What is the future of high-end audio retailing?

Audiophiles often prefer to listen for themselves before committing to a purchase. But brick-and-mortar retailers are succumbing right and left, partly a result of the economy and partly owing to the trend to online sales. What is the future of high-end audio retailing?

What is the future of high-end audio retailing?
Here is what I think will happen
66% (76 votes)
I have no clue
23% (27 votes)
I don't care
11% (13 votes)
Total votes: 116

Douglas Bowker's picture

I really don't know, but 100% online just can't happen. You don't just go drop a month's paycheck and hope it sounds good after you clicked "Add to Cart."

xanthia01@gmail.com's picture

Well, here's what I hope: There are heaps of crap retailers and not many good ones. I hope the crap ones go and the good ones stay. Well—now on to reality—there'll probably be a vast reduction overall, with the few remaining being the large box-movers/discounters and maybe one or two high-end emporiums. So online will effectively be the only way if you want any hint of a choice. Sound familiar already? I just wish I didn't have to give distributors 50% of what I pay for every purchase I make!!

HeWhoKnows's picture

Wal-Mart will be the last high-end retailer standing. Then the world will end.

Aaron, TX's picture

I work for an independent mid-fi dealer in Texas. We are actually holding up fine, but we can see the higher end getting hammered in our backyard. It's bad enough when you have a sizable minority of customers raised to think they can get something (hands-on demo) for nothing (then buy online, etc). But so many brands have been in denial about the situation for so long that they find themselves suddenly without options. Many problems were already brewing before the recession—it just started the dominoes falling. An after the storm passes, there are going to be even fewer stores than we have now. If that head count ends up below a critical threshold, kiss the high-end goodbye. And a large number of respected brands will go with it. Welcome to the payoff for 20 years of ignorance and poor judgment by our industry.

fabio's picture

Hi-fi has become a golden-ears ghetto. That is very bad for attracting average customers, who don't like feeling stupid because they can't hear the difference that the cables make in their system. Magnolia closed shop in Palo ALto (CA) and I cannot imagine that people around here have any shortage of disposable income. Maybe it is the "good-enough" average system that killed hi-fi and a superficial society. But these golden-ears are so boring.

Al Earz's picture

I think that we will see more and more of the "High End" dealers starting to open their homes to customers. They save rent and can always find something to do when business is slow. I have a few here in Colorado and they seem to be doing quite well. One, a few years back, closed a storefront and moved into a new home so he could do this. He expected business to drop but felt with lower overhead he would balance out. He was wrong, business increased considerably. He has grown his business and now carries more lines. I think audiophiles prefer the "home" atmosphere to a sterile store.

Mark's picture

I imagine you will see even more audio companies selling directly to the public online and offering 30-day at home trials. It isn't so unusual now and it will become more common as time passes.

Dimitris Gogas's picture

Most brick-and-mortar retailers will probably vanish. It is sad and it looks irreversible.

Jared Gerlach's picture

We have pondered this together before. As with the last examination of the situation, I think it looks pretty grim for the brick'n'mortar crowd, but that isn't how it should be. I don't really want to buy equipment from someone I can't meet in person—or music for that matter. But, between the pricing structures and the attitudes of so many of the traditional retailers, it's no wonder it's all going the way it is.

Teresa's picture

More Internet stores will be offering 30-day home trials. Reviews will be even more important and matching yourself to a compatible reviewer will be paramount! Also I think we will hold onto equipment we love and not worry so much about so-called improvements and just get things repaired when they break. This could also be a boon to repair shops. Perhaps equipment might become a hot occupation?

Paul J.  Stiles, Mtn View, CA's picture

The future of high-end audio retailing is, ta-da, in the future. Seriously, reading reviews of equipment is like, oh, reading reviews of food. It's, well, reading. Not quite the real thing. You gotta go out and taste the sound of the of the musical food/gear you are interested in!

S Swann's picture

All stores, except those in very large metro areas, will succumb to price competition from online vendors. This is already the trend. Try to find even mid-fi outside of NYC, Atlanta, etc. (Tweeter's stores, anyone?) Without someone to show them the difference, shoppers will rely on online advice to make decisions. Only very large markets will have enough customers willing to pay for the extra service obtained from a local retailer.

