What Does the Future Hold for Retail Audio Sales?

I have never been one who really enjoys shopping. Rather, I find it more of a drudgery than an exercise in a contentment of time spent. If my needs for most anything arise I always try to make my way to a retailer at a time when the maddening crowds are not there. For instance, I will typically go to a shopping mall on Monday at 10:00 AM rather than Saturday afternoon at 2:00 PM. 

AR-CrystalBallSmallVersion.jpgMore often than not, I have, especially in the last few years, dedicated a higher percentage of my household spending to shopping online. Like many others, millions in fact, I often find myself shopping from Amazon. A few clicks on the computer, my card is charged, and two, sometimes more, sometimes less days later, my product arrives on my doorstep. What I also find fascinating is that in many instances, I barely even look at the cost - instead I just point and click. I draw the line, in most cases, with clothes because I need to see and feel the garment to ensure it meets my personal style and level of quality. Some things are best not purchased online. 

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When retail sales are more closely scrutinized, it is an obvious statement of fact that I am not alone. Retail sales in brick and mortar stores are suffering and many of the larger retail merchants are downsizing, or in some extreme cases, filing for bankruptcy. While retail sales continue to decline, online sales are witnessing a commensurate increase in business. 

As it relates to high performance audio sales, the same shift in how manufacturers take their products to market exist. Thirty years ago high end dealers were in almost every large city and even in smaller ones as well. My hometown, which in the 1970's had maybe 25,000 residents had, as I recall, three or four audio dealers and they were all successful businesses at the time. Needless to say, they have all closed. 

This is a trend that has been affecting audio sales - dealers closing their doors. Personally, I wonder if buying from the Internet will be proven a troubling trend. 

AR-GoingOutOfBusiness.jpgSo, should the purchase of audio components be any different? Are we as audio consumers wiling to place our trust in an online picture of a something, read a review, ponder for a few days and then make a purchase?  Is this the future of the manner in which audio products are marketed? 

Ask almost anyone, especially audio professionals, and the conventional wisdom, and preferred method, is always demo before you buy, preferably in your own home. Okay, fine. But that is often problematic as well. I am considering a set of mono blocks for my system. They are quite expensive and my ability to demo them is very limited. On the one hand, I could order them sight unseen and unheard from an online retailer. I could, on the other hand, travel whatever distance to a dealer that sells the line. The real problem is that in either case, particularly where the retail cost increases, the probability that I will find my desired amps in a dealer's stock dwindle both considerably and dramatically. More frustrating, the dealer is usually unable to get a demo unless they are purchased, and that is likely a financial commitment most dealers won't make without a pending sale. I'm left with the lone possibility of simply having an authorized retailer place an order for me without any sonic verification on my part. This process is little more difficult than me calling someone and telling an unrecognized voice on the other end of the phone that I want to place an order and give them a charge card. 

Another factor in all of this is the possibility that a manufacturer will sell direct. Were I a dealer representing a manufacturer and I discovered that same manufacturer competing against me, I would be none too happy. Yet this scenario, to varying degrees, happens every day. Some manufacturers who do sell direct involve their dealer network and some do not. 

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It cannot be understated how dramatic an effect the Internet has had on retail business. I can go online, find all the dealers for the amp in which I am interested and call each and every one until I find the best price. This more or less falls between the cracks of buying from a local dealer and buying online. And of course, the manufacturer must support this practice which here again, some do and some do not. Were I a dealer with a territory, I would be hesitant to sell outside my agreed upon geographic boundary unless given permission by the manufacture - not doing so risks losing the line, something that has happened. To confuse things even further, suppose I buy my amps from a dealer on the West coast. I'm in North Carolina and I have a problem with my amps. If I want help with my issue, do I call the local dealer that lost my business or the guy 3000 miles away that had a better price? How eager will the local dealer be to help me? I'm guessing none at all? Would you think the dealer on the West coast will be happily hopping on a plane to fly to Charlotte to help me with my problem? If this should happen to me, was the savings really worth it? In sales we call this price vs. cost - the price was one thing but the total cost, and inconvenience factor was something else. What, in this scenario, was the real savings on my purchase? 

So what exactly does the future for audio sales hold? Personally, I have no idea. Time, as it always does, will be the final harbinger of the future of audio purchases. Like so many others, I'll just try and make the smartest purchase choices that I can - and fervently hope I don't wind up making some stupid mistake.

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