By BUILDER Magazine Staff. When Sammy Saloum contracted with a Dallas-area builder for a new home in 1999, he asked for a complete data, audio, and video network. The builder gave him the names of local integrators, told him to arrange the installation himself, and warned him to not interfere with the schedule. That might have discouraged some buyers, but Saloum is vice president of business development technology with CompUSA, the giant technology retailer. He got the company's technicians to do the job.

Now Saloum is determined to make CompUSA a nationwide home integrator. He is leading an effort to outfit several stores with "digital design centers"--showrooms where builders can send customers to spend their technology allowance. The first center opened in Plano, Texas, in May. Saloum's team will spend months getting customer feedback and refining the concept before beginning a gradual national rollout. The long-term plan is to have one in every market, if not in every store.

But the retailer will do more than install wiring. Instead, it wants to be what Sandy Teger and Dave Waks, consultants who specialize in broadband technology (, call an IP Plumber--a company that installs network infrastructures and the devices connected to them, then makes itself available to modify, maintain, or add capacity as needed.

Saloum thinks CompUSA's size will give it an edge in filling that role. "We're a mass merchant," which means the company's economies of scale allow it to lower prices below that of many competitors. And while CompUSA is the first big retailer out of the gate, others have their sights on the integration business as well, including Sears and Best Buy.

Do the price advantages of these "big box" stores scare traditional suppliers? Not all of them. "If anything, it will be good because it will increase consumer awareness," says Ken Kerr, president of Home Controls, a San Diego-based home automation distributor (for more on Home Controls, see "Home OS," below). "It's a big industry, so there's room for everyone." And Kerr is confident that he can compete on service. "Our technical support people are always going to be a better resource than a retail store."

Photo: Kelly Brother

Indeed, careful builders will likely scrutinize customer service. "It's a hurdle [the big retailers] will have to overcome," says Kurt Scherf, an analyst with Parks Associates in Dallas, who specializes in home networks. The vision of the IP Plumber assumes that homeowners will be able to make a phone call and have problems promptly fixed. But many consumers have had bad experiences with large retailers.

Saloum stands behind CompUSA's expertise and its customer service record. It revamped its service department in the late '90s, and its technicians already install and configure 20,000 to 30,000 networks per month--mostly wireless but some hard-wired. CompUSA is preparing to take part in several Parade of Homes projects, which Saloum hopes will win over builders and consumers alike.