Legitimate Dealers Speak Out! Page 2

Papa Bach is gone now, along with almost every quality bookstore we had. A Los Angeles Times book reviewer recently pointed out that it's becoming harder than ever to get poetry or scholarly works published; with no retail outlet, such books have nowhere to go. Crown won't carry them, and the bookstores that would have are gone. Art suffers; literature loses some creative spark; new writers are never fledged—the stakes are too high. Remember, Crown orders 10,000 each of 20 titles, not 20 each of 10,000 titles. McBook has proved massively successful at driving out excellence with mediocrity.

So insidious is the temptation of discounting, that even we occasionally slink on over and give Crown our money. We feel rotten about the dead bookstores but; hey, we spend hundreds of dollars on books; it's really hard to pass that up. It is a shame how limited their selection is.

Back to audio. As retailers we know what the costs of doing business are. Most people would be astounded at the tiny percentage of profit left when those costs are subtracted. Larry, do you know any rich audiophile-class retailers? We can think of only one in the entire United States.

If we say, "Running a first-class audiophile- and service-oriented hi-fi store is a labor of love," does it sound funny? People seem to think of dealers as "Capitalist-Pigs-Getting-Rich-Off-My-Hobby." They expect to have lots of time to audition the equipment in the store, maybe even at home. They expect unlimited advice from a knowledgeable audiophile, with no unseemly pressure to come to a hasty decision. They know we're available to install and care for what we sell. That's all expected—there are days when one feels like a natural resource.

Now, urges the Audio Cheapskate, a competent shopper should expect more: with sufficient badgering, his local quality audio dealer "can probably be persuaded to give you some kind of a break." When he says "I generally recommend buying from local dealers," and goes on to tell about lots of advantages like that we know how to "set stuff up," we know the Cheapskate is trying. Then he says, "But sometimes you know exactly what you want; and want to save money..." and rolls right into a free ad for a trans-shipping operation.

Let's not be naive. The way the consumer finds out "exactly what you want" is by taking advantage of the local dealer. Consumers are told where to buy "just about anything, typically at 15-20% off." I wish he'd gone on to say how this is possible. The "anything" you can buy is not likely to be a product for which the trans-shipper has a franchise. (Manufacturers tend not to feel obligated to honor warranties if their merchandise has been illicitly transferred to a non-authorized outlet. They don't like trans-shipping because they understand the effects: mail-order-available items become unprofitable, dealers won't showcase them, people can't find them, and stop buying. Manufacturers can, and do, die from this kind of overexposure.)

Trans-shipped equipment takes a bit longer to get because it's not sitting there (tying up capital) in a stockroom. But you don't mind—you're getting a great deal, and willing to wait. Of course you'd expect us to have it in stock. Our overhead includes retail rental, high salaries for a competent staff, as well as the cost of keeping stock on hand—not just a desk and a phone. Demo units alone cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Since a dealer like ourselves can't possibly compete with a trans-ship operation and its minimal overhead, probably the best thing to do, really, is save yourself the unpleasantness of haggling, and buy mail-order at the lowest price. After using the local dealer's resources. (Eventually we do catch on. This tactic is a bit like stiffing a waiter for a tip. At a fine restaurant a small party can easily spend a couple hundred dollars. By not tipping you can save $30! But you may not be comfortable going back.)

Ethics aside, there is a predictable result, that no one will like, from the growing trend to play Stiff-the-Retailer. It's just like the Crown Books Syndrome, only worse: after all, no one goes to a bookstore for six hours of chatting, only to but the book elsewhere! At an audio store, that time costs money! If a store is not receiving the support it needs (sufficient profit to pay the bills), it dies. Enough stores go under, and there is no outlet for esoterica—nowhere to audition this fine equipment, and no factory making it. (Unless Stereophile can single-handedly keep the audiophile community sufficiently informed to make its buying decisions.)

Nobody wants to feel like a sucker, like he's passing up a chance to save. But surely, even the Audio Cheapskate would feel saddened to know that he has contributed to the demise of our industry? There will always be expensive stereo equipment, certainly. But we see a day when we call up the Central Warehouse on our computer terminal, punch #8 for Stereophonic & Video, and make selections for our next purchase from among the flagship models—offered by Pioneer, JVC, Magnavox, and Sony. Lots of companies. Does that sound farfetched? Too bleak to be realistic? Let's hope so.

We hope, here, to point out a trend. In reading Stereophile we sometimes find fresh insights on products we thought we knew in detail. Since retailing is our slant on the industry (rather than writing or publishing), certain hard realities are much closer to us than they would otherwise be.

Our plea is this: Urge support for good dealers. We are not only useful in the short term, we are part of an ecology; without us, the whole chain leading from high-end manufacturer to home audiophile withers and dies.—Neil & Evelyn Sinclair