Under the Influence

Why a tornado prompted Best Buy to change its original name

There are many different reasons successful companies change their names. Sometimes it’s because the old name has too much negative baggage, sometimes it’s to boost a stock price, sometimes it's for legal reasons and sometimes a name changes because of a tornado.
Today, Best Buy has 164 locations across Canada. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Once upon a time, retailer Best Buy had a different name. It was called Sound of Music.

Then one day, a tornado changed all that.

On June 14, 1981, a tornado tore through the Minneapolis suburbs. It churned for over 25 minutes, flattening everything in its path north and east for 15 miles. The Sound of Music stereo store was in the path of that tornado. Its roof was sheared off and the showroom was destroyed. Speakers, turntables and VCRs were strewn all over the parking lot.

But, somehow, the storeroom survived.

Within a few hours, all 65 Sound of Music employees rallied together to help sort, clean and salvage the items that could be saved. While many of the products were too damaged to sell, quite a few could be sold as-is at reduced prices.

The store owner, Richard Schulze, decided to hold a big sale just six days after the tornado. He set up a trailer in the original store parking lot where the devastation had taken place. Then he decided to take the sale one step further. In addition to the salvaged products, he offered other great deals on open-box items, display models, discontinued products and overstock that could all be marked down.

And Sound of Music advertised the sale as the place to get the "Best Buy."

Richard Schulze watched customers as they moved through the temporary setup and merchandise. He observed that people weren't that concerned with brand names. They liked the no-pressure style of shopping the tornado sale offered. They liked that they could pick up and actually handle the merchandise. Most of all, they loved the "Best Buy" prices.

By the end of the day almost everything was gone, so the store brought in additional products from its warehouse and staged a second Tornado Sale.

Sound of Music made more money in four days than it usually made in a month.

With that, Sound of Music not only changed the way it did business - it changed its name. Schulze was inspired to create a superstore format, one of the first examples of big-box retailing.

All the products were put on the store floor, instead of back in the stockroom, so customers could actually touch the items. The store did away with commissioned sales people to create a no-pressure environment. And most importantly, Sound of Music changed its name to become Best Buy.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the tornado. Founder Richard Schulze said it was both the worst and best thing that ever happened to them. The tornado changed the way they did business and ended up changing the business's very name.

Last year, Best Buy had revenues of $43 billion.

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