A close friend of mine is a big-time wealth manager and former executive at Goldman Sachs. While not normally prone to conspiracy theories, he has strong beliefs that retail, as we’ve known it, is dead. When pressed, he points to the failure of Bed Bath and Beyond and the tarnishing of retailers like Staples as examples. “They do nothing different or better than Amazon,” David opined—and he’s correct.
I would add to the retail-is-dead argument that many local retailers, even in big California cities like Santa Monica and Los Angeles, carry so little inventory that it is purely embarrassing. The idea that a 10,000-square-foot, two-story-tall Staples location could ever run out of uber-profitable cardboard shipping boxes is a brutal indictment of the company’s just-in-time inventory management. If I want bland-ass shipping boxes, I can order them from Amazon for cheap (and with free shipping) to be delivered to the front door of my house the next day. The all-important draw of a local store is getting the product I actually want right when I want it.
Audiophile retailers face their own share of problems. They want you to pay in advance for special-order audiophile components, thus using your money to pay for the product while they make 40 to 50 percent margin on the sale. That may be wonderful for them, but it won’t entice people who love to get what they want when they want it—be it an audiophile streamer or some boxes from Staples. Plus it’s getting harder to find physical real estate. Dealers in places like New York City can’t justify first-floor retail locations “in the city” any more because the costs are simply not sustainable. Here in Los Angeles, dealers are moving farther and farther out of the big-rent markets and moving into industrial parks and lower-cost but larger, more acoustically relevant digs. As a result, audiophiles looking for their next big investment are forced to travel farther to hear the gear that they’re interested in, be it to a regional audiophile show or to visit a dealer who has bucked up for an active demo of said “lust-worthy” audiophile gem.
While there are regional actors trying to get into the online audiophile retail game with varied levels of success, the pink elephant in the room is Amazon.com. The site is attracting more and more audiophile brands to its platform because, despite the company’s heavy-handed ways, Amazon is where consumers are most comfortable spending their money. Two-day (or less) shipping is key. Liberal return policies give added value. The site’s growing collection of much-better-than-average audiophile gear makes Amazon hard to ignore these days. You can get excellent electronics and world-class headphones and speakers from top-10 brands. Amazon is the sleeping giant of the audiophile space.
What Can Audiophile Dealers Do to Compete in an Ever-Evolving Retail Market?
By no means are things hopeless for audiophile retailers. In fact, I’m a little shocked that there aren’t more passionate audiophiles starting their own local stores because, when done right, they can make tech-executive money by selling the products that power their personal passion. How does the old quote go? “Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life.” A larger number of young audiophiles should be looking to find their way into the audiophile retail game.
The question is, how to compete? How do you beat the regional online retailers? More importantly, how do you beat Amazon? The answers, thankfully, are staring us right in the face.
- Customer Service Is King. Offer things that big-box and online retailers can’t, such as the ability to borrow replacement products while something is being serviced.
- Protect Audiophile Consumer Values. Offer impressive trade-in values in ways that no online retailer would dream of. Back in the 1990s at Cello Music and Film, we gave our clients two years of 100 percent trade-in value when upgrading to our very pricey, reference components. And we made plenty of money doing that while cultivating fierce customer loyalty.
- Provide Meaningful Labor at a Local Level. If a customer needs a new, flat-screen TV installed, do it at a fair price in a timely manner. If new audiophile components need to be installed, do so at little to no cost, depending on the historical spending and referral history of the customer.
- Be More Green. Offer e-waste and recycling options for consumer electronics of all types. Let the client know that you took their junk and made sure it didn’t just get sent to the local dump. Help people recycle electronics without them having to deal with the grief.
- Creatively Broker Used Audiophile Gear. Use your money to buy quality, used audiophile gear when relevant. If that is impossible, work with brokers like the Speaker Room in Colorado and have them buy your client’s gear. When the transaction goes through with agreed-to pricing, send someone over to box up and ship off the product in order to make the experience as no-fuss as possible. Leave the customer feeling really good about supporting your store. Thank him or her for their loyalty verbally.
- Inventory and Show Key Audiophile Products. Don’t assume that your audiophile customers will already know what to buy when they walk in the door. Offer your consumers a reasonable but robust amount of audiophile options in every key price point—not just the Oligarch audio level—and make it hard for them to justify ever buying gear elsewhere.
- Generously Reward Customer Loyalty. Like an airline mileage program, reward your best clients when they spend more money with you or (better yet) when they refer new clients to your store. If you got a $20,000 home theater sale from the friend of a good audiophile client, why not give said client a credit of, say, $1,000 to spend on anything in the store priced $2,000 and above? How about giving the client who referred his friend a modest, new 4K television? That’s chicken feed compared to the new clients and new profit margins that they may deliver.
Apple provides stunning, non-outsourced customer service and support that is so good, even ultra-tech-savvy consumers pop for the extra expense of Apple Care. When you’re having a Lexus serviced, the dealership will loan you a car that is always a notch above the one that you have at no cost. Porsche dealers near me offer to wash your car for free literally any time that you stop by the service bay. No appointment needed. They just want you to feel good about your automotive investment.
I disagree with my wealth-manager friend about the future of retail being so bleak because I believe that American entrepreneurs are ultra-creative and can/will adapt to the ever-changing market conditions. But if things remain status quo—with audiophile dealers wanting to use clients’ money to fund high-profit-margin but purely transactional sales—then he will be correct in his prediction about retail.
I’ve recently talked with at least 10 exciting, new audiophile-based retailers who are doing things differently and having success. Their client bases love them for being mindful of their needs and passions, and their businesses are making very, very respectable money. That’s the kind of win-win that the audiophile industry needs. Other luxury-goods brands do it. So can we.
Have you experienced excellent customer service be it in or outside of the audiophile space that has been inspiring? Share with us in the moderated comments below. We love to hear from you.