Alas, Poor Yorx!
By Brendan I. Koerner
In my initial Valentine to the glory that is the clock radio, I namechecked a brand called Yorx, manufacturer of a truly clunky unit for sale on eBay. (Winning bid: One loonie.) Being rather unfamiliar with Yorx, and struck by its funny-sounding name, I made a mental note to someday track down the brand's backstory. Well, my friends, that day has finally arrived, and y'all are about to become privy to a classic tale of a company's devolution from innovative to craptacular—a tale that, in this case, involves the machinations of an earnest New Jerseyite, a painter of Chinese landscapes, and a floundering Dutch conglomerate. So down your beers and buckle tight, as it's gonna be a rollicking ride.
Our story begins in the pleasant hamlet of Totowa, N.J., where a veteran electronics exec named Alvin Tannenbaum founded Yorx in 1972. Coming off a long stint at a company called Lloyd's Electronics over in Edison, Tannenbaum had a big idea: a compact stereo system called the Space Saver, to compete with the casket-sized monstrosities of the Me Decade. Pretty clever; if only Alvin could've foreseen that his corporate baby would eventually morph into a purveyor of low-end dreck. After the jump, the whole sordid, semi-instructional saga of Yorx's rise and decline.
The Yorx Space Saver system (with the awesome front-loaded turntable pictured atop this post) was a hit. But not as a low-end item—Lord, no. This was considered seriously high-end equipment back in the day, and a source no less venerable than HFD: The Weekly Home Furnishings Newsletter lauded Yorx's products as "the stars of the Consumer Electronics Show," circa 1980. The Space Saver systems "had control panels that looked like the cockpit on a 747," the publication breathlessly reported. The lead designer was a Manchurian-born chap named Minol Araki, today best known as a painter of snow monkeys frolicking in the East Asian mountains.
Somewhere along the line, though, Yorx went generic, veering away from its sci-fi design in favor of mid-priced knock-offs of Sony, et. al. Sorry, I couldn't quite detective out why this happened, but the hunch is that some overeducated MBA student took the helm in the 1980s and applied all his book learnin', to Yorx's great detriment. Then again, companies, like human beings, often run away from that which they do best; no one likes the harsh realization that they'll forever be pigeonholed.
By the early 1990s, the Yorx brand had become synonymous with so-so quality and affordable prices—quite the shift from its glory days in the Carter era. The company did a lot of flailing around, churning out karaoke machines, $29.95 handheld gaming units, and the $99 Model P 1200 triple (yes, triple) cassette deck. Araki was still on board at this point, and apparently doing his darndest to add sexy curves and whatnot to the moldings, but the luster was gone. Yorx was teetering toward the low-end, staring into an abyss then populated by the likes of Tandy.
And teeter Yorx did, right into the clusty hands of Dutch concern Hagemeyer NV in 1994. The company owned such gadgetry gems as the Case Logic and Gran Prix brands at the time, and probably thought it could make a splash by adding Yorx to its high-tech portfolio. Hagemeyer moved Yorx to St. Louis, and pushed it to manufacture such low-end delights as the P1550 boom box (complete with detachable tape deck) and the DM350 mini system with 3-CD changer (considered affordable at $199.99—remember, this is before the rise of jWin). This is right around the time when the word "Yorx" became synonymous with "cheap quality"—as in "Man, LaCie is like the Yorx of external hard disks."
The next decade or so seems to have been a grim time for Yorx, and there's little evidence of the brand's impact during that time. All I could gather was that in 2004, Hagemeyer sold the brand to simpatico low-end purveyor GPX, master of the sub-$20 Discman knock-off. So if and when you buy something with the GPX label nowadays, it's got some serious Yorx technology kicking inside.
So, what's the lesson here? Maybe that the line between being a laudable innovator and a run-of-the-mill low-ender is a lot finer than you might think, and that a few business missteps along the way can doom your brand. I'd be particularly interested in hearing more about what happened with Yorx during the late 1980s, when it lost its rep as a well-designed, high-end brand. Who advised 'em to go generic and abandon those cockpit-like controls? (If you have some Yorx intel, of course, please do tell.) And if this can happen to the likes of Yorx, does that mean such current upstarts as, say, Didigo could end up going low-end if they're not eternally vigilant? Hell, what about HP? The way things are going for 'em, I could totally see someday buying their products in a store that also sells aluminum foil and $4.99 three-packs of tighty-whities.
Or maybe the lesson is, Don't give your brand a name that sounds like something from a friggin' Simpsons episode.
Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.