GULFPORT — Charlie Wickson's voice was weary and a bit amused.
After 20 years in the TV repair business, he's had these kinds of telephone conversations before. But at a time when television sets have become as disposable as last year's summer fashions and every customer counts, it's gotten tougher than ever to do the right thing.
"How old is it?"
"It doesn't work at all now, right?"
"I think you should replace it. You're not going to fix that."
Hanging up the receiver, Wickson knew what some of his competitors might have done. They might have had the caller bring in the TV, charged a $40 or $50 "bench fee" to look inside, and then delivered the bad news: Spraying a corrosive pesticide into a television will kill the electronics just as sure as it kills cockroaches.
But that's not how Wickson likes to do business. Even though he's hanging on to his shop by a thin fingernail, he'd rather scrape around for an honest dollar than make two more ripping someone off.
"I was born in the wrong generation," says Wickson, a wry 71-year-old, whose lined face betrays long-ago bouts with colon cancer and heart bypass surgery. "The kids in this business, they would call me an idiot, I guess. Nowadays, it's all a racket."
Wickson is part of a dying breed, and he knows it. Years ago, his Gulfport TV shop was a bustling center of activity. Back then, television sets were like expensive furniture — built sturdy and expected to last many years.
But these days, the TV world has turned upside down. The drive for bigger, cheaper sets has led companies to make units with parts that are tougher to replace, while the spread of extended warranties has diverted all the business to shops that handle those contracts, which Wickson doesn't take.
Built in China, Korea, Singapore and elsewhere, TV sets often don't last more than a few years without a major failure. Wickson tells customers unequivocally that their fancy flat screens will last two years, max.
You'd think a tanking economy would bring customers back to repair shops in droves. But Wickson found it just means more people bring in sets for repair and never pick them up again. "They think they'll have the money in 30 days," he notes. "I guess you gotta have some positive view."
Long hours can pass without a single customer stopping into his store, set in a tiny corner of the Gulfport Square strip mall. He handles about five sets a week — half his volume two years ago — and he's stuck feeling like the world has turned its back on neighborhood fix-it men like himself, just when the global recession might make them most valuable.
"You're not going to have any service businesses left," said Wickson, who has a second mortgage on his home to keep going. "In America, we don't make anything anymore . . . which means we're at the mercy of these companies in China and overseas."
Why fix when you can buy new?
This isn't how Wickson expected to spend his golden years.
Back in 1995, when he bought Gulfport TV from its original owner, the store sat at the end of Gulfport Square and served a steady stream of customers — snowbirds who needed TVs for the winter, thrifty types hoping to save a few bucks with repairs, hotel chains needing to make sure every room had a working unit.
But his current store, set back a bit more from Gulfport Boulevard inside the same threadbare strip mall, gets less attention, especially since the Winn-Dixie across the street closed last year. An image of the forlorn Maytag repairman comes to mind, as Wickson sits before a handful of TV sets perched on worn shelves behind a battered wood desk.
"Five or six years ago, you'd get 10 calls a day; now, you're lucky to get 10 calls a week," said fellow repairman Paul Arthur, 50, who shares the space at Gulfport TV with Wickson and handles home visits. "People don't realize the older sets last longer. The new sets seem built to break down quicker — picture tubes that used to last 25 years last four or five years now. By design, they're making them less repairable and less durable."
Ellis Meiggs feels the same pain. He's run A&M TV out of a storefront on Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park for 33 years, working inside a space crammed floor-to-ceiling with TV sets, computer monitors, radios, VCRs and every other electronic media device you might imagine.
On one afternoon, Judge Judy stares imperiously from four sets, arranged around the narrow pathway through the middle of the store. It looks like a TV graveyard, with some bulky carcasses pried open, their electronic innards on display. The math, he says, is simple: If replacement parts and labor pile up a $500 price tag to fix a $900 TV set, many consumers conclude it makes more sense to junk the set and buy a new one — especially if the new one has cool new technology.
"Manufacturers don't want to be in the repair business; they want to sell new sets," said Meiggs. "If I had any sense, I would have closed up shop 10 years ago."
But technology analyst Stephen Baker says there's mostly one person to blame for the vanishing TV repair shop: the consumer.
TV buyers don't want sets that last 10 years anymore, because the changing technology makes them obsolete much quicker, said Baker, vice president of industry analysis for the NPD Group market research company. And the manufacturing process required to make big television sets more affordable also means more parts are fused and costlier to repair.
"The bottom line: Consumers tell manufacturers that they mostly want a low-cost product," said Baker, noting that television sales are increasing, even in today's challenging economic times. "You can't have every single piece be replaceable and affordable."
Warranties to the rescue
At Mark Hanson's St. Petersburg store, Advanced Technological Services, there's little talk of expensive parts or diminishing walk-ins. Things are just too busy.
A staff of 20 keeps his repair business going, with eight trucks for in-home calls. The big difference here: extended warranties.
The bulk of ATS's work these days involves customers with extended warranties, which often either cover the cost of a repair or cut the consumer a check for the purchase price of the TV.
Many stores shy away from this kind of work, Hanson said, because the companies don't pay as much as you might earn from a walk-in customer. Whereas Wickson might get a handful of repairs in a day, Hanson's ATS might take in 40 items, making up for the lower profit with volume.
Hanson describes the TV repair process these days like a high roller sidling up to a craps table in Las Vegas. Buy a warranty, and you're gambling that something will break down in time to justify the cost; skip the warranty, and you'll pay a $50 bench fee just to find out if the problem is cheap enough to warrant a repair.
"If you asked me 10 years ago about extended warranties, I would have said, 'Don't bother,' " said Hanson, who didn't even repair his own 52-inch TV when it had problems last year; he called the warranty company. "Now, I wouldn't buy a piece of electronic equipment without one."
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, the Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.