House Calls: Value-Added Retailing

There's this really awful joke:

After another long day in the city, recording jingles and soundtracks, a viola player is driving his car back home from the train station when he sees that his street has been blocked off by police cars, their lights flashing. He pulls over, gets out of his car, and walks to the top of his street.

To his horror, he sees fire personnel and EMTs going in and out of his house. The police have already put up barriers of yellow "Crime Scene" tape. He gets the attention of the two policemen who are keeping the gawkers at bay by blurting out, "I live there!"

One of the policemen walks over and says, "You the viola player?" The viola player nods wordlessly. The policeman calls for a detective. The detective arrives, puts his hand on the violist's shoulder, and says, "Hey, buddy, sorry to give you the bad news. Your manager went crazy, came to your house, killed your dog, raped your wife, killed her, set fire to the house, and then killed himself."

In stupefied bewilderment, the viola player asks wonderingly, "My manager came to my house?"

This joke immediately came to my mind when I heard the latest in a continuing series of audio retail horror stories. This one involves the mis-spending of more money than my parents paid for their first house. And so, brothers and sisters, brace yourselves for another sermon..(footnote 1).

I was chatting with a high-end audio retailer. I mentioned that I really love the Brand A amplifier. I said I wished that I could hear it with Brand B's Model 1 loudspeakers. The dealer then told me that, although he was not a Brand B dealer, he had just taken a pair of Model 1s in trade. He hadn't even played them yet.

I was flabbergasted. The Model 1 is Brand B's newest speaker—so new that, when this conversation took place, it had not yet been formally reviewed by any print magazine. In my humble opinion, the Model 1 is one of the best loudspeakers in the world. As well it should be—it costs more than $20,000/pair.

I refuse to believe that someone who has bought a pair of Model 1s can't get exceptional sound out of them through some combination of speaker and listening-chair placement, room acoustical remediation, and attention to associated equipment. Believe me: starting with Model 1s, you are not, as they sometimes say in our military, "in AOS mode" (All Options Suck).

I think the dissatisfied customer had been seriously let down by the dealer from whom he had bought the Model 1s. Getting exceptional—as distinct from acceptable—sound out of nearly any loudspeaker, especially one with full frequency range and dynamics, requires a certain amount of expertise and a certain amount of just plain work. This is not expertise that can be imparted over the phone, and this is not work that can be done over the phone. Somebody has to get off his keister and actually get out to his customer's house.

I am not proposing that dealers work for free. If someone hasn't yet bought a pair of loudspeakers but is a bona fide prospect (especially for a pricey model), the dealer should be willing to make a brief scouting visit at no charge, and make general recommendations about which speakers will do well in the room, and where they should be positioned. Any more involved pre-purchase consultation, such as measuring room dimensions, calculating bass modes, or computer-aided room analysis and layout, should be billed and paid for at rates appropriate for the locale.

Most purchasers of loudspeakers costing more than a month's worth of groceries should get free local delivery, and free setup by rough rules and ear. By the same token, customers should expect to pay, one way or another, for acoustical analysis and in-room testing. (I can't imagine an audio shop being able to give discounts off list price and do free in-home acoustical analysis, and long stay in business. After all, no one who buys a video projector and screen expects free installation and free ISF calibration. In that regard, the home-theater business is running rings around two-channel.)

Listen up, all you audio dealers: You put a music CD in a computer and sound comes out. You put a music CD in a home-theater system and sound comes out. Many cars today come with CD players standard; for those that don't, the option is not expensive. Computers, home theaters, and cars all play CDs—some of them surprisingly well, especially the cars.

So when you try to sell two-channel audio, you're trying to sell a different—and vastly more expensive—version of something that people have bought and paid for at least three times already.

You and I know that a great home audio system will do things a car stereo never can. But that word is not getting out there. Too often, the word that is getting out there is: Some people spend huge amounts of money on high-end audio and then aren't happy, and then lose a lot of money trading up, down, or sideways.

Dealers: We are not in AOS mode. Here are your action items:

• You have to "become the customer."

• Spend his or her money as if it were your own.

• Don't take the customer's money unless you would be willing to listen to that system, and no other, all the days of your life.

Advising people how to spend money to bring music more deeply into their lives is a sacred trust. Don't just go for the quick buck. Keep the faith by doing whatever is necessary to provide long-term satisfaction and value.

Make these your personal and professional goals: No buyer's remorse, and no ruinous hasty trade-ins. Go forth, sin no more—and get out and visit some houses!

Footnote 1: My last sermon was the "As We See It" in the March 2002 Stereophile (Vol.25 No.3), on "The Tragedy of the Commons."