Re-Tales #29: Carving Out Space in the Real World

In last month's Re-Tales column, I discussed the impact the current economy is having on the hi-fi industry. Some hi-fi companies said sales have "normalized" after widespread, dramatic increases during the COVID years—which is to say, sales are down relative to their peak but still strong. Others have noticed customers biding time before making expensive purchases or opting to buy less-expensive equipment than originally planned. Yet, even in this risky economic climate, a few people are taking the risk and opening new brick-and-mortar retail stores.

All the dealers I spoke to sell some equipment online. Some brands can only be sold through real-world dealerships. Certain brands are allowed to be sold online only by select, large outlets, such as Crutchfield or Best Buy; small independent dealers need not apply. As at least one dealer pointed out, this creates "an uneven playing field" in selling online—and those big brands already have huge advantages: massive capitalization, broad reach, buying power, and online and real-world sales-and-support infrastructure.

Despite such challenges, two businesses that have long sold online—Tweek Geek and Elusive Disc—have decided to open brick-and-mortar retail showrooms. A third, brick-and-mortar retailer Now Listen Here of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has opened a new showroom in a different state.

As I reported in last month's Re-Tales, Michael Garner, founder of longtime on-line retailer Tweek Geek (footnote 1), recently opened a store outside Austin. "You can build revenue from the online store to support the bricks and mortar," Garner told me by phone. "It's a nice safety net." The security offered by his online business makes the offline business less risky. "It took me nearly 20 years to get here, building the online business."

A couple of years ago, during COVID's darkest days, I learned that longtime online hi-fi and audiophile vinyl seller Elusive Disc was planning to open a real-world retail store, which would include at least one listening room. They had recently acquired a 12,000ft2 building, allowing the company to expand their online operations and move their offices in. Part of the plan was to turn the space, extensively remodeled, into a retail destination for hi-fi shoppers. The move to the new space took place in April 2022, but the new retail store didn't open right away.

The new facility is located in Anderson, Indiana, about 43 miles outside Indianapolis, close to I-69. In addition to drawing in customers from farther away (once the retail space was opened), they were also looking to bring in local traffic, General Manager Jason Marcum told me in an interview. One factor in their decision to become earthbound was a desire to offer higher-end products, which usually means having a brick-and-mortar store. "There are manufacturers out there who do not want their products sold online with a shopping cart," Garner said. "And we know how [some shipping companies] treat things, especially loudspeakers."

Another advantage of having a real-world sales presence, Marcum said, is that it's good for customers to be able to listen to equipment before buying, especially when they're spending more money. "Everything is going online these days," Marcum said. "But I still like that brick-and-mortar feel." In a follow-up interview in late November, Marcum said the listening room would be open by the end of the year, the retail space sometime in 2023.

Fewer b&m dealerships exist nowadays, which makes it harder for customers to audition equipment before buying and for new people to experience perfectionist audio. Aaron Sherrick, owner of Now Listen Here, regularly sees customers who travel from Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, and beyond. He has realized, though, that while a diehard audiophile thinks nothing of driving two hours to hear a particular component, a person new to the hobby has little incentive to do so. That curious newcomer, though, is likely to enter a hi-fi dealership in an area she or he frequents. Recently, Sherrick began leasing space within Jon Archer's Archer High Fidelity, a new dealership in Falls Church, Virginia—suburban Washington, DC—on a street with pedestrian traffic (footnote 2). It has become sort of a hi-fi shopping mall: Yet another DC-area dealer, Command Performance AV, is also a neighbor.

Archer's store is also new. "I always had a dream of having my own shop," he told me. He has known Sherrick for years, and both men knew Brett Mullins (footnote 3), an "audio legend" who passed away in April 2022. Archer opened his store in the same space Mullins occupied with his last business, HiFi Heaven repair shop, for eight years. Mullins also sold vintage gear in the space. "A bit of a captive repair audience" still comes in from the former shop, Archer said.

"I was inspired to extend [Mullins's] legacy and put my kind of spin on it," Archer told me. "I wanted a more inviting, welcoming environment—for anyone." So he invested in redesigning the space. The store's bay windows showcase vintage gear, which "draws people in." Archer enjoys vintage gear, and he sees it as a way to get new people into the hobby because it's often more affordable. But "you can't stay in business just selling $400–$600 receivers. You also need to offer things at higher level." So today he also sells new equipment from Now Listen Here.

Although each runs his own business, Sherrick and Archer are a team. Together, they want to be a "full-service" hi-fi resource. In addition to offering repair work and selling Now Listen Here's equipment on commission, Archer buys, consigns, and trades hi-fi gear. "A rising tide raises all ships," he said of their arrangement. Like most dealerships these days, Now Listen Here sells equipment online, but that isn't the store's main focus. Sherrick prefers the more personalized approach that the real world offers. Their orientation is service: giving advice, delivering equipment, setting it up, helping a customer get the most out of a system, helping new customers encounter their first gorilla.

Footnote 1: In addition to selling online, Tweek Geek is a common presence at hi-fi shows. Also see JVS's report in January 2023's Industry Update.

Footnote 2: See this issue's Industry Update for more on the Now Listen Here/Archer High Fidelity collaboration.

Footnote 3: Brett Mullins is not related to Julie, the author, as far as she knows.

Glotz's picture

I am intrigued by their unique offerings!

I love Elusive Disc already, and thank them for their out-of-the-box promotions, like the Hana ML, that I took advantage of some time ago.

Keep on keepin' on, Julie! Great series!

Julie Mullins's picture

Glad Tweek Geek sparked your interest. I need to visit Elusive Disc's new place sometime.

cyclebrain's picture

What is the speaker in the photo. I looked at all the web-sites for the stores mentioned in the article but did not find it.

supamark's picture

see below...

Julie Mullins's picture

Thanks for commenting. Yes, I noticed this too and have put in a request to change the photo to one that the store provided. (And as Marc mentioned in a separate comment, that is a Pure Audio Project speaker.)

John Atkinson's picture
Julie Mullins wrote:
Yes, I noticed this too and have put in a request to change the photo to one that the store provided.

The heading image is now a photo of the store's listening room.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile (who prepares all the magazine's content for posting to the website)

Julie Mullins's picture

Thanks, John!

asherrick's picture

That's the Vandersteen Treo CT. If you happen to be near Falls Church, VA or Harrisburg, PA please stop by for a listen.

Edit: it sounds like you were referring to the old photo of the Pure Audio Project speaker.

supamark's picture

and here you go:

Mark Phillips,
Contributor, Soundstage! Network

jimtavegia's picture

The last 3 years have been hard on everyone, especially the small business person.

Julie Mullins's picture

Thank you. Indeed it has been a tough time for many.

PeterG's picture

Great piece!
I buy a ton of stuff online, but I can't imagine buying hifi gear without an audition. Bricks & mortar is essential

Julie Mullins's picture

Some kinds of gear lends itself to being sold online, but other items not so much. There are always many factors to consider.

jimtavegia's picture

Things reviewed well under $500 I would buy on-line, but more than that I would want to see and hear. Speakers I would have to hear.