It’s the time of year for saving money!
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.
There is no local dealer. I will not waste a Sat. am driving 1-3 hours each way. Having said that, in Montreal almost spent $12K on a pair of speakers.
Well we at Rollo Audio do just that with a spin. Our humble residential showroom welcomes hanging out and listening to music and becoming familiar with the gear. Then the customer needs to hear that piece in their system. We bring it to their home without a fee. If no sale is made we had a good time listening. Building a relationship along the way. Works very well for us.
Promotions,advertising,overhead, etc cost serious money. Most customers want a discount or then go to Audiogon, Audiomart, E-bay, etc for a deal. We stop that.
Without the expense of rent, overhead it is easier to make the sale. We can discount to a point and everyone is happy.
I think it is fair to tell your customers that you expect them to support you if you floor products and support them in their hobby. If they buy everything on Audiogon and Ebay then good for them but they likely wont get invited to your store-house anymore.
Where are you located…?
The few remaining high end AV dealers in the DFW area are still hanging on to either the established, aging demographic or the young executive (read: money) set. Some are appointment only (instant turn off for me) or any “public” events are invite exclusive. I have been to a few said events and they are filled to the gills with the stereotypical, stuffed shirt, arms crossed “audiophiles” who do not look like they are having any fun at all. The only reason I was able to attend one of the dealer’s events was because I was “in the club” by owning a pair of Wilson Audio speakers (I did not buy them, but won the kit from some startup internet site – remember me, Jerry?).
There was an article published on a competitor’s review site (sorry!) about Ember Audio Video in Winston Salem, NC (sadly, it looks like they closed their doors last fall, so perhaps this is example is not the best). They would host a “Public Vinyl Demo” once a month where the general public was invited to “spin their own” on some really nice equipment and hang out. From the pictures in the article, just about every demographic was represented and everyone seemed to having a grand time. If a local (to me, at least) establishment were to offer such events as EAV, your Definitive Audio or Charles Rollo’s example, I guarantee I would be there every time, they would at least get my patronage and I would swear off Ebay or Audiogon!
Well thank you for mentioning Ember! I’m one of the owners and it was more of a hiatus than a closure, as we are gearing up to reopen Ember in late July! I have to concur that the music/people first approach and friendly, open handed events are as rewarding as can be, for them and us – and the Public Vinyl Demo will return, like an unkillable fun-zombie!
Chris is great and will be back there spinning disks before you know it.
I’m sorry, but the days of B&M are long gone! With the plethora of places that allow you to try gear in your own home, often with 30 or more days of free trials- and many with free shipping, it is a far better proposition than having to drive to one of those places and in many cases having to put up with snobby jerks who’ll either ridicule your taste/budget, or guilt you into buying form them because you “wasted” their time.
Some 20 years ago, I was young and new to this hobby- very new- and I had heard a pair of speakers at a friend’s house that I really loved, they were by Pinnacle.
There was a mini chain of “audiophile” stores in northern VA called “Meyer-Emco”, so I decided to stop at one of their locations to check out what’s available, but had the Pinnacle in the back of my mind. I walk in and look at their stuff- lots of Yamahas, Sony, Onkyo, Dennon, Nakamichi, Martin-Logan, Klipch, B&W, .. etc- but no Pinnacle, ( you need to understand, at the time, all of those names meant nothing to me). One of their sales guys offered assistance, so I made the mistake of asking him if they carried Pinnacle speakers, he advised that while they don’t carry it, there is a place in the area that do, called “The Gifted Listener” and told me where they are located- all with a straight face, mind you, of course that place turned out to be one of those very expensive, higher echelon brands with stratospheric prices where I had the most embarrassing experience when I asked if they carried Pinnacle speakers. Needless to say, that was the last time I visited any of those places, and thank god that Myer-Emco den of jerks ran out of business a longtime ago.
How did you friend find and buy Pinnacle speakers?
