Brick and Mortar AV Retail vs Internet Direct: Which is Right for You?
A behind-the-scenes look at brick-and-mortar retail sales, and some reasons why often it’s still a wise choice of where to buy your gear…
The front window is pasted with decals of iconic esoteric audio companies…Dynavector, Audio Research, VPI, Jadis, Krell…Once inside Frobischer’s Land of Audio Enchantment, you notice wild designs with peculiar names, like a Pear Audio Blue Kid Thomas turntable, a Linn Akurate Akudorik Exakt system, a Kiseki Purple Heart Sapphire phono cartridge, and even Audio Vaccine Music Serum anti-resonant devices. (I made none of those names up. They are all Real Things.) Although there is high-end digital gear, most of what you see is choobs and vine-yule, played through exotic flat-panel transducers or frightening loudspeaker contraptions that appear to have been left over from a Transformers movie.
The air is still as a 1950’s funeral parlor, with an odd hybrid aroma of patchouli, smoky carbon, and burnt coffee. A tall, thin hipster slowly looks up at you from his chair, somewhat annoyed at your presence, and snarls, “Yes? Do you have an appointment??” You do not, in fact, have an appointment, so you apologize profusely and back out the door, gingerly trying to avoid knocking over the “Audio Anomalies Transcendental Wire Riser” display. (Okay, I made that name up…)
An array of speakers lined up for demo on a busy noisy showfloor at Best Buy. The pushed in cones gives them a more "audiophile" sound. Can you really make an accurate assessment like this?
You retreat and opt to continue your audio/video quest at a huge, generic mass merchandiser. You park in the vast parking lot and walk 150 yards to the front doors, and you immediately navigate through a hundred metal shopping carts like you’d see in a supermarket. As big and intimidating as a Home Depot, you see aisles and aisles of budget A/V stuff: LCD televisions, a Monster Cable display, $199.99 7-channel receivers (“100” watts x 7; power consumption 350 watts), glossy tower speakers, eighty-buck bookshelf speakers, computers, vacuum cleaners, vaporizers, headphones, and every conceivable audio-video doo-dad and gee-gaw, all sitting on miles of shelves with point-of-purchase displays and sale pricing. You finally locate a “sales associate” named Todd (according to his name tag). Todd is in his early 20s, seemingly terrified, and last week he could have been a server at Bennigan’s. After three minutes of awkward conversation with Todd, you return to the parking lot to try and find your Mazda.
Remember this guy? Good if you don't as you didn't miss much other than the various frauds they committed. When searching out brick-and-mortar stores, do your best to avoid the high-pressure purveyors of junk. If a store first and foremost is selling a low price, save 100% and don't buy anything from them.
You have experienced the extremes of retail audio-video shopping, and you are disenchanted. Maybe you should just buy online and avoid human contact. The End.
But wait - There is Hope!
The typical privately-owned audio-video store, like the one I worked in all through the ‘80s, is not as prevalent today. There are still some fancy high-end audio salons, a few good mainstream audio-video stores, big box houses, and many, many more custom A/V dealers. The dealers that survived the past two decades usually carry the better products in a given price range, and they can offer excellent service and advice.
When I ended my eleven-year high-end retail career in 1989, my sales were made up mainly of repeat customers and referrals. I am still friends with a few of them to this day. I learned much earlier from my father, also a salesman, that if you have a good product, if you’re honest and knowledgeable, and if you follow up, customers will return, and over time you’ll build an annuity. An experienced salesperson who has had years of experience with quality products is in a good position to put together a system that will work synergistically, and he can save you from yourself. You may want to mate components that aren’t compatible for some obscure reason, and a good audio consultant can steer you away from disaster. Maybe the speakers you’re set on getting won’t work properly in your room. And maybe that feature-laden receiver you’re jonesin’ for won’t drive the 4-ohm speakers you want. Maybe there’s a new video technology that’s about to drop in price if you wait two months. Assembling all the pieces of a home theater or a whole-house system requires more knowledge and experience than even a fairly accomplished DIY guy has. As an example, I knew that two very good pieces of gear we sold weren’t compatible, but there was no way a customer would know this. After destroying a few Yamaha R1000 receiver output stages on the sales floor while driving Polk Audio RTA12 speakers, I knew to steer people away from this combination. They were both excellent products, but they just didn’t work well together. That Yammy receiver, when paired with a/d/s speakers, worked flawlessly, and subsequent Yamaha receivers worked better into low impedance loads. Unless you worked with the gear 60 hours a week, there were idiosyncrasies about which you might not know.
What to Look For
If you decide to rely upon a dealer, there are a few things you should be looking for. A dealer that primarily does audio should either be well-established and/or have experienced people working there. Reputation is important. They should carry at least some very recognizable high-end brands. And a custom A/V dealer should also be experienced, and they should definitely be a CEDIA member. (CEDIA stands for Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association.) CEDIA is a worldwide organization that has been around since the early ‘90s, and they provide the bulk of the dealer technical training that’s done in the custom AV industry. A CEDIA member dealer is very likely to be an expert in audio, video, whole house, alarm, satellite, installation, etc., and they’ll carry top brands. A drawback is many CEDIA dealers don’t have a demo facility because they’re so busy in the field. (Another potential drawback I’ve found with some CEDIA dealers is they are expert in whole-house technologies and video, but their audio chops may be weaker.) Often a custom dealer can take you to another client’s home for a demo, or at least a better look at their work. Regardless of which type of retailer you seek out, form a bond with the best possible salesperson. This maven should be trusted the way you trust a doctor, master mechanic, or any other professional. The brands they sell are secondary to their personal integrity and expertise. If you can’t find “the guy” at a dealer, consider finding another dealer. You may pay a bit more, but it’s probably worth it.
