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A PC pioneer pulls the plug
Friday, October 29, 2004
A PC pioneer pulls the plug
One of the first computer retailers, Advanced Computer Products in Santa Ana, surrenders to chains, Internet sales.
By JAN NORMAN
The Orange County Register
For a generation of computer fanatics, Advanced Computer Products in Santa Ana was heaven, a place where they could find thousands of computer components available nowhere else.
Heaven closed permanently this week.
ACP, known for its huge parking-lot sales, pioneered computer retailing but finally yielded to the reality that most computer sales have moved to mass merchants and the Internet.
"Retail hasn't been profitable for years," company founder Dave Freeman said Wednesday as a professional auctioneer fast-talked his way through sales of computer monitors, office chairs, laminating machines and everything not nailed down in the Edinger Avenue shop.
ACP follows many other computer specialty stores that thrived in the 1980s explosion in consumer interest in personal computers yet fell by the wayside as companies such as Dell began selling direct to consumers, online sales boomed, and mass-merchandise chains such as Fry's and Circuit City dominated brick-and-mortar retailing. Even computer manufacturers such as Gateway couldn't make retail stores work.
Freeman first realized the commercial potential of computers in the mid-1970s when he noticed the popularity of "Pong" video games while working for National Semiconductor in Orange County. He started selling game chips by mail order to hobbyists in the summer of 1976, and opened the retail store several months later with his brother, Tom.
"I had a vision that the new personal computers were going to be purchased from retail stores and everyone would have a personal computer in their home," Dave Freeman said. "Not many shared my vision."
ACP dabbled in various aspects of the fledgling computer industry. Freeman persuaded friend Gene Carter that he ought to take a sales job with a new company named Apple and soon ACP became one of the first Apple computer retailers.
An electrical engineer by training, Freeman started making upgraded memory chips for computers. He created a separate company to distribute computer components – a venture that will continue even though the retail store is closed.
After seeing firsthand the potential for computer shows at the first West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco and first Comdex in Las Vegas in 1977, Freeman started setting up tent sales in ACP's parking lot.
He brought in hundreds of vendors. The prices were killer cheap. The products were unusual, sometimes packaged in plastic sandwich bags, stapled shut and identified by typewritten labels. More than 10,000 shoppers – from techies determined to build their own computers to neighborhood gang members who turned their lives around by learning computer skills – filled each show.
One year, Freeman dressed up his sales crew as characters from the television show, "Mash." The next year, they were dressed as the dancing California Raisins. One year, the sale went for 72 hours straight.
"Housewives came in curlers at 3 o'clock in the morning," Freeman recalled.
However, the industry changed quickly. In 1986, Apple gave its retailers 10 days to stop all mail-order sales. ACP lost millions of dollars in the move and Freeman dropped the brand completely.
But he still uses a Mac as his personal computer.
ACP once filled the entire building but by the end had downsized to one small storefront.
"Everything we tried worked in the early years; nothing works now," Freeman said of the current retail computer environment.
Tom Freeman left at the beginning of the year. Dave Freeman tried to find a buyer and, when that fell through, closed the store.
ACP Components will still sell integrated circuits and excess inventory to businesses over the Internet. And the parking-lot sales will continue. If Freeman is nostalgic about the passing of his retail store, he doesn't show it.
"Being in business in Santa Ana all these years introduced me to some really great people, so I'll take that with me," he said.
Some highlights of the history of Advanced Computer Products:
Summer 1976: Dave Freeman started selling chips for “Pong” video games out of the trunk of his car.
November 1976: He opened retail store at 1310 E. Edinger, Santa Ana, one of the first computer stores in the nation.
1977: Freeman participated in the first West Coast Computer Faire, San Francisco, where the first Apple II was introduced, and the first Comdex show in Las Vegas.
1977: ACP developed the first 4K-memory board for Altair and Imsai computers.
1977: ACP became one of the first Apple retailers.
1979: It started bimonthly Sunday parking-lot sales that eventually drew 10,000 shoppers.
1979: Freeman created ACP Components, a computer-parts distributor.
1979: ACP became original equipment manufacturer for Microsoft memory cards.
1979: It spun off Vista Computer to make upgrade cards for Apple and IBM PCs.
1980: Freeman started collecting vintage computers and electronic parts. He now has 700 in the collection, which can be seen at www.ThePCMuseum.net.
1981: ACP opened the first computer superstore in San Jose and a store in Tustin.
1982: ACP in San Jose produced the first cable-television show about personal computers.
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