Your description of a successful audio showroom perfectly describes Paragon Sight and Sound in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although I live near Detroit about 35 miles away, they have attracted me and many others with events that they host with wine, food and hors d’oeuvres and key opinion leaders from the audio world. As mentioned in the article, they have created a sense of community with these events and their welcoming ways.
They have also opened a new room with a headphone bar and a variety of digital streamers, and more non-traditional audio devices. The sales people are well-informed, generous with their time and have none of the snobbery that some high end retailers exhibit. When the time comes to buy my first set of Sonus Fabres, I know exactly where I will buy them.
Local dealer in Madison had a Sonos night with the Sonos rep with appetizers and drinks (wine, water, and beer). They do one about every 3 years.
In the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, the dealer does three per year. Free Heavy appetizers, wine and beer. Sponsors: Sony, Macintosh, several speaker manufactures. These are fantastic since we get to see or hear excellent gear.
No sales pressure, but lots of people set appointments to come back for another listen and normally there is a small discount if sales made within 10 days. These were fantastic events.
To get my business, just do more of these events. I bought an Integra 80.3 at one of those events.
AV stores need to continue to cover the entry level, mid level, high end and ultra high end gear.
At db audio in Berkeley, in the middle 1980s, I would close my store to business for one week (M-F) every May to do seminars with hi end manufacturers all day long, all week long.
We would have 25 to 50 customers per seminar.
The air conditioner could not keep up.
When we re-opened for business on Saturday, the line was a block long down Shattuck Ave.
And the exceptional business continued all summer long.
When I did seminars at Definitive Audio for Transparent Audio 20 years later, there also, the air conditioners could not keep up. Thank you Mark and Craig for letting me present to your customers for all those years.
Another teaching opportunity at db audio was that everyone is a potential customer, everyone!
I taught my employees that every customer has a story and do not dismiss anyone.
I told them that if you are 100% absolutely sure that the person in front of you is not going to ever be a buyer, then try a new sales approach on them; what do you have to loose? At the very least, you have a live person to practice something new on. More likely, you will create a music lover and customer from where there was none.
One day I had a customer in a wheelchair asking me questions. Berkeley had a business called “Center for Independent Living” nearby so we had a lot of handicap and wheelchair customers.
This one used the Ouija Board method of communication with the stick attached to his helmet and an alphabet board in front of him to tap his question.
My employees said I have the patience of Job, the way I took care of this person.
He did not buy from me, but he did thank me for showing me some of the coolest audio he had ever seen or heard.
After he left, his attendant came in to thank me for helping his friend. He told me that that was Stephen Hawking who was at UC Berkeley today to do a presentation on theoretical physics or the evolution of space (or something like that). Imagine that!
db audio had an amazing staff. I think at least six of my former employees (John, Garth, Stirling, Michael, Patti) went on to start their own successful audio businesses after I sold db audio in 1987.
We were blessed in the mid 80s when Ken Kessler of HFNRR magazine from England did a cover story called “Made in the USA”. That article showcased the 25 best audio companies in the USA. 23 were manufacturers and two were retail stores: Sound Components in Coral Gables, FL, and db audio Berkeley.
I, intentionally, did not come to work that day. I wanted Ken to speak to a random employee and not me. He spoke with Jim Alexander.
Oh, the memories of those years.
The moral of the story: To other dealers reading this, if you are only doing seminars once or twice per year, do them during your slow times in order to erase the slow times.
And, do not count out any customer in your store: today’s “shopper” is tomorrow’s music lover and customer.
Doug Blackwell, the db of db audio
aka, Victor Mason, musician
Today, I am a music performer. I returned to what I was doing in the 60s and early 70s in San Francisco that led me to my love of hi end audio.
I lol’d at the opening description. I visited a NYC store last winter to plot an upgrade path from my AVR and ID speakers to entry level high end, and the guy was so rude and pompous that I swore I’d never set foot in there again. The pitch was basically: it’s these Wilsons or nothing. Gee thanks. I’m going to try a different place that I hear has good service to check out the Focal Kantas. Fingers crossed my money is green enough for them.
