There are a lot of really fantastic retail stores in Beverly Hills. Rodeo Drive only starts to highlight what the "Beverly Hills Triangle" has to offer well-heeled shoppers looking for something a little bit better or fancier than the norm. My absolute favorite store, just one block away from the fabled Rodeo Drive, is The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills.
This emporium of culinary decadence is as analog and awesome as it gets for those of us who dig such things. They have a nearly endless supply of the most sought-after (and often a little stinky) fromage, and they'll hand-craft you the most epic yet simple sandwich on a super fresh roll, with hand-cut meats (because an electric motor heats up the fat, which changes the flavor of the slimy-yet-awesome exotic European meats).
You're pretty much guaranteed to have a great time if you ever can make it in to see Norberto Wabnig and his crew. Smile at them and they will let you taste $20-plus-per-pound cheese until you nearly explode. They aren't in a rush. They know you will buy something, be it a sexy bottle of White Burgundy or some crusty-soft cheese, or even a $8,000-per-pound Italian white truffle bathing in a bed of dry Arborio rice waiting for you to do something exotic when you get back to your kitchen.
Our offices aren't in Beverly Hills anymore; in fact, they don't exist anywhere anymore, as we are a virtual and paper-less company these days. So, I don't make the trek east to Beverly Hills every day anymore. I truly miss the place, as during the day the population of this small town located fully inside the boundaries of the second largest city in America booms to over 300,000 people. People lunch, walk around, and take in the sights. It's people-watching at the most compelling level.
I do make it back to my old stomping grounds one a month to get a haircut, though, and after a recent trim on nearby Canon Drive, I walked over to see Norberto and his guys. The second I walked in the door, they began to protest the fact that I haven't been in the store in forever. I gave them a handful of half-hearted. "I am a vegan now" (not even close to true). "I just got out of prison" (also not true but seemingly believable to this audience). They all laughed.
I wasn't merely there to catch up with old friends, though. I was in the market for an Italian white truffle for homemade, almond-wood-fired pizzas that I was going to make for Thanksgiving. Good white truffles are physically light, but they carry a heavy price. One of them thinly sliced over top of a pizza might cost well into the hundreds of dollars. They are seasonal, fragile, and pretty much the greatest food item ever. When the staff of The Cheese Store introduces you to the truffles that they get from Italy periodically, it's like a first date. And the staff is protective too... "No, this one is no good for you. I know what you like and you won't like this one." It's a shopping experience like no other. I can't afford it very often, but it's so much fun.
I selected a truffle on the smaller side of things and it was packed carefully. But before I could leave, Dominick reached to the shelves and pulled down a small, $14 glass jar of black truffle sea salt and then dove into the dairy case and pulled out a small brick-sized chunk of French butter. He said, "you like popcorn for your movies, right?" I guess. He said, "I guarantee you this will make the best popcorn of your life," and he put them in my bag.
A few nights later, I made some of this gourmet popcorn, and you know what? It was exactly as fantastic as promised. Perhaps the best, most flavorful popcorn that I have ever eaten. The butter is long gone now, but my six year old has gotten into the habit of requesting a sprinkle of this salt on his eggs in the morning. Kids and truffles--only in L.A., right?
Click on over to Page 2 to find out what the heck all of this has to do with AV...
At this point you may be thinking, "Okay, but does any of this have to do with specialty AV?" I assure you, there is a lesson to be learned from this story, beyond merely a recipe for game-changing popcorn that any home theater fan would love. The lesson is about client retention and development. While HomeTheaterReview.com supports all sorts of AV product distribution pipelines--be it big box stores, warehouse stores, online retailers, catalogs, what have you--we still believe the traditional brick and mortar "stereo store" is key to the development and growth of the hobby and business. Good stereo stores know how to do what The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills does. They engage new customers as well as long-time customers like me.
When you get right down to it, Norberto and crew share some of the blame for my (hopefully temporary) obesity. Every time I go into the Cheese Store, the make me try something new. They are always engaging me about what I'm making at home. What's you plan for Thanksgiving? They actually care. Stereo stores can do the same thing. Implement a CRM (a fancy contact program like Salesforce.com or Zoho that allows you to track all sorts of details about your customers) and you can engage them on their level of personal interests. How much would it cost to buy a dozen or two Ultra HD Blu-rays of a movie or documentary and give it away to good prospects or excellent past clients? Imagine playing Blue Planet II from the BBC in 4K on, say, an LG OLED or a Sony 65-inch MASTER Series set, and then handing the guy a disc to take home to play on his older, lesser set? You think he can't tell the difference between his weak-sauce contrasts and these new sets that reproduce absolute black? He can. And you might just land yourself a $4,000-plus-dollar TV sale.
Dealers can do the same thing with music. Buy and rip a file onto a small thumb drive with the store's logo on it so that your audiophile clients can listen to a hot track on the latest and greatest audio system in the store, then go home and listen to it on their system. Whatever the thumb drive and song cost to buy is a small investment in inspiring consumers to continue to invest in their AV systems.
A local money manager friend of mine who used to work at Goldman Sachs is very down on the future of retail, and we often discuss (argue about) it on the golf course. He says, "get into or invest in business that can't be replaced by Amazon.com," and I know what he's talking about. Go into the West Los Angeles Staples store and note how lousy the quality of the products is and how little inventory is packed into a 10,000 square foot, two-story-tall retail location. Literally, Amazon.com does everything better and soon will deliver my six-pack of packing tape or a box of printer paper the day I order it. Staples is dead. But AV stores are not. Amazon.com can't provide the personal experience that a traditional brick and mortar AV store can. Costco or Target can't nurture your system's growth and development. Nor can they tell you how to make a bowl of popcorn perfectly to your tastes.
How does your local AV dealer (assuming you still have one) live up to the standard of the popcorn experience? What other retailers have you been to in your world that provide an experience that is notable, fun, or unique? We always want to hear from you in the comments below.
Read A Tale of Two L.A. Malls Sheds Light on the Future of AV Retail at HomeTheaterReview.
• Read Ten Reasons Why Brick-and-Mortar AV Stores Aren't Going Away Anytime Soon at HomeTheaterReview.