Incredible Universe megastore in Columbia weighed by Tandy Electronics giant could provide 400 jobs


In a move that may ratchet up the already intense consumer electronics war among retailers, the Rouse Co. is negotiating with Tandy Corp. to develop a consumer electronics megastore in Columbia, a project that would create up to 400 jobs.

Tandy's Incredible Universe store would become the third anchor of a planned $45 million discount-oriented shopping hub, joining Target Stores Inc. and Dick's Clothing & Sporting Goods, industry sources with knowledge of the project said. Rouse intends to begin initial construction work on the 70-acre project, set to open in early 1997, as soon as next week.

If the talks reach fruition, Incredible Universe likely would build a 185,000-square-foot store in the planned Rouse center, a more than 4-acre electronics emporium with 85,000 brand name products.

The store would be roughly equivalent in size to the 18-story Munsey Building downtown at 7 N. Calvert St., and four times larger than a typical Best Buy store.

"It has everything, and it's enjoyable to go through," Paul Blaustein, a Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. vice president and analyst who tracks Tandy, said of Incredible Universe. "It's so different from any other retail experience. The only thing that even remotely compares is the FAO Schwarz toy store."

What makes Incredible Universe different -- beyond its mammoth size -- is its selection. Most Universe stores, for instance, offer 342 models of televisions, 72 models of videocassette recorders, 48 computer models, 580 appliance models and cameras, stereos, video games, compact discs and movies galore.

Incredible Universe also differentiates itself by melding retailing with entertainment, following a trend toward more "interactive" shopping, which encourages customers to experiment with merchandise.

Most of the company's stores also contain an in-house McDonald's restaurant, four multimedia rooms, disc jockey and a karaoke room where customers can make their own recordings.

Neither Rouse nor Tandy would comment on the proposed Columbia store, although a Tandy spokeswoman said the $4.9 billion retailer is considering all major markets.

One in Dale City, Va.

Tandy currently operates 16 Incredible Universe stores, with the closest outlet adjacent to the Potomac Mills Mall in Dale City, Va. The 185,000-square-foot store there opened two weeks ago.

Because of its size, the Columbia store likely would be the only Baltimore-area location for Incredible Universe, a division of the Fort Worth, Texas-based Tandy that had $382 million in sales last year. Tandy, which also owns Radio Shack and Computer City, says the stores draw 700,000 customers a year, some from as far as 100 miles away.

"I think they would do well in Columbia because of its strategic location," said M. John Meyer, a retail specialist with KLNB Inc., a commercial real estate brokerage. "And people will travel to stores if they have a unique concept."

Any Baltimore-area location would hurt competitors Best Buy Co. Inc. and Circuit City Stores Inc., which have battled to dominate the local consumer electronics market.

$60 million in sales

Incredible Universe stores typically generate $60 million in sales in their first year, while sales in stores open more than three years have reached $100 million annually, according to Tandy data.

"People with a Best Buy or a Circuit City close to them will probably go to Incredible Universe, but the effect of [Incredible Universe's] competition becomes less farther away," Mr. Blaustein said.

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