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Vodak TV closing after 63 years

January 13, 2017 GMT

With market forces working against his electronics store and Radio Shack suffering corporate woes, Kevin Vodak is pulling the plug on a downtown Baraboo institution.

Vodak TV Sales and Service is closing Saturday after nearly 63 years in business.

Its second-generation owner said distributors were discontinuing their lines of televisions or going out of business, with online shopping and big-box retailers altering the landscape. Plus, Radio Shack declared bankruptcy in 2015 after years of losses, making franchisees like Vodak nervous about the future.

“The industry has changed,” Vodak said.

He estimated that more than a quarter of Radio Shack’s 1,000 franchise stores have closed. Closer to 75 percent of the 4,000 corporate stores closed after the bankruptcy filing.

“A lot of the stuff we still sold, they had eliminated,” Vodak said.

Sales is only part of the equation. Service also has taken a hit, as electronics are designed to become quickly obsolete and disposable. Instead of customers walking into a store and asking about warranties and service, they buy something cheap online and replace it once it stops working. Delivery and installation no longer requires heavy trucks and trained technicians.

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“The consumer wants an inexpensive electronic product,” Vodak said. “There’s not a lot of future in repairing electronics.”

Family history

Much has changed since his parents, Harley and Nancy Vodak, joined forces with his uncle and aunt, Joe and Barb Vodak, to start the business in 1954. They started out selling Kelvinator appliances and RCA and Zenith TVs at night in space adjacent to the family’s lumber yard in North Freedom.

“They started it as more of a hobby,” Kevin Vodak said. “The business just kind of progressed.”

TVs were new to the marketplace, but quickly became a household necessity. The business outgrew its original location and in 1960 moved to Baraboo, to a former bicycle shop at the corner of Oak and Second streets. Fire claimed a neighboring grocery store in December 1961. The Vodaks bought that building, too, and moved their store there in 1963.

The store became a Radio Shack franchise in 1974. In the early 1980s the Vodaks bought the building to the north, the former home of the Baraboo News Republic, and moved the service department there. In 1990, Joe Vodak sold his interest in the business to his brother Harley, whose son Kevin then joined the team.

At its zenith in the late 1990s, Vodak TV had a satellite office in downtown Wisconsin Dells and employed 12 people full-time, plus part-timers. The Dells store closed after four years in business.

On Saturday, Vodak’s two remaining employees – Cheryl Burris and Gary Fuller – will end 50-year careers working at the store.

“Helping people, serving people, it’s been fun,” Burris said.

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Over the years, the store saw TVs add color, remote controls, closed captioning and stereo sound. The Vodaks sold satellite dishes during their heyday in the 1980s, later adding FAX machines, pagers and cell phones. “The technological changes have been unreal,” Vodak said.

Writing on the wall

Vodak has seen a change coming in the industry for some time. Distributors were going out of business, and when Radio Shack declared bankruptcy, he found himself scrambling to find suppliers.

A hedge fund bought the Radio Shack brand, and wireless carrier Sprint is keeping hundreds of Radio Shack stores open. But the damage to consumer confidence was irrevocable. “To them, Radio Shack is gone,” Vodak said.

Market forces have worked against the store, too. Even today, it offers to deliver new TVs, install them, dispose of the old ones and service the sets going forward. Longtime customers want that. Younger customers don’t. That makes it harder for a local retailer to establish a relationship.

“That’s becoming a smaller and smaller market,” Vodak said. “There’s less and less opportunity for somebody like us because they want to do it direct.”

The “going out of business” signs sat on Vodak’s desk for a while before he finally put them up. He had planned at first to close in the fall at first, then after Christmas, and finally decided the new year was time.

There’s no deadline, as a family trust established after his parents’ passing owns the building. After Saturday’s closing, Vodak will begin the very personal task of clearing out merchandise and packing away six decades of family memories.

“It’s like cleaning out your ma and pa’s house after they pass away,” he said.

The next step

Vodak and his staff aren’t sure what they’ll do next. The owner has worked in the store since age 5, when he’d accompany his dad on delivery runs and watch him return to the truck with a rifle or some other traded item in lieu of cash payment.

“I think we would like to take a couple weeks off and do things around the house we haven’t done in umpteen years,” Vodak said.

There is no ceremony planned for Saturday, no farewell fanfare. An enterprise that started as a lark and grew into an anchor of the business community will close with a sigh.

“It’s going to be hard to turn that key,” said Burris, who started working at the store out of high school.

“I keep waiting for the huge sense of relief that’s not there yet,” Vodak said. “It’s hard to do, it’s hard to take. That’s life.”