Jimmy's picture

There will be enough brick-and-mortar stores available for audiophiles to listen to products before they make a purchase: online! There, they will be able to get better deals.

tom collins's picture

I think that for a brick-and-mortar store to be successful, it will have to have an online presence. However, many high-end manufacturers do not permit their dealers to sell by Internet. This protects the dealer for those particular products, but not against rival products that may be sold online including used goods. I think that this will ultimately hurt some of the high-end makers and their dealers that sell products in the $2000-$20,000 range where cheap Internet options are oftentimes half the price (leaving quality out of this discussion). A possible future will likely have to involve some hybrid for those dealers selling the name brand products. We will have to wait and see how this evolves.

Toussaint's picture

There will be high-end shops in the future, only fewer of them.

Nick's picture

More retailers will go the way of the Dodo. Those that remain will have to be very competitive in terms of pricing and keeping their existing customer base. Not a bad thing, since some dealers have customer service skills of Genghis Khan, but I do lament the loss of retail music stores both software and hardware.

Al Marcy's picture

My favorite ear spa vanished decades ago. There will never be another Buzz.

Chris's picture

It may sound defeatist, perhaps, but my thought is that without reviews (print and online), online retailing could not persist in strength. The simple reason for this is an inherent laziness and "gear-slut" attitude of those who buy before they try. Without reviews of any kind, hi-fi would still exist in brick-and-mortar shops, because audiophiles would have a place to audition the products and get an ears-on education. Since we won't be losing the print and online review any time soon, this is what I think will happen: Audiophiles will remain prey to reviews, choosing the expertise of reviewers to make their choices instead of trusting their own ears. Since we market to the same people over and over again, they are intimately familiar with online merchants and auction sites where it is understood that "no one pays retail." Of course, this hurts the brick-and-mortar shop that has focused its sights on audiophiles who share the same passions. Audiophiles won't purchase from physical retailers unless they deeply discount, but they will often waste the time of the retailer in an attempt to gain experience of the component they are interested in. So, for audiophiles, the market will remain strong for discounted online sales. Retailers will have to adapt, which means focusing an effort to cultivate a new market outside of audiophiledom. No longer content to merely survive, these retailers will seek to thrive in luxury markets where connoisseurs of fine things shop and spend. In an effort to ensure that audiophiles no longer stop by to waste time and kick tires, they will hone their senses to quickly identify, and expel, any tire-kicker that walks through the door. The lux-lifestyle market will grow. As a result, manufacturers will quickly divide into two classes: products geared toward review-driven online sales, and products geared toward luxury lifestyle sales (which require the added value of dealer-cum-concierge). The first group catering to audiophiles will quickly learn to hyperinflate the retail price of their products so that the discount the online shopper expects can be built into the price. The perception will be that the consumer is receiving a greater value for his money, but in actuality they will be paying what retail would have been had the product been price to market using traditional formulas. Everyone will be happy, and the circulation of used gear in the online marts and auctions will increase manyfold. The second group will cater to connoisseurs by using a personal model with a well-appointed brick and mortar shop will forgo the need to offer discounts on their lines because they will be carrying lines that are not widely available from manufacturers and distributors that understand the limited nature of the luxury market, and who do not open any dealer who happens to have a steaming checkbook at the ready. Between these two types will exist a hybrid dealer, who, as a sideline, operates a "showroom" from his home using the audiophile products so vastly reviewed online and in print—and yet still able to offer a discount due to low overhead. He will supplement his direct sales with online sales, of course. But in terms of being able to cultivate a clientele, he will be fighting for every last dollar because of the nature of the shopper and their expectation of a deep discount. This is the near future of high-end audio retailing in that it has begun to happen already and will continue on this trajectory, effectively cleaving the industry in two: hobbyist oriented sales and luxury lifestyle oriented sales.

Gerry G.'s picture

I'll never buy without listening, and I've never bought anything significant online.

Triggermn's picture

The well-run well-managed shops will survive, the just-getting-by shops will fail, and those with the best customer service and great attitudes will evolve into even better hi-fi retailers.

Roland's picture

I do most of my buying online, but that's because that's what is most cost effective, and also because it's what is available here. Online businesses have much lