A lot of complaining goes into the decades-long decline of the brick and mortar audiophile stores, but if the truth be told the hobby still needs stores to thrive, aspire and or even just survive. There are many tales of Manhattan audio salons who would pull an East Coast “Pretty Woman” by ignoring a bunch of bullish young Wall Street punks loaded with Goldman Sachs cash. Foolish and wrong, that was. I’ve even heard tales of dealers have shunned consumers who don’t buy each and every component from their lofty salons, even when the local discount store might have four-figure savings. High-end retailers have all by themselves done to damage the client-retailer relationship…and I haven’t even mentioned the words: Amazon, EBay or Audiogon.com yet.
With that said, the specialty AV store is a key resource in the audiophile hobby. It’s a place to see, hear and experience products and systems that push the limits of music and AV playback. They are, at the same time, very expensive to keep running. The whole “build it and they will come” axiom has proven to be a failure worldwide in the audiophile space. Christopher Hansen Ltd. in Beverly Hills was one of the more notable failures. SoundEx in Philadelphia had it all (including low overhead and a great location to poach sales from NYC without sales tax) but their 28 room showroom was a business-ending disaster. Dealers overseas have tried to build mega showrooms with every bit of audio one could hope for and they failed too. Cello Music and Film tried to make a national chain of uber-high-end audiophile and custom install firms with a multi-billionaire’s money resulting in a successful restaurant in Manhattan and a few good real estate plays but a failed overall business. Why did these stores fail? In part, it’s because they didn’t build any community. They weren’t fun. People didn’t come there to hang, to dream, to listen, to experience.
Not all big audiophile stores are failures however. Definitive Audio in the Seattle area is about as good as any retailer in the U.S. They have every experience one could hope for from ultimate audiophile systems to systems we could hope to someday own without a Powerball victory or a big part in a tech IPO. They have killer home theater setups, 4K video but they also have a commercial department, a maritime department, an aviation department (you never know when you can sell a K-scape onto a Boeing Business Jet aka: the BBJ) and more. They also host a yearly event where the entire city is invited to come by and experience the best our industry has to offer. Manufacturers pay for much of the cost and the effect is positive for months and months after. People eat smoky BBQ before sitting down to listen to $350,000 Wilson XLF speakers on D’agostino electronics and Transparent Cables. They make it an event. They show you things you can’t hear or see many other places in the world thus they earn some consumer loyalty right in the back yard of Amazon and across the street from the first Magnolia Audio – long before Best Buy bought the brand and moved them inside their big-box stores. If Charlie Sheen was a salesman at Definitive Audio he’d grin and say “winning”.
Saturday mornings at SoundEx in Philadelphia were special twenty plus years ago. People came from all over to experience the newest and coolest gear in a dingy, packed house loaded with literally every high end brand that you ever could hope for. They would move gear around for you in over-stuffed rooms and play you whatever you wanted to hear. They had copies of Stereophile, TAS and other International magazines (this was before us Internet guys) as well as piles of the most hard-to-get software titles such as a copy of MOFI’s The Wall or import versions of any number of other audiophile goodies. The salespeople were friendly. They knew your system and offered fair advice. There was a good path to trade gear in if you liked. On Saturday’s when people would pack the store, audiophiles would share opinions, give tips and otherwise be openly social. And gear got sold. Lots of it. Lots of Audio Research, Mark Levinson, Krell, Transparent and MIT. Wilson, MartinLogan and pretty much everything else you could dream of. Until they blew their overhead and built a two-story ego showroom that the enthusiasts didn’t want (I warned them with the Christopher Hansen example from the early 1990s) they rocked. Now they are long gone.
Could today’s remaining AV dealers make money selling audiophile gear? Absolutely. There is a lot of profit margin in selling audiophile gear when done right. The first thing any dealer looking to thrive needs to do is the make right with its core audience while bringing in new blood to replace the 70-something-year-olds who simply don’t need another $10,000 preamp. Events’ like Definitive Audio’s are a great example but by no means has to be done on such a large scale. Borrow unique audio products from your vendors for special and limited-time events. Offer unique trade-in/up programs for the event only that make it worth taking action right then and there. Cater these events with tasty food and fine spirits. Encourage AV enthusiasts to bring their friends, neighbors or kids to the event. Offer special deals for said “new blood” even if it is for their next TV upgrade. Do a promotion with a local school where if the parents buy XYZ in whatever you are hoping to sell, Joe Blow Audio-Video will donate an audiophile music playback system for the school’s music department at no cost. Get creative with hopes of both energizing the current base of clients but getting them to involve the people in their lives to love high performance AV, top level service and an experience that you simply can’t get from an online retailer.
What could your local AV dealer do to reasonably get your business back? What type of event would you like to see? What type of promotion could they hold? How should they change their store? Do you care if they had more square footage? Should they sell some of the top online-only brands (like Orb, Tekton, Aperion etc…)? Tell them what they should do to grow both in the now and in the coming years.