Re-Tales #7: Clicks'n'mortar

"I'm going to be making as much of a commitment to the brick-and-mortar [dealers] as we can," says Bryston's James Tanner.

In the words of Bob Dylan, "The times, they are a-changin'." It's a cliché, but sometimes clichés are clichés because they're true.

In Re-Tales and in Industry Update, I've written about some of the ways the pandemic has accelerated changes in the hi-fi business. Government-mandated safety measures, the absence of audio shows, and a marketplace that was already changing have combined to force companies to get creative about how they reach customers, both to sell products and to provide service.

A few established dealers have closed or are preparing to. Some can no longer afford inventory. Some have just retired. Others, though, report that 2020 was an extraordinarily good year.

Last month, I wrote that manufacturers—especially those who have always sold through traditional brick'n'mortar dealer networks—are under pressure to better leverage the internet. That's easy to understand at a time when any physical contact with customers is risky.

Let's face it: Online sales pose a threat to dealers. But, just as dealers need manufacturers, manufacturers need dealers, at least until their online sales become well-established. Selling online need not mean dissolving the dealer network or disenfranchising dealers in other ways.

Hybrid models are taking shape across the industry. They combine some of the advantages of online sales—efficiencies, ease of access to information, ease of ordering—with the personalized service and "touch" of a traditional dealer.

When I spoke with Magnepan's Wendell Diller and Bryston's James Tanner for last month's Re-Tales, Tanner was vice president of Bryston. He is now Bryston's majority owner and CEO. Tanner bought the company in February, in partnership with Colquhoun Audio Laboratories, which is owned by Ian Colquhoun (footnote 1).

The day after the acquisition was announced, Tanner and I spoke via Skype. I learned that Bryston and Colquhoun Audio have been working together for some 40 years. Bryston will now have more direct access to Colquhuon's factory, which already manufactures Bryston speakers, and to Colquhuon's software development and wireless-audio expertise. That should assist with Bryston's tentative plan to offer new, entry-level products to attract new customers. "We want to be one of the companies that can do it all," Tanner said.

Colquhuon is the parent company of Axiom Audio, which has always sold its speakers online—and only online. That is not a direction Bryston will be taking, Tanner told me: "We'll be the opposite." Tanner said that Bryston is evolving its business approach to benefit everyone involved: Bryston, its customers, and its dealers. "I'm going to be making as much of a commitment to the brick-and-mortar [dealers] as we can," Tanner said.

That commitment to dealers begins on Bryston's website. As mentioned last month, there's now a link to what Bryston calls a "Purchase Request" form. Bryston uses this form to collect information from potential customers—people interested enough to fill out an online form—and hand it over (with permission) to the dealer closest to the customer. The dealer then promptly contacts the customer.

"I think it reinforces exactly what we're trying to do here," Tanner said about the system. "It's a relationship between the customer, the dealer, and us." Within the first two months, more than 600 requests have come through. That's a lot of sales prospects.

Tanner plans to add a dealer portal to their website to allow dealers to place orders directly with Bryston. This would tie in with the dealer-referral service. In addition to streamlining that process, it could reduce the dealer's need to invest in and stock so much inventory, he explained: "In some ways, manufacturers have become what dealers used to be."

Tanner also wants to set up a customer service hotline to give both dealers and customers more immediate support in real time. "You know, people get frustrated and then they blame the product," Tanner said. "You can't have people waiting for days for service." As products become more software-driven, remote help becomes more feasible: "I think that sort of immediate response to the customer is going to be critical."

Tanner also told me that Bryston is helping its dealers develop a more robust online presence, with greater reach. Tanner wants to bolster—and increase trust in—those relationships. "The dealer has to trust that you actually are forwarding whatever information you get," he said, and also that they will be compensated for sales. If there's a "Buy" button on the dealer's site, the dealer could handle the transaction, and Bryston could handle the shipping and indicate that dealer as the customer's service resource.

Customers could benefit from such a system, too, with improved access to product information and better service from both the dealer—the primary resource—and the manufacturer.

Even with the increased emphasis on dealerships, Tanner expects the number of dealerships to shrink: "I see factory [sales] people becoming more the norm, given their knowledge base." The announcement about the Bryston acquisition included a commitment to hire more salespeople.

Dealerships, too, are evolving. Some dealers I spoke with recently told me they're carrying fewer lines—precisely so that their staff can develop more expertise about the products they do carry.

Brick'n'mortar audio stores may become fewer and farther between, but there will still be people who want to go into a store and listen. A premium purchase from a well-informed expert is worth a drive of an hour or two.

Footnote 1: See Jim Austin's piece in the April 2021 issue's Industry Update (p.15) for more on the acquisition.

Charles E Flynn's picture

Brick'n'mortar dealers might do better if they refrained from doing both of the most annoying things I have witnessed over the years:

1. Comparing a low-margin speaker with a higher-margin speaker using a test in which the tweeter on the low-margin speaker is disconnected.

2. Asking new prospective customers what equipment they own, and then reacting to the answer with a sneering smile that conveys the message, "I'm sorry you made all those mistakes, but we're here to help".

ChrisS's picture for nearly 40 years did neither.

James.Seeds's picture

The manufacturer I worked for would take the online order and send the customer's request to the nearest dealer in their vicinity for pick up. That dealer was fully credited with the sale it was the only way to support the dealer.
As for salespeople sneering at customers equipment, I'm certain they never received any repeat sales or referrals

Julie Mullins's picture

The manufacturer I worked for would take the online order and send the customer's request to the nearest dealer in their vicinity for pick up. That dealer was fully credited with the sale it was the only way to support the dealer.

