Writing this blog turned out to be much easier than I thought!
Everyone who reads this blog is surely aware of the challenges that the Specialty AV industry has faced these past few years. What’s interesting is how various companies have responded to those challenges. Let’s face it: business still sucks. Still, as any good psychotherapist will tell you it’s all about how we deal with crisis that’s important. And when it comes to HiFi, many vendors are dealing with crisis very poorly.
What do I mean? Many brands which were, until recently, sacrosanct, are now available everywhere. Just check out the “Dealers” webpage of once-hallowed manufacturers and you’ll find a bunch of cut-rate, “Home Base” dealers masquerading as real showrooms but with no facilities, staff or overhead. Many vendors are now selling online, sometimes by discounters and sometimes by the manufacturers themselves, who add a shopping cart to their website whenever they need capital. The result is that customers can usually find a better price and dealers no longer know which vendors to trust.
The surest way to know if a manufacturer is desperate is when they start selling online. (I’m not talking about $200 speakers or $300 integrated amps whose economies of scale dictate the sort of broad-based distribution which only the internet can accommodate: I’m talking about components well into the four- or five-figure price range which require demonstration and dealer support.) Don’t get me wrong: I’m not taking a “Shot” at internet-friendly manufacturers…the problem is that there are many companies who, for years, differentiated themselves by criticizing their competitors for selling online while purporting to hold themselves to a higher standard. That’s obviously a luxury they can no longer afford: hypocrisy is much more economical.
No less an authority than Stereo Exchange’s David Wasserman, “The Oracle of Houston Street” and one of the most vocal and articulate protectors of the brick-and-mortar faith, has told me: “I’m resigned to the fact that many of my vendors will sell online and there’s nothing I can do about it.” I disagree. Internet sales and indiscriminate distribution are indeed killing brick-and-mortars, and yet the very dealers whose futures are threatened continue to support companies that sell online…often at the expense of brands with carefully controlled distribution. In this, they’re effectively undermining the entire brick-and-mortar dealer network and are, in fact, expediting their own extinction. It’s as if they’re writing their own epitaph and embracing the outcome as if it were inevitable. It isn’t.
The online customer simply “Picks and Click,” i.e., chooses a product, Googles the lowest price and clicks “Buy It Now.” So, an online dealer needs nothing but a website and the ability to offer lower prices. A Brick-and-Mortar dealer, by contrast, has display models, demonstration facilities and (hopefully) expert salespeople who can guide the customer into a product that’s best suited to his/her needs. The irony here is that, by supporting vendors who encourage internet selling, dealers are actually ignoring their inherent advantages and discarding all those benefits for which they pay rent, salaries and purchase showroom demos.
The problem, then, is that dealers are quick to complain about internet selling yet continue to support those vendors that sell online. The solution should be equally obvious: champion brands which are committed to demonstration-focused, brick-and-mortar retailers. The quickest and surest way to curb internet sales is for brick-and-mortars to deemphasize those brands that sell online. Years ago, when a highly regarded speaker brand planned to sell to a regional discount chain, nine of the top NY Metro dealers banded together and convinced the speaker company to commit to their specialist distribution. That event demonstrates the power that quality dealers can exert upon a manufacturer. At the end of the day, vendors of expensive gear understand that, without a place to see, hear, taste and touch the components they build, sales will suffer. It’s all about valuing what we offer our vendors…and what we offer our customers.
At Specialty Sound and Vision, we’ve chosen brands that forego internet sales in favor of brick-and-mortar dealers who sell by demonstration and expertise. As a result, our dealers rarely, if ever, have pricing issues and the customers who experience our products usually buy from the dealers that demonstrated them in the first place.
Extinction is not a forgone conclusion: through a combination of merchandising, combined purchasing power and a bit of diplomacy, the Independent Specialists’ most profitable days might yet be ahead of us. There is a choice!