Recently, while researching the different histories of consumer electronic stores' advertising, I happened upon a Best Buy circular from 1996. Within the '96 Best Buy ad were loads of childhood memories, including NHL '95 on Sega Genesis, Sir Mix-A-Lot CDs, and movies on VHS such as Predator 2, True Lies, Abyss, and Young Frankenstein (It’s pronounced ‘Fronkensteen’). I started to think, with the thousands of different circular ads and online ads processed per week by gap, my coworkers and I may have not considered how circular advertising has changed between our early years and the present day. So instead of diving into my childhood flashbacks, I thought it would be more interesting to compare the 1996 ad to the different products and prices in today's circulars.

First Up, Personal Computers!

In 1996, a notebook PC could cost you a $1,799. It was also advertised to include "All This Great Pre-loaded Software," citing programs such as Lotus Smartsuite, Quicken Special Edition, MS Money, and MS Golf. In today's money, that price tag would hover somewhere around $2,700; however, a similarly competitive model in 2016 would cost only $600. That same notebook would also not be touted as "pre-loaded" with what we now call "bloatware."

A desktop PC would cost you a pretty penny as well, with some computer bundles on ad offered at $2,399, or $3,600 in 2016 money. Some products were even offered with a phone handset attached to it. If sold with a monitor and printer today, this kind of bundle might only cost about $600 (and you wouldn't be forced to buy an attached telephone with it, either).

Comparing desktop PC ads of the past to those today, we find about a 75-85% difference in price, and probably a whole lot less use of AltaVista.

Projection TVs, Stereo TVs, and VHS Combo TVs, Oh My!

In Best Buy's '96 ad, a Panasonic 32" Stereo TV for your living room would cost an average of around $900, or $1,365 in today's money. With the average size of TV sets growing about 36% over the years, an average TV found in many living rooms in 2016 is about 40-50" in size. A TV like that today may only cost $500 (a 63% price drop from 1996) and, according to sales numbers over the past few years, would probably be a Samsung.

Other Points of Interest

  • The average price of refrigerators and other home appliances haven't changed much, with similar features and capacities displaying similar premiums in 1996 and 2016.
  • A new movie on VHS would cost around $15 ($24 in today's money), while a new Blu-ray DVD today would cost about $20.
  • The '96 Best Buy ad contains just 3 cell phones, while 2016 Best Buy ads average just around 8-12 per week.
  • The '96 Best Buy ad had 8 boomboxes on sale, where as there is only 1 today (Thanks LG!)

While the "boombox" may seemed to have survived the 2000's, my cuffed t-shirt, a flannel wrapped around the waist, and a favorite pair of "Uncle Jesse" ripped jeans did not fare as well.