We at Sunny also host fun events. These events made us realize that we needed some inexpensive electronics and speakers. We have just brought in Dali speakers from Denmark as they have a unique approach in designing speakers. We have also invested in Roon and reasonably priced receivers, integrateds and streamers from NAD. Our Technics and NAIM Setup is awesome at $10995.00 for a complete solution. We are going to have a Sunny Components Reopening here soon after we get back from Germany.
Before there was Best Buy, there was the Sound of Music, which was a real hi-fi store. I met Richard Schultz on a visit, because we both sold JansZen Electrostatic speakers (made in Minneapolis). Then one day a tornado hit one of his stores and he had a big, discounted “tornado best buy sale.” The rest is history. Now, a 50,000 sq foot Best Buy store has 200 sq foot dedicated to real audio (except Magnolia).
Best Buy didn’t hurt real audio stores.
The manufacturer’s did. The magazines did. and the retail sales people did.
To sell this stuff you need to love music and great gear. Most big box store people know nothing, could care less, and say anything to make a sale. Many high end sales people don’t give anything more affordable a real listen and have an attitude. The buying public know less than ever, and it is the job of a good sales person to educate. If a client in a big custom jobs wants their main speakers in the ceiling, at least point out that is not a good idea. Do young people know Pandora files represent 10% of the CD data, a format introduced 35 years ago.
A reader commented that he wanted Pinnacle speakers, but did he bother to listen to any of the speakers at Myer Emco, maybe he would have like another one better. Yet, the sales man told him where to buy what he was looking for, and even the the sales person helped this guy out, he complains.
When a magazine writes a rave review on a $10,000 moving coil step up transformer and then raves in the same issue that the $60,000 step up transformer is the best … well maybe the rich dedicated audiophlle gives up, and says, if I can’t have the best I just get a cheap system. By introducing sky rocket high price, and higher price, and higher price components … more than high priced cars … this industry has killed itself. The magazines rave, and while they offer a good review on something cheap, the magazines are guilty of pushing those prices higher and higher.
The manufacturers run adds in the magazine, saying nothing about the product, not even what kind of component it is, do not list a phone number, email, website or address. The snooty being snooty.
The manufacturers let their products be sold on Amazon, not at a discount, the prices are all the same. But, a low end McIntosh $5000 amp is $500 cheaper on Amazon because there was no sales tax. We have 10%. Why did McIntosh do that, they have a network of dealers across the country … all of them really good stores.
A manufacturer offers on line sales and competes with retail stores, with no sales tax or shipping. The manufacturer offers to take the product back in 30 days, but does not provide for the retailer to make the same offer… unless he eats the return.
The manufacturers used to be partners with the retall store that sold, recommended and stood behind their brand. They helped with advertising, printed brochures (on line spec sheets cost the manufactuer nothing, but often say little about their own products.)
At Alterman Audio we celebrated our 20th anniversary with special, off site, event, with all the brands helping, called The Mardi Gras of Sight and Sound. We had hundreds of people and did lots of business. We had seminars about new products, with factory people making presentations and giving away prizes. We printed direct mail books, mailed out thousands and it was all paid for by the brands.
An entire generation of folks do not care about high fidelity sound, home theater or even big screen TVs. But, that generation loves music, pays big bucks to go to concerts and movies too. This industry sees to educate them about how wonderful a good stereo system can be in your home, a great home theater, makes movies come alive and how it can be had for quite reasonable prices.
The “INTERNET” is the is the “Destroyer” of all things “HUMANE”
I think I get your point, but for me the problem with the Internet is there is no easy way to evaluate the quality of information without using multiple data points (or articles) for confirmation.
Do you have a real website for ROLLO AUDIO, or only the crap on SPACEBOOK???
Thank You Kindly, Joe E.