ORLANDO, Fla. — Prices are sinking, sales are soaring, and the market is a hot spot for retailers peddling flat-panel TVs as the showpiece of home-entertainment cocoons.
Two Orlando-area CompUSA stores are leading the chain's rollout of a redesign focusing on stylish TVs that can be hung on a wall, complemented by surround-sound speakers and theater-style seats with cupholders, popcorn optional.
The stores recently became the first of CompUSA's 240 locations to receive a makeover after the new design was tested at a store near Dallas.
Other consumer-electronics chains, such as Best Buy and Circuit City, are also in the process of in-store makeovers to capture the eyes and credit cards of shoppers.
"We are seeing the democratization of the home theater," said IDC analyst Eric Haruki.
"Flat panels are no longer just for the privileged few. There's always been an inherent interest that caused a drool factor. Now people are snapping up these things like crazy."
Falling prices, along with consumer buzz, are helping to fuel sales of thin, wide-screen TVs with plasma, LCD or other technologies. An additional incentive for stores is the lucrative installation fee — sometimes more than $2,000, analysts said.
Flat-panel TVs with screens from 37 to 42 inches now cost about $2,000, while models with 32-inch screens cost $1,000 or less. And prices are declining as much as 25 percent annually, said Gartner analyst Van Baker.
"Flat televisions are becoming very affordable," he said.
"In addition, the industry has done a very good job of portraying them as being much 'cooler' than the old CRT (tube) televisions, and consumers are buying in."
According to a recent report by the Consumer Electronics Association trade group, about half of shoppers surveyed said their next TV purchase would be a flat panel.
Sales of flat panels now make up 36 percent of the market and could grow to 63 percent in three years, the association found.
And Central Florida is at the epicenter of the growth.
Orlando was selected by CompUSA for the introduction of its new store design because the two local stores rank in the top 10 in sales for the company and also because of the high penetration of homes that can receive high-definition cable and satellite programs, said Tim Coakley, vice president of merchandising for home entertainment.
The centerpiece of the redesign, called the High Definition Entertainment Center, is a 3,300-square-foot area, about one-sixth of the entire store, with TV sets that range up to 73 inches and have prices as high as $15,000, with a sweet spot of $1,000 to $2,000.
On a recent day at the Altamonte Springs store, Susan and Clifton Goins of Sanford had their eyes on LCD displays from 26 inches to 32 inches that cost less than $2,000.
The couple were planning to replace a bulky 6-year-old set with a slimmer modern design.
"Our kids are grown, so we're able to please ourselves with a new TV," said Susan Goins.
As they browsed, the couple strolled through a home theater connoisseur's dream — dozens of speaker models, remote controls, cables and leather cinema-style seats at $599 apiece.
For all the numerous brands and models, the idea behind the new store designs at CompUSA, Best Buy and Circuit City is to sell more than a set of components.
"We want to educate people about how good an experience they can have with a TV and sound system that really takes you into a movie or game," said Carlos Perez, home theater supervisor in a Miami-area Best Buy store.
Late this summer, about 100 of Best Buy's 753 U.S. stores will emphasize the new entertainment sector — called the Magnolia Home Theater, said spokesman Brian Lucas.
"The high-definition, flat-panel TV has gone mainstream in terms of desire," he said.
At rival Circuit City, the home entertainment remodeling is due later in the year and should be completed by the Christmas holidays, a spokesman said.
Helping drive the entertainment craze, along with lower prices, is the arrival of a new generation of high-definition DVD players, said Doug Moore, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer.
"You have a group of elements that are aligned," he said.
"Start with the flat, thin TVs with their industrial design and great cosmetic appeal. Add in more sources of high-definition content from cable, satellite and DVD. There's something for everybody."
The appeal of a flat-panel TV was irresistible for Les Lloyd, Rollins College's chief information officer, when he moved to Baldwin Park.
To complement a 50-inch LCD display, he had six speakers mounted in the ceiling of his family room.
"The family room was designed around the big-screen TV," he said. "It gives you a place people want to be."