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Crutchfield Celebrates 50 Years Of Helping Home Audio and Car Stereo Buyers 

From Charlottlesville, Virginia in 1974, learn how Bill Crutchfield grew a tiny car stereo mail order business into a national electronics retailer.

Crutchfield 50th Anniversary

The online consumer electronics retailer, Crutchfield turned 50 this week. That’s a remarkable achievement considering the changing tides of technology and the fact that nearly all large electronics retailers of their era went bankrupt. 

For most people reading this, it’s not easy to imagine what the world was like in 1974. Barbara Streisand had the #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, “The Way We Were.” Vinyl was the predominant music format and 8-track tapes were outselling cassettes. The Chevy Impala was America’s most popular car. Visa had not yet been established, and only a small percentage of Americans used credit cards.

First Crutchfield Catalog Cover in 1974
First Crutchfield catalog for Fall 1974. Cover page and first page of under-dash stereos for sale shown. View full catalog here.

How Crutchfield Started

William G. Crutchfield, Jr. (Bill Crutchfield) started Crutchfield in March 1974 with only $1,000 and a $25,000 line of credit from his mother’s basement. Legend has it, the Bank President approved his loan based almost entirely on his character. The original idea was simply to sell car stereos through a mail order catalog, but were such products even in demand at the time?

The car audio revolution was just beginning and the idea one could achieve high fidelity sound in their automobile was not widely accepted. The initial after-market car stereo market catered to tinkerers and do-it-yourselfers, like Bill. 

The idea came to him while he was restoring his classic Porsche 356. Although Bill was aware of car audio products from hi-fi magazines, he discovered nobody was selling them where he lived.

Bill Crutchfield with his Porsche 356 (photo from 2019)
Bill Crutchfield poses with his Porsche 356 (in 2019), the same one that sparked his businesses idea. It remains on display at the Crutchfield Store in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Bill grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia – a small town in the middle of the state with a population hovering around 40,000. It was far removed from the hi-fi industry and his access to equipment was limited. 

Certainly Bill was not the only one seeking high fidelity car audio equipment. Mail order had to be the answer. Maybe not. 

First year sales only totaled $2,324, which didn’t come close to covering printing and mailing costs of almost 10,000 catalogs. Bill had burned through $20,000 and was nearly out of business.

With money running out, and Bill struggling to generate enough revenue, he did the only logical thing he could. He reached out to his small customer base and potential customers and started asking them questions. 

Respondents were intimidated by car audio products and were unsure about buying self-install products. But ultimately they said they needed more information about how to buy and install car audio gear. 

With this “eureka” moment, Bill transitioned his next catalog into a magalog, which combined informational magazine content with more detailed descriptions about each product. He even took his own product photos to create better context for his customers.  

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Crutchfield Catalog Spring/Summer 1975
Crutchfield Catalog (the first magalog) for Spring/Summer 1975. View full issue here.

This single pivot saved the company. The Spring/Summer 1975 issue included an editorial by Bill, “How I Evaluate & Install Quality Car Stereos.” He explained the technology advancements of the time, which included 8-Track versus Cassette versus Quadraphonic.

Not only did sales rebound, but Bill then had a proven pathway to build from. 

Successive issues continued to educate, and the fledgling company eventually was able to turn a profit. 

To this day, Crutchfield has not lost sight of the fact that education is the single most important service that they provide their customers; and that has evolved into video tutorials from their award-winning customer service department. 

Perhaps no other company has helped car stereo buyers more over the years than Crutchfield. 

Crutchfield Catalog 1996 Offered Free Custom Kits and Installation Instructions
With the introduction of vehicle-specific installation instructions, Crutchfield ensures their customers have the very best information and products to integrate stereos and speakers into their vehicle. From 1996 Catalog.

Key Tenets of Success

Legendary Customer Service: As the mail order business grew, exemplary customer service over the phone became a key point of differentiation. From inception, Bill treated customers with dignity and respect. That ethos has extended to the rest of the company under Bill’s leadership with a very simple reminder, “We don’t need a 500-page manual on how to behave. Just treat people the way you want to be treated.”

Research & Training: Investments in research and training have proven fruitful. Employees must complete extensive classroom and on-the-job training before they can speak to a potential customer. In many cases they get to live with a product, so they’ll know exactly what they’re talking about. 

Free Support: What’s quite hard to believe is that Crutchfield offers free lifetime tech support with every purchase. That could include anything from complex wiring instructions to how to adjust the volume. 

Crutchfield Website Launch in 1995
Crutchfield Website Launch in 1995

Shifting Online

1995 marked another turning point for the company. The Internet was on the precipice of becoming the leading source of news and consumer product information and Crutchfield did not miss this opportunity.  

The website Crutchfield.com launched that year, just a month after Amazon.com. 

Crutchfield.com became the first authorized online retailer of consumer electronics. At the time, Amazon was only selling books, and the large electronics retailers of the day totally whiffed at their chance. Circuit City, Radio Shack, Sears, and Best Buy would not launch e-commerce stores for another 4 to 5 years. Even Amazon didn’t start selling electronics until 2003.

Interesting fact. The first product Crutchfield sold online was Sony’s DirecTV satellite receiver and antenna. 

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Crutchfield 50th Anniversary Happy Customers
Crutchfield has served over 14.7 millions customers.

Why Buy From Crutchfield?

Although Crutchfield isn’t known for being a heavy discounter, you might be surprised to learn that their pricing is often the same as Amazon. In addition, you may even spot products not available online anywhere else. For example, the award-winning Q Acoustics 5000 Series, were only available from Crutchfield when they first launched last year. By adding yourself to their mailing list, you find out about forthcoming product launches even before some of the consumer A/V magazines that you read. 

The value of Crutchfield’s customer service should not be underestimated. If you ever have a question – and don’t kid yourself, you definitely will – hundreds of highly trained staff members are ready to help you.

Crutchfield has served millions of happy customers; in fact over 14.7 million in its history and over 1 million last year alone. For 23 years in a row, they’ve also been awarded Bizrate Insight’s “Circle of Excellence” Platinum Award for performance and customer service.

Free shipping has become table stakes for online retailers, and Crutchfield is no exception. They offer free shipping on all orders over $35 to the U.S. and Canada. Standard delivery is in 2 business days or less across the continental U.S.

Crutchfield Catalog page in 1981 - We're not just car stereo anymore...
In 1981, Crutchfield’s business expands beyond car audio to include home A/V, home computing, and TVs.

Achievements

  • Crutchfield’s all-time sales amount to over $8.1 billion.
  • Crutchfield has mailed over 721 million catalogs in 50 years.
  • In 2023, total sales were $436,056,236 with 1,063,527 orders shipped
  • Crutchfield has researched a total of 18,798 vehicles and 84,121 products… and counting
  • Crutchfield currently employs over 650 people – all located in Virginia.
  • The company has had over 3,000 employees across 50 years, and in that time, zero layoffs.
Crutchfield Homepage on  MacBook Lifestyle on March 5, 2024
Crutchfield Homepage on March 5, 2024.

Final Thoughts

Not only has Crutchfield survived 50 years, but the company is still finding ways to exceed customer expectations. Their product line has expanded over the years and now includes home audio, smart home, TVs, headphones, pro audio and more. In conjunction, their website offers tons of recommendations, buying tips and advice just like they first did 50 years ago. And you can still get their catalog in the mail too. 

Quite surprisingly, Bill Crutchfield has remained at the helm over the entire time. He’s proven the compounding value of treating both customers and employees exactly like you’d want to be treated. 

Happy Golden Anniversary Crutchfield. Here’s to another 50.


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