CB sales regain a steady footing

After a few years of slower demand, there are a few more "breaker breakers" floating across the airwaves these days.The nationwide excitement about citizens band radio (CB) has calmed. After a boom year in 1976, sales plunged in 1977 and kept going down in the next two years. But now sales are going up moderately, several distributors reported, and sales expectations are rising too.

Richard Graham, a distributor in Reading, Mass., says that prices that dipped in recent years have at last begun to stabilize. Indeed, they are expected to rise as demand slowly increases.

The industry has had excess inventory of CBs. Now, however, industry production is now "in tune with the public demand," says Robert Bumpers, a distributor some 10 miles south in Cambridge.

The glorious days of the sales boom are over, says Mr. Bumpers, but now the CB radio business has become a "respectable business." People are not buying the CBs because of a fad but because of an awareness of their safety value. Shoppers have become more careful, looking closely at both price and quality. Mr. Bumpers observes that the CB business is now on the same current as the car stereo business -- "steady and growing."

There were several reasons behind the weakened interest in CB radios of the last few years.

Some CBers say they turned off their radios because of the indecipherable garble that swamped the principal channels.

CB distributors are more likely to point to legislation as the pin that burst their ballooning industry. For instance, one distributor, Graham Radio Inc., complains of the Federal Communications Commission ruling in 1976 which forced manufacturers into producing 40-channel sets. With little advance warning, the industry was told that their stocks of 23-channel radios, regarded as technically deficient, could not be sold after Jan. 1 of the following year.

Mr. Bumpers notes that the FCC surprise did resolve one question in the minds of dealers: When would the boom in CB sales come to an end? The FCC ruling quickly showed them. Sales plummeted as customers awaited the newer, better 40 -channel sets.

To supply the seemingly unsatiable market for the CB, everyone from the manufacturer to the retailer had stocked large numbers of 23-channel CBs, which they had less than a year to sell.

Helping to slow sales were some discouraging words from the press. Misleading reports, says Mr. Graham, stated that 23-channel sets would be illegal after Jan. 1.

As the January deadline approached, prices for 23-channel radios crumbled. In October, according to one retailer, they sold for 40 to 50 percent less than cost. The low prices were an attempt to unplug the massive backlog.

The 40-channel sets received a cool public response. Distributor Richard Graham reasons that the public had become accustomed to the low price and found the new 40-channel prices too high. Many businesses which had been prospering in a gale of sales found themselves in a costly calm. Mr. Bumpers noted that many marginal manufacturers didn't survive.

Why did the FCC change the channels?

John Johnston, an official with the Federal Communications Commission, said the switch stemmed from the tremendous growth of licensees; 160 percent in 1975 alone. The FCC realized that the 15 million people using the CB radio needed more room.

Mr. Johnston also noted the inferior design of the 23-channel set prompted the change. CB messages were spilling over into other radio waves, disturbing television and commercial radio reception. The FCC enforced higher quality standards on the new 40-channel sets. The 23-channel CB was never barred specifically from being sold but that its poor quality made it so effectively.

Mark Rosenkerk, an official with the Electronic Industries Association, speaks of both bad news and good news for the industry. The bad news is that the industry has shrunk. The good news is that CBers have become a serious group. Most of the meaningless chit-chat that jumbled the airwaves has faded out.

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