on our core base, which is our online sales and service businesses. 

Do you have a favorite section of the store? 

I’d say the Apple department in the 38th St. store. Everything is very hands-on. You’re able to come in, see, and pick up and feel products. At a lot of department stores, you can’t lift an iPad off the cabinet, and if you can’t turn it around, you can’t get a good sense of a product.  

Apple does a great job with product displays as well, but the difference with us is the service that we can offer. You don’t have to make an appointment with us or wait an hour to see someone at the Genius Bar. And you can buy other products and accessories along with that iPad. You can get a Sony Alpha camera and a big choice in SSD drives, for example.