Written by: Robert Heiblim, Partner, bluesalve Partners
What will a successful next-generation audio retailer look like? We already know plenty of examples from the extant luxury and custom installation side of the business. As discussed in our part 1 and part 2 installments, these hybrid dealers are typically focused on high-ticket sales of five and six figures. Audio is often just one item on that bill. Unless said business is serving a super-affluent zip code or a booming new-housing region, this model can only scale so far for so long. The audio market opportunity is bigger than that and is ready to be tapped – just not in the way it used to be.
Be There Or Be Square
One of the elemental gaps in today's audio retail landscape is that the oldest and most obvious consumer desire in the book – "trust your ears" – is often impossible. As a result, people often frequently buy products "deafly" through e-commerce. If they purchase from a legitimate source, they'll maybe get a free trial period to trust their ears, and if they're not happy, they incur the cost and hassle of packing and shipping the return. If they bought off eBay or a less legitimate seller, they might not even get the same grace period; if they don't like it they lump it, with a restocking fee at best, no returns at worst.
People who love audio and music want to hear it for themselves, especially when they're in the market to buy it. They want to go someplace and listen and have full agency over their purchase decision. Consumers don't buy by trusting their ears anymore because there are so few places to use them. Instead, they passively trust web content and user ratings. These are always someone else's experiences (and taste); not the same thing. Next-gen audio retailers must have at least one location where people can hear/see/touch the goods and interact with personnel that shares (and sells) the same passion. This creates solid, face-to-face customer relationships and the foundation for positive word of mouth.
What's My Space?
Since the dawn of "mass-market" custom AV, which can be traced to the explosion of flat-panel TVs at the turn of the century, retailer demo areas have largely focused on video, usually with hidden, in-wall surround sound. The home theater market and the "audio" market deeply overlap of course. But as many now realize, 2-channel is once again a thing and it's definitely not the same thing. A customer looking for a DAC to improve their smartphone or a turntable to get into vinyl probably doesn't experience these any better in theater seating.
Instead, what about lifestyle-oriented listening "stations" scattered around the store that reflect how people really live and where they actually enjoy music? To see who's being successful with this concept, look no further than Ikea, which does a state-of-the-art presentation beyond their current " Symfonisk" collaboration with Sonos. For decades before that partnership, the chain made ingenious use of AV props that indelibly conveyed the lifestyle/living space idea for each room. The idea of auditioning audio in such casual settings (No isolation? No level-matching?) may be anathema to serious audio purists. It is respectfully suggested those customers may no longer represent the best opportunity.
What Are My Offerings?
One of the problems that doomed the old audio chains was product creep. After a while, it wasn't enough to sell home and car sound. A competitive retailer had to add VCRs, then TVs and home theaters. Some added cameras and small appliances, and next thing they knew they were competing with the big box chains, which easily cut them down. And this was long before Amazon took over retail.
Well then, what should you be selling? The hot audio categories should be at the top of the list of course. This includes personal listening gear – headphones, DACs and phono solutions. There are enough brands in these spaces to provide new retailers with sympathetic procurement possibilities, while still providing customers with good, better, best options. In these and other categories, the retailer doesn't need an overly broad assortment because there's no point competing with the web. Besides, you're a specialist. You're the one that curates the mix, which becomes, perforce, your recommendation.
The next-gen audio retailer's value to the customer and the industry goes beyond sale of new products. It also encompasses services and even products that aren't new at all. We'll discuss these offerings further in the final installment of this series. Stay tuned!