E-Commerce & Specialty Audio Retailing Letters

Letters on this subject appeared in the March, May, and June 2000 issues of Stereophile:

Uncharted waters

Editor: As a small New York dealer, I must say Jonathan Scull in the January Stereophile was right on the money with respect to e-commerce. The market here is tough when it comes to quality audio gear. Although we are not fond of Internet sales of audio gear, we are going to have to take that plunge if we want to stay in business.

If more people, especially newcomers, realized how important it is to personally audition any audio component that he/she was interested in, the return rate would not be so high. Nothing compares with one-on-one conversation with a customer to get a better feel for what he/she is looking to get out of their system. There is no musical emotion involved with a dot.com seller. For this reason, our forthcoming website will not have online ordering. You will have to e-mail or call to discuss any product you may be interested in before the final purchase.

We may or may not do the volume of other online companies, but we feel this will keep the refund checks to a minimum and preserve a better relationship between us and the customer. It's not about the sales, it's about the passion for music.

Support your local dealer; Circuit City or the guy across the country is not going to help you set up your system after you hand over your cash! Be smart: audition first, buy once!—Bill Baker, Response Audio/Clarity Wires, Response34@aol.com

Dangerous waters

Editor: Since B&W and Rotel "are rabidly against e-commerce" (January 2000, p.210), this is sufficient reason they shall not see a penny of my money. Besides, I thought the Federal Trade Commission had put a stop to price-fixing. From Jonathan Scull's description in "Fine Tunes," it would appear that these companies are engaged in restraint of trade. Surely the FTC ought to look into that?—Vytenis (Vyto) Babrauskas, Ph.D., Issaquah, WA, fsti@accutek.net

A dealer on e-commerce

Editor: First, I have to say: Keep up the great work. The March issue was another page-turner. Kudos to Sam Tellig for his stellar B&W Nautilus 803 review.

Now that I've kissed up, I'll get to the point. I felt it was necessary to respond to Dr. Babrauskas' letter, entitled "Dangerous Waters" (p.11), because he really is missing the point. As the manager of a "specialty audio store," I applaud companies like B&W and NHT, for whom we are dealers, for their outspoken rejection of e-commerce. This "anti-e" stance has nothing to do with price-fixing, as Mr. Babrauskas suggests. If you want to talk about price-fixing, look at Bose products. Ever wonder why they are never on sale at the local Best Buy and are always the same price everywhere you look?

What B&W, NHT, and others are doing is supporting the authorized dealer network that has supported their companies for years before e-commerce was even a concept. High-end audio is a community of like-minded enthusiasts who display a passion for the reproduction of music. That community's foundation is the "specialty audio store." Among other things, they are the places to buy Stereophile and see and hear the products featured in their pages. The Internet cannot ever provide this experience.

The policy held by these companies against e-commerce has an even greater significance relating to all of us. If everyone bought everything off of the Internet, there would be no local tax base for the cities we live in. I don't think you need a Ph.D. to realize what kind of effect this would have on a community. Personally, I like Tina Turner, but I'm not ready to live "beyond Thunderdome." Let's face it: You can't listen to a pair of B&W Nautilus 801s or NHT 3.3s on the Net.

Of course, there are those who use their local "specialty store" to audition products and get all the information. Then they go home, crack their knuckles, and point-and-click their way to the best price. People like this have the whole idea of high-end audio backward. The Internet is a tool for unlimited information gathering, not a sales floor. Further, purchasing high-end audio isn't about the best deal; it is about the best performance and value (a word that seems to have lost all meaning these days). If a consumer wants "price," they should stick to Technics or Kenwood.

Perhaps that is still too high for this kind of person. Does Symphonic still make stereos? Anyway, if you are this kind of "e-diot," I hope you live nowhere near me or my store, because you would not only take money out of my hands, but you would take money out of my city's school system as well.

In short, e-commerce may work for some items, but it should never be a means to purchase high-end audio products. Companies that are "rabidly against e-commerce" are doing the right thing for their loyal dealers and the communities those dealers are located in. This is a very important issue that consumers really miss the point on. It is easy to sit at home and buy stuff, but it kills the nature of human interaction. Companies like B&W can continue to improve upon their products because of the dealer network that has sold their products. That is a matter of simple economics. Further, the high-end audio enthusiast didn't arrive with the invention of the Internet.

This is a community that wants the "specialty audio store" in their neighborhood, for it is the only means to check out the hot new thing. If we all let e-commerce wipe out the retailer, there will be no more articles on whether or not high-end audio is dead. The coffin will be nailed shut.

Please, support your local audio retailer.—Jason Dorazio