This seems like the decent and reasonable thing to do.

Glotz's picture

During a visit to a dealer for my already-purchased speaker pickup, the owner did ask me to take a tour of his showrooms and audition a variety of new gear.

While it had been some time since I've toured there, I found this strange as he knew that I had new gear across the board. He still had me audition a few products and he's not a company that really does trade-ins (as he wouldn't for my previous speakers)!

He sort of implied that whatever gear I have isn't up to these lines. This is a guy I've been seeing on and off for over 35 years(!). (And the gear are all stellar SP-recommended components.)

This was in March of last year, and perhaps he was a bit desperate and engaging in sales tactics I don't enjoy.

That being said, it was a good experience and leveler for my newer system at home. While I was better for the experience, it was strange experience and one I wasn't entirely comfortable with, for the sake for being manipulated.

I hate to say this but I wonder if the online model is smarter for experienced audiophiles? I can return gear if need be, WITHOUT hassles, and the open-box product goes to a home so I don't feel bad about. Many times I make use of those open-box products and being a long-term customer as well, I get substantial discounts over the brick and mortar stores, as they cannot afford it.

Also recently I went to a dealer night, months prior to the pandemic. Because it had been years since stepping into the location, it was a bit of a homecoming of sorts. So when it came to my recent stereo sub purchases, I felt bad enough for this B&M retailer that instead of going to my 'go-to' online seller I went to him and purchased without a discount.

I'm glad I did, but it was largely for the pure conversation/friendship. I take that back- Getting instant gratification for the correct terminations I wanted for the sub connection, and having the willingness to lend me additional line-level cabling to experiment were keys here. Yes, I would have waited and gotten a discount the online way and if I was less well-off than I was just a scant year or two ago, I would have gone back to the online buying scenario. The penny-pincher in me regrets this route I took, but again there are more benefits than price and return policy.

dclark2171's picture

I pretty much purchase everything online. I quit trying to find dealers that have what I am looking for. My last two car Used records are about all I purchase at local dealerships. Sorry for the B&M owners, however, that's the age we live in. Service and Used is where its at if B&M want to survive in large numbers

volvic's picture

I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing. My experience with several dealers around my vicinity has left me cold; one oversold the condition of something I bought, bought it anyway, and had the factory redo its aesthetics because I wanted it. Another guy who never showed up for an appointment had me peering into the store after a long drive. Emails and phone calls went unanswered. These are not dealers I would like to have a relationship with nor would I shed a tear if they shutter.

I maintain a healthy relationship with two dealers who do not happen to be near me, so whatever I purchase or ask for from them, I sometimes pay a slight premium but know I am getting no BS and excellent after-sales service. This relationship has been fruitful for many years. So you could say that I already have an online relationship only with these dealers. Dealers that maintain a healthy balance sheet offer excellent customer service and pay attention to detail deserve to thrive. It's good to see a company like Bryston helping out those retailers that deserve it. Those that survive deserve it because of their commitment to quality and customer care. We don't mind paying a premium; we don't want to be treated like fools.

The direct from factory model will only accelerate, I suspect the pandemic changed all traditional models.

tonykaz's picture

I was a Salon Owner that specialised in outstanding Phono Gear.

Any Customer could drift into our Esoteric Audio and gain critical to crucial purchase information and hands-on In-Store experience with gear, even comparisons between various desired products.

A good Dealer is a resource that the internet can't replace or replicate.


Best Buy or Costco is not a Dealer in any sense that I would relate to a High End Dealer like NY,NY's Andy Singer, for gods sake.

Where are we supposed to find reliable dealer advice now-a-days? : Call the Manufacturer directly !

Our USA Manufacturers are our Authorities that seem anxious and excited to actually develop a relationship with the Customer Base.

High Quality Products made locally by loyal Employees at a fair Price should be the basic foundation for selecting our beautiful Audio Gear.

Super high quality local USA Gear starts at $100 Schiit Price points that include nice warrantees, and then elevates to $1,000,000 System prices from the big guys .

Top gear ( including Schiit ) maintains it's used dollar value! Chinesium residual values typically evaporate because there is NO manufacturer support structure.

I love the good dealers and manufacturers because they can significantly improve the odds of getting a dam good purchase.

Tony in Venice Florida

DG1961's picture

Bryston currently offers their products on at least one online dealer who offers two advantages. First, it makes their products available to those who don't have a local B&M dealer. Second, and more importantly to me, the online dealer offers a 30 day return policy. The ability to buy and try in my home and the ability to return if not delighted is a major influence into my purchasing decisions.

Mark A's picture

I have a standard rule regarding purchasing online vs. brick and mortar: if you visit a store and receive helpful information and are treated well, then you buy from the store, even if you save dollars buying online. It has always seemed to me to be both fair and the right thing to do. But if I do all the research online, I’m free to buy from wherever I want.

Around 1981, when I was a sophomore in high school, I used to frequent a local audio retailer named Audio Tech, located in the Orange Park Mall (FL). I worked a job all summer to save money to purchase a $500 Yamaha stereo system, but the pay was all in tips. I’d show up every week to make a payment on my layaway system in rolled nickels, dimes, and quarters. The salesman I had been working with treated me as well as any other customer I ever saw him interact with in the store. THIS was a salesman. He never judged me by my cover, so to speak. While not all salespersons have treated me such over the years, I’ve never forgotten this man as he helped open a door to better audio equipment, which is a hobby/interest I’ve never lost.