Months ago, I wrote about how, if I owned an audiophile store, I would have a $2,000 and under audiophile room loaded with the latest computer audio, USB DACs, affordable amps, speakers and more. The idea of selling audio gear that appeals to enthusiasts but can only be afforded by one-percenters is simply a failing business model. In recent weeks, we've been cleaning up the HomeTheaterReview.com dealer database to find that nearly 20 percent of our hand-picked top audiophile dealers and custom installation firms are now gone. They could have evolved and adapted like the reinvented Sound by Singer and the more "hybrid audiophile - CI" dealer Sound Components in Miami. There are dealers getting it right out there.
There is new growth out there, but the vast amount of business lost from the collapse of Tweeter, Circuit City, the Good Guys, regional chains like Myer Emco and countless audiophile salons, as well as dozens of custom installers who ported their business from fire alarm install to custom install home theater, has gone to discount warehouse stores like Costco and Wal-Mart. I would throw Best Buy into the mix, but their recent performance and leadership have them with one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel. You heard it here on HomeTheaterReview.com first and places like Forbes.com next.
How can somebody save an audiophile dealer or a specialty AV store? Beyond drastically cutting overhead, dropping dead and bloated product lines and getting more relevant like Andy Singer and Mark Goldman did at Sound by Singer and Sound Components, respectively, I suggest that dealers start enthusiastically selling headphones. Yes - headphones. Headphones are an industry category that is literally booming. Apple can release an iPad and sell 3,000,000 units in the first week, which proves that there are plenty of people to who will now buy a better audio experience, and iPads are only part of the tablet/phone/device market. Need more proof? Look at the number of Facebook fans for headphone companies or AV companies selling headphones. Beats by Dre are well above 2,000,000 fans. Bowers & Wilkins have over 36,000 when no other audiophile-type company is even close to that kind of number. The headphone market is booming right now.
There are other advantages to selling headphones. One of the most important issues is that headphones are an "and" sale, not an "or" sale. What I mean by that is that an audiophile doesn't have to sell his Parasound amp to get a Krell amp as part of an upgrade path. Much like a watch collector, someone who loves audio might have a pair of high-end in-ear monitors for travel, like the Etymotic Research or Ultimate Ears, while also having a pair of at-home, over-the-ear headphones from the likes of Stax, Sennheiser, Grado or any number of other audiophile brands and/or headphone newcomers like Paradigm, Focal and others. You might need a pair of inexpensive but earbud-upgrade headphones for your workout bag. You might need upgraded headphones for your phone, so that you have a microphone built in for your morning drive. There are a lot of reasons to spend as much on headphones as you would with traditional audiophile components these days.
For younger users, headphones are as much fashion as they are function. Headphones are to Generation Y people of both genders what "sex on a stick" shoes are to Generation X women. Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City did an admirable job of teaching today's late-thirty-somethings about how they desperately needed a three-inch pair of strappy Jimmy Choos or a $2,500 pair of alligator Christian Louboutins, complete with the signature red soles, as well as dozens of other shoes with matching bags and beyond. Women learned to collect shoes in ways men collect watches, but most don't collection audio and video components.
Headphones, like women's shoes, don't last forever. Headphones physically wear out. They get lost. They get beat. They get old. They go out of style. This means headphones are unlike a Mark Levinson amp, which is a purchase like a fine timepiece that lasts for your entire life and will likely gets passed on to another audiophile when you are through with it. Headphones are much more disposable. They have a finite lifespan and that's a good thing for getting people back into the store. Even with exotic cars, a certain number of people are likely to wrap one around a pole. Those cars are now off the road. Even if you blow tweeters on your Wilson Sasha WPs like a madman, Wilson will replace them for you (albeit at some point on your dime) with a smile, while still keeping those speakers functioning and looking as good as they did the day you took the plastic off of them.
Back to the all-important and bigger-than-the-Baby-Boomer Generation Y market. Let's be clear: selling to this audience is the key to the future of audio. They love music as much if not more than any group before them and they are attached to their devices. While the economy hasn't provided them the cushy jobs that Generation X saw when they were coming into the workplace in the late 1990s, Gen Y will see boom times again and they have massive buying power. Selling headphones of all sorts brings the next generation of clients into audio salons and AV stores, which is inclusive. Moreover, Generation Y use headphones like fashion items, so if they have the money to invest, they may want to make a hip-hop statement with some Beats by Dre or Skull Candy headphones. Perhaps someone wants to make a "legalize it" Rasta statement - he or she might look to a pair of House of Marley headphones. If people are looking for a slicker, more modern pair of headphones, there are trick offerings like Bowers & Wilkins P5s or B&O headphones. Each of these categories of headphones makes a style or social statement as much as a technological one and provides a way for the next generation of customer to get comfortable doing business with audiophile salons. Audiophile stores need to be more approachable. Products need to be not just more aff
ordable, but also more relevant. Odd-ball, over-priced gear that costs more than six months of student loan payments doesn't sell to Generation Y.
From a business to business standpoint, selling headphones is a no-brainer for the specially AV store. Unlike our shoe example, headphones don't come in sizes. Headphones are small and easy to show and/or demonstrate. They are also easy to stock, and you can sell nearly every brand on the market from Bose to Stax and everything in between. Headphones are the new "attach sale," which is ironic, as it was Noel Lee of Monster Cable who taught AV dealers to sell cable as an up-sell. Now it's headphones that offer that same sales opportunity.
So many audiophile dealers boo-hoo about how bad things are, when they are missing the fact that they are simply failing to take advantage of market opportunities that are out there. Editorially, HomeTheaterReview.com is going to review more and more headphones, not just because they sound great or have a new form factor, but because they represent a new gateway for sales and sales opportunities that can reinvigorate a traditional audiophile store. Imagine: a father brings his teenaged son and daughter into the stereo store on a Saturday afternoon. They have a Classé preamp and look at the new Panasonic ultra-thin plasmas, but before leaving, the kids hit Dad up for a new pair of cool headphones. It's not as crazy as you may think, and not only does the dealer pay the rent for the next few days with the sale of the headphones, but he planted the seed for audio purchases with not just Dad, but the kids, too.