Now this is a nice demo room loaded with great gear and good room acoustics.
On occasion I would get a customer who would be, let’s say, “aggressively price conscious.” If this became the focus of our business relationship, and the customer was trying to back me into a corner, I would have to tell him about The Three Things. I would explain to him that when they bought something, there were Three Things they could have…Quality; Service; and Price. Then I would ask them “Which two of those do you want?” (fellow Audioholics Staff Writer Steve Feinstein points out the corollary of the acoustics Iron Law of deep bass, small enclosure, high sensitivity. Which two do you want?) For a salesperson to spend twenty hours working with you, painstakingly designing a nice two-channel system, letting you take things home to audition, setting up the exact system for you to listen to, come to your house, have an in-house service department and a return policy, you probably should be prepared to pay a little more than internet pricing. This isn’t to say you should be fleeced or not get a system discount, but your salesperson’s time and expertise (and his ability to keep you from tragically buying the wrong gear) is certainly worth something.
Most retail and custom dealers realize that they’re not going to make any money selling video products because there are no longer many limited-distribution brands. But they’ll sell you a 50” LCD at close to the Costco price (and not make a cent) so you purchase the other gear and labor from them. If at all possible, buy all your electronics and speakers from the same dealer, especially if they’re doing a custom installation. If a component fails (it’s inevitable), you will want some recourse and you don’t want finger-pointing. If you want your custom dealer to install and calibrate something you bought elsewhere that he can’t repair, you might want to reconsider.
What determines the brands a company sells?
In the glory days of hi-fi (until the Internet opened up distribution) the smaller audio and video dealers had dibs on the best and most desirable brands. The “mail order” businesses (now “online” dealers) had access only to the pedestrian, big-name mass-merchandised products. Over the years that has changed so that now you can buy many top brands from a reputable dealer online. However, always make sure they’re factory authorized dealers for that brand. And, an argument can be made that a brick-and-mortar dealer will try to push the lines they carry, regardless of quality or relevance. While that can be true, an independent dealer usually seeks out the brands they prefer; products they have evaluated and found superior. Most dealers sell brands they have chosen to sell. Dealers try to assemble product pieces that work well with one another. This can take some of the guesswork out of assembling a system. Of course, there are brands that brick-and-mortar as well as internet dealers sell because of an inflated profit margin so they can show a big discount or make a bigger profit. The bastages!
Demo room shenanigans
If you’re in a demo room of any dealer, there are a few things you should know, even if you’re allegedly Mr. Sharp Person. In an A/B listening test, you will almost always pick the speaker that’s louder (or has more pronounced bass), at least initially. In a side-by-side display of televisions, you will almost always pick the one that’s brighter and has more contrast. In neither situation does that mean “better.” Speakers have to be level-matched for an accurate and honest comparison, and TVs must be calibrated the same. Beware of dealers who set up displays so the models they would prefer to sell jump out at you. You may encounter this more at big box houses than you will at smaller, independent dealers. And you will not encounter this online, where you can’t A/B anything.
See: Audioquest Boombox Demo to see an example of such shenanigans.
The Bottom Line
We are currently in an era where the quality of online A/V businesses as well as the quality of the products they sell has never been better. Because of buyer reviews and feedback, online dealers are conscious of their reputation and they take service seriously. If you are somewhat knowledgeable about audio and video gear, it is possible to assemble a great system through your Magic Thinkin’ Box at your desk. But many of us also value the expertise and immediacy of a brick-and-mortar dealer.
Do your homework as much as you are able to. Start with this site which is an invaluable resource via it's no nonsense, comprehensive product reviews and various educational articles to aid you with product selection, and set up to get the most out of your equipment. Search out local dealers who have a talented staff of experts and reputable brands. Find the “maven” at that dealer; someone who is willing to spend the time it takes to get you the best gear for your budget, and someone who will help you put it all together, offer installation services, loaners, and repair. And find someone you feel you can trust. Although it’s very possible to put together a great system buying online, the more complex your system is, the more you may need professional, hands-on help. A wise shopper will give consideration to both approach.
Actual quotes I have heard on a retail sales floor…Skip these if you are especially sensitive.
A woman placed a B&O turntable on the counter and proclaimed, “My husband is having a problem with premature ejection.” I surmised that the tonearm was lifting before the end of the record, and I carried it back to the service department while biting my lip…
An exasperated salesman colleague who will remain nameless could not close a sale on an inexpensive portable stereo finally looked at the woman and her daughter and blurted out, “Look. This is exactly the same stereo John Lennon was on the way to buy when he got shot…” Okay, the salesman’s name is Lloyd Higley.
Before Father’s Day one year, a woman walked up to me and asked, “Do you have tan genitals?” I maintained composure until I realized she meant a turntable with a tangentially-tracking tonearm. Either she didn’t realize what she had said, or I had been skillfully punked.
Note: For anyone wondering, the striking young man in the photo to the right is yours truly.