Anyone curious as to how online shopping became such a mammoth enterprise need look no further than Amazon. I remember when the online giant was a fledgling start up selling primarily, and almost limited to books. Soon enough, they began to branch out and have become a global enterprise with a dizzying array of services and features.
On the down side is how they have devastated the local "mom and pop" stores - like the neighborhood hardware store where Sam knew exactly what you wanted when you asked him for a thing-a-ma-jig. Even large retailers are not immune. It could be argued that Sears & Roebuck, once a thriving bastion of shopping, fell into their current precipitous state at least in part because of Amazon and other online retailers.
Of course, what's not to like about shopping online. At first, I was leery of online purchases because of bank fraud. Now I hardly give it a passing thought. I spend whatever is the yearly fee to be a member of Amazon Prime and as soon as I click "buy," I am reasonably confident my purchase will arrive in two days, most of the time, anyway.
For my last power tool purchase, I went first to Lowes, checked out the various models, options, accessories, prices, made my decision and subsequently checked my phone for an online price. I discovered, to my happy surprise, I could save 15% over the Lowes price. Because I didn't actually need the tool right away, waiting the week it took for the shipment to arrive made little difference. It was easily worth the wait.
Needless to say, Lowes didn't notice I was looking at power tools yet did not buy anything. Shoot, they could care less. What would you think if you were an audio dealer and a customer came into your place of business, spent several hours discussing and demoing gear, thanked you, and advised he or she was going to buy one online, used if possible and if new, planned to shop the entire country if not beyond? Would that in any way be a stick in your craw? Is that an unfair or possibly unethical business practice? Probably depends on whom you ask.
Running an audio dealership is an expensive proposition. There are typically numerous evening and weekend customer meetings since those are the times most buyers are off work. Long hours in a week's time are not uncommon. Gear is expensive as is the cost of insurance. Tying up your cash flow on products to show customers. Audio is not only a visual purchase but also, and more importantly, an audible purchase. To have someone come in and use your equipment to confirm a buying decision and then buy online, it can be quite insulting.
On the other hand, there is no presumption of purchase responsibility just because a customer visits an audio shop. I can demo equipment until doomsday and am not in any measure obligated to purchase anything. I suppose it boils down to a question of character and how any one individual feels about how business should be conducted.
The fact remains, however, online retail marketing is a rapidly growing enterprise. I would not be at all surprised if high performance online procurement will continue to become even more widespread than it is now. Is that necessarily a good thing?
Ours is a visual hobby - yes. More importantly, ours is also an audible hobby. If we become a hobby completely inclined towards online purchases, how are we ever to tell if a component passes our sonic muster? How does an audiophile reasonably and effectively determine if the product being considered will be sonically pleasing, if not remarkable sounding? Does it not stand to reason that a dealer has a viable service to offer in assembling an audio system?
Many dealers will deliver components, help set them up, give personalized instructions on how to operate what they sell, and in general be a trusted guide in room treatment and system choices. But dealers need to make a profit to remain a continuing business. As long as said profits are not excessive, and these days few are, I think a dealer has a lot to offer to the average consumer.
Dealers, however, are somewhat stuck in today's economic picture. Most all sell online if only to a marginal degree. Some more than others. Some sell exclusively online. Manufacturers probably should be a better arbiter of where dealers can sell, despite the fact most are not. Some manufacturers keep a pretty tight reign over where dealers do business. Some bend the rules if the sale is worthy. Other manufacturers do not care one whit where their dealers sell. As long as this is the case, online sales will continue to become more widespread. This speaks nothing of the manufacturers selling direct with no dealer participation at all.
I cannot help but wonder if the audiophile of tomorrow will need to transition from buying a product based on how they determine it sounds to a methodology based on reviews, online forums, hearsay, and emails outlining pricing and terms. How much gear will be bought and subsequently retuned because it simply failed to pass sonic muster? I think the dealers of today should in some way prepare a business model that takes direct, online buying into consideration. Of course, most have already done so and are deriving the predominance of their sales and profits through web based commerce.
I suppose the only thing that really matters is the hobby continues to thrive. Hyper expensive gear will almost always be demo'd in person. Lower cost equipment, whose sonic characteristics are either assumed, known, or anticipated will possibly make up the largest percentage of online business. Whether or not that is a valued practice is largely dependent on who is asking the question. The answers, not surprisingly, may be quite different.