Boy did I ever grab the attention of the dealers in America during these hot summer months. I have received dozens of emails from AV retailers around the country objecting to calling (in general terms) dealers "lazy" and "entitled" while calling most reps mere "order-takers". Some manufacturers were even peeved with me for talking about margins (specifically rep margins); however these numbers are realistically no secret to the audiophile, as no hobbyist group does more research and or tries harder to get the most audio performance from their beloved music playback system. For that, you have to love the traditional audiophile even if they are a spending less and less as they age.
A lot of people think that as the American economy starts its long road to recovery, that things will rebound right back to normal. Many of the print magazines that HomeTheaterReview.com fights over ad budgets with, truly believe the days of getting $6,000, $8,000 and $10,000-plus per page for an ad with no statistical accountability, that reaches an increasingly older audience will be returning. They are wrong. Dead wrong. Audio dealers who think a "killer app," like the somewhat profit-rich, flat HDTV, will drive dozens of new customers through their front doors are also misled. HDTVs today are now mostly a commodity and consumers looking to spend a little extra money above the big box retailers and especially the warehouse stores demand that they get more and more for their incremental spends. If it makes the retailers feel any better - the ad agencies demand the same from online publications. If you are spending for premium goods in any market these days - you can ask for the world and you might just get it. That's just how things are right now in this economy.
I believe the solution for specialty AV dealers' sales and/or profitability woes is to return to what made the "stereo store" truly great. I am proposing that dealers get back to selling audio. That's right - I said it's time to get back to selling high performance audio gear. It is true that consumers believe what they see much more than what they hear; thus the "order taking" comments in recent weeks. All salespeople want the easy "lay down" sale but that isn't really the foundation of a great working relationship. With over 200,000,000 Apple iPods walking around in the hands of the next generation of potential audio enthusiast fans' hands, and traditional audiophiles headed quickly towards Social Security, I am proposing a different way to sell audio. I am proposing selling audio for the new economy and for a New Generation. The consumer demand is there as Apple has proven to us. The question is: are dealers too set in their ways to get away from selling bloated, overly-esoteric audiophile products to older clients or can they get back to audiophilia's roots when younger Baby Boomers in the 1980s bought up the likes of Adcom, Aragon, Magnepan, Luxman, NAD and other value oriented products that led to a generation-long audio gear love affair?
The Under $2,500 Room
I am challenging - especially the dealers who emailed me in the past few weeks - to consider investing (YES - this means you have to spend some of your money) in one new room in a traditional brick and mortar store. Call it the "Under $2,500 Room" because nothing in the room should be much above that price point, as the next generation of consumers can't yet pop for high end Meridian, Wilson and Mark Levinson - but someday will. It just takes time, interest and money.
First off, gut the room with the help of a contractor. Ditch the drywall and replace it with Quiet Rock which is easily three times the cost of traditional drywall but with its "goop" you can create a very quiet environment to listen in, even for affordable gear. Fill the walls with acoustical material made from recycled blue jeans or other "green" sound deadening materials. Replace any windows with new, multi-pane windows which are more energy efficient and quiet. Ultimately install absorptive treatments for the windows to reduce unwanted reflections. Rip out the carpet and perhaps replace it with dark hardwood floors (think Apple Store) or even polished cement. Add a thick carpet to soften the acoustics. Place a thick carpet in the middle of the room where the main seating will be, to help with absorption and to create a luxurious yet modern look.
Before finishing the drywall, wire the walls with HDMI cables for one or two video displays but not many. Run conduit in the walls for multiple runs of speaker cables and audio cables too. This costs nearly nothing when the walls are opened and its allows you to keep the cable clutter to a minimum, which is how Apple does it - but not how most traditional stereo stores show affordable audio gear.
When the Quiet Rock is up and the room is painted, build a relatively thin fabric wall (Whisper Walls are good) on two sides of the room as well as in the ceiling. Install easily 50 low voltage lights with very specific tasks of lighting up reading areas for the listener, showcasing gear on display. No one light is designed to light the entire room. Control the lights with a Lutron Grafix Eye or some other good lighting control that costs under $1,000, and create lighting scenes.
There should be a good amount of equipment in the room. However there should only be one (maybe two) seats, preferably ones that swivel and that have foot rests like an Eames chair. The majority of the equipment should be resting on custom made (but not too pricey) maple veneer shelves positioned from waist level to a little bit higher. Avoid the urge to put gear on the floor like a stereotypical stereo store. Create a focus on the gear currently working by placing it on stands than match the shelves made by your cabinet maker. They can be rectangular and perhaps different heights to create visual interest. These stands will be cheap to make as they will be made from plywood and covered in exotic wood veneers. Keep the systems simple and elegant with cable clutter at a minimum.
For the rest of the equipment in the room (and there should be a good amount to create an art gallery effect) showcase the equipment on the shelves. Hide the power cables by cutting holes in the shelves and use polished aluminum grommets to organize the cables. Realistically, most of the gear in the room won't be actively demo'ed but could easily be moved from the shelves and into service if needed. Equipment should have plastic tags with printed information about the product like you would see in an art museum. "XYZ's USB stereo preamp, made in Belgium, $1,995." Let people learn on their own what things cost without having to pitch it to them constantly. This room is designed to be very approachable for the new school customer.Read more, including the necessary equipment requirements, on Page 2.