Missing In Action

Dear High-End Dealer,

I want to tell you about the one that got away. Diane X is a perky, health-conscious, tennis-playing woman of 52. She lives in a huge house nestled into three acres of wooded hillside. Her home is notable for its architectural excellence and meticulous craftsmanship, for its lovely antiques and rare artworks. A four-year-old but showroom-new luxury sport/utility vehicle sits unused in her garage: she prefers the Lexus. She also loves to sing: Diane is the president of her local Choral Music Society.

Until recently she was the loyal wife of a successful orthodontist, but after two children and 30 years of marriage, certain irreconcilable differences led to divorce. The fallout: Diane got the house, the cars, and a substantial portion of their assets. Dr. X got a trophy girlfriend, a high-performance sports car, a swinging bachelor pad, and visitation rights.

Despite the trappings of privilege and the exceedingly high quality of almost everything in her life, the one thing that was always missing in Diane's home, other than enduring love, was music. (One of the irreconcilable differences: She loves music. Dr. X hates it.) Prior to her divorce, the sole source of music at home was a boombox on her kitchen's marble countertop. This shortcoming was the first thing the newly liberated Diane set about correcting.

Something she had always wanted and had never owned was a great stereo, and she went after it. She didn't come to visit you, though. Neither did she stop to see your competitor down the street. No, Diane went instead to the local outlet of a national mass-market discount chain, where she was befriended by salesman Spif Schmoozer. Spif soon became her in-house technology consultant and audio guru. So much does she trust Spif's advice that she now asks his opinion on everything from movie recommendations to stock purchases.

What Diane needed, Spif decided, was a surround-sound A/V receiver (with lots of buttons!), matching CD changer, Hi-Fi Stereo VCR, and 32" television with picture-in-picture. To this he added a top-of-set center-channel speaker, a pair of minuscule satellites ("Just tuck them away anywhere"), and a self-powered one-note subwoofer-in-a-shoebox; surround effects to be handled by a small pair of decidedly cheesy but very-high-profit in-walls. Total expenditure: a few grand, comfortably within her price range.

She next engaged the services of a local A/V installation company, who for a similar price ran wires through her walls and made the whole system fit nicely into an old English armoire. Neither Spif nor the installers bothered to tell her that the room she had chosen, opening onto her swimming pool and glassed-in on three sides, was less than acoustically ideal. "No problem," Spif told her, "because with surround-sound the music just seems to come from everywhere."

Diane, in her innocence, was actually pretty happy with her new system. The action films her teenage son likes to watch are rendered with a lot of punch, and Frederica von Stade doesn't sound too strident when heard from the nearby kitchen. It's a step up from the boombox. But does it satisfy when you sit down and really listen?

You know the answer to that one. Her system sounds like hammered shit. The highs are edgy enough to drive rats away, the mids are squashed, recessed, and grainy, and the little shoebox sub makes a whistling sound as it thumps. Don't even ask about "imaging"—there is none. There is, however, a wide variety of surround effects to choose from, including Sports, whatever that means, and Stadium. Stadium. What other acoustic nightmare might have been programmed into her system? Why not Steel Mill, Brick Factory, or Battlefield?

The one essential effect Diane's system lacks is Musical Truth. She might have found it in any combination of products from your store. Anything you sell—anything—would have been better for her than what she bought. For the amount she spent on mass-market schlock she might have assembled a system that would provide years of intense musical satisfaction. Had you been a patient teacher, you could have taught her how high-end audio enables a listener to "see into" a performance, how it enables a deeper connection between the musician and the music lover. With her passion for music, Diane would have been an eager student.

To her credit, she tried to get advice about a subject she knew nothing about. Her former husband, the music-hater, was no help; nor were her friends at the racquet club, who all looked at her blankly when she asked about music systems. Her colleagues at the Choral Society were also a surprising disappointment. (And I couldn't help her because I met her after the fact, and didn't have the heart to tell her she'd wasted her money.) So she went to the only place she knew and swallowed whole the advice of the first person who showed an interest in helping her.

Diane didn't come to you because you're invisible. She didn't know you exist. She still doesn't. Neither do the millions of others with her level of disposable income and her love for music. But they should. And they could, if you'd stop carping about your competitors, gossiping about the industry, sweating bad reviews in the audio press, and playing speaker-wire-of-the-month with your little handful of repeat customers.

So what if you don't have the resources of an international conglomerate? So what if you don't have the advertising budget of Spif Schmoozer's corporate overlord? So what if you can't afford saturation advertising, or a two-page spread in the Sunday paper? There's still a lot you can do.

Stop thinking about commerce for a second. Try "education" instead. If you want to reach people like Diane, you're going to have to be an educator and proselytizer. You're going to have to go after music lovers with missionary zeal. Promote seminars, arrange demonstrations for music clubs, sponsor musical performances, make friends with your local newspaper's music critic and technology pundit. Don't just sit and wait for music lovers to find you. Go after them where they are. You don't have much choice.

Or maybe you do. Remember, Diane X is the president of a Choral Music Society, and she spent years listening to a cheap boombox in her kitchen. If you can't put two and two together from that, there's probably room for you on Spif Schmoozer's sales floor.

a Friend