An Incredible Idea
Incredible Universe was a chain of stores operated by the Tandy Corporation. Well known throughout the world by the mid 20th century, The Tandy Corporation was an electronics company based out of Fort Worth, Texas. They started by selling pre-assembled microcomputers to home consumers, and became a huge name in the electronics industry. The company would eventually purchase a mail order company called Radio Shack which they would expand as a distribution network including retail locations. During the 1980s electronics superstores began to take off through the success of companies like Best Buy, Circuit City, and Fry’s. Tandy was having great success through their Radio Shack stores but wanted to expand into the superstore market. The decision was made to open a chain called Incredible Universe. The stores were huge in comparison to other super stores averaging around 185,000 square feet. The stores almost resembled IKEA locations with a huge space being dedicated to an interactive showroom. They also had McDonald’s, day care facilities for shoppers with children, and huge presentation spaces for displaying and demonstrating products. Two test locations were opened, one in Arlington, Texas the other in Wilsonville, Oregon. These two stores were very profitable and helped Tandy make the decision to expand the chain. Eventually opening a total of 17 total locations.
An Incredible Flop
Incredible Universe was not Tandy’s first “superstore” in the Houston area. This title belongs to McDuff Electronics, who opened their first stores in Houston by 1986. These stores were much smaller than even the competition of the time only average about 10,00 square feet. By the mid 90s many were speculating that Houston was a possible location for a new Incredible Universe store. However, in 1995 after the announcement that McDuff stores were to close Tandy refused to disclose future plans for Houston and was still very tight-lipped about Incredible Universe’s future. On February 17, 1995, Tandy confirmed that they were indeed planning on expanding into Houston and a location had already been selected. A site at 610 and Westpark, formerly home to Pin Oak Stables, had been selected after Tandy considered multiple properties including the vacant Price Club on I-10. The Pin Oak site had been cleared out some years prior leaving behind only undeveloped land and the mighty oak trees that were all over the property. The location had nearly been purchased by Best Buy prior to selecting the Richmond at 610 site.
On February 24, 1995, Incredible Universe made an official announcement regarding their new Houston store. At 197,000 Sq ft. this location was to be the largest to date, and they had a $100,000 plan to relocate existing old growth trees and replace those that couldn’t be moved. There was lots of praise for the new stores handling of landscaping, making comparisons to nearby Micro Center. The talking up of Incredible Universe would continue with “advanced memberships” being offered to Chronicle Subscribers, and even co-promoting the Chron’s website mid 1995! Construction on the store was relatively quick transforming the property from mostly vacant fields to a tilt wall concrete building in less than 10 months. During this time Tandy attempted to recruit management from existing Houston retailers to come join them. Outside the normal departments you’d expect to find in an electronics superstore Incredible Universe also needed to hire entertainers, childcare, a McDonald’s crew, and even a full time DJ. The store was a little bit crazy, pulling ideas and pieces for multiple retailers and using all them to form a store unlike anything else at the time. The hype for Incredible Universe was so big, that 15 days before the grand opening a public party was thrown inside the store. The event included an entrance fee and charity auction all to benefit local nonprofits. It featured appearances by local celebrities and offered potential customers a first look inside the lavish new facilities. On September 28, 1995, Incredible Universe in Houston secretly opened their doors to customers who had applied for the advanced membership. Customers could only gain entrance by bringing a scannable membership ID.
The official grand opening took place on September 30, 1995. This event truly was a party, with local celebrities, mascots, and entertainers all being invited to look around the store with the public. In addition to all this was the freebies, which included giveaways of Incredible Universe branded merchandise and unlimited soda and fortune cookies. The event was concluded for the night with a firework display. Tandy had boasted that they expected double the turnout of an Astros or Oilers game with around 45,000 showing up. In reality over 60,000 Houstonians turned up on the first day. Massive numbers of items were already on sale and the future looked incredibly bright for Incredible Universe. Houstonians were beyond happy with the new store. It took the fast-growing consumer electronics industry and added the flair and flourishes of a Disney style experience. It was a yuppie’s complete paradise! However, these good times would not last. Incredible Universe had no trouble pulling in customers but what they couldn’t generate were consistent profits. The Houston store alone needed to bring in $65 Million per year just to break even. The problems stemmed from some poor decisions the company had made early on. First the Pin Oak site had very poor access, at the time the 610 feeder was cut off by 59 and this. Next, the competition in the area was intense, with Best Buy, Micro Center, and Circuit City, and Comp USA all having locations with street access to the Galleria. Finally, the building and sign were somewhat obstructed by the large trees left in place.
Stockholders in Tandy began to lose confidence in the company’s direction. Not only were they losing money on Incredible Universe but other chains such as McDuff’s and Computer City proved to be issues as well. To help restore some faith in the company Tandy made the decision to close multiple Computer City locations, including the Greenspoint location and remaining McDuff locations which had already exited Houston. By this point a mostly empty parking lot in front of Incredible Universe reflected the store’s future, unsure. It came as no huge surprise two weeks later when Tandy announced they were pulling the plug on the Incredible Universe concept. The decision had obviously been planned for some time as Fry’s immediately stepped up as a buyer for 6 locations. Although the Houston location was shown to Fry’s and several other electronics chains no buyer was found. Incredible Universe’s going out of business sale started February 17th and the store would end up vacant by March. Prior to closing the property would be sold to real estate company Lazarus which planned to purchase the remaining Incredible Universe stores and redevelop them as mixed-use retail, dining, and entertainment centers. Unfortunately, this plan never came to fruition and the store sat empty and lit up until a final auction took place on April 4th when remaining fixtures were sold off.
After sitting vacant for a little over a year BankUnited quietly began to plan converting the building into a call center. Houston Community College then announced intentions to purchase the property and begin classes there within the next few months due to losing their lease in the Galleria area. Once HCC purchased the building, they dismantled the mezzanine, tore out the remaining interior work and began retrofitting in classrooms. Construction was split into three phases eventually completely retrofitting the building.
As of 2021 the Incredible Universe building still stands. The rotunda entrance still resembles its original design and the original exit doors are still intact, but that’s about it. A huge new parking garage restricts view and access, and various colorful updates have begun to cover the original pressed concrete walls. Nothing from Incredible Universe remains inside other than a large concrete wall that used to separate the showroom from the warehouse. This wall has been repurposed to provide space for a magnet high school in the front portion of the former warehouse. It’s interesting to think what could have been if Fry’s had bought the building but given their shutdown and the property values in the area it’s got a better chance of sticking around as an HCC campus. Driving past the building you can see that the old pin oaks are thriving despite the company who tried to save them, ultimately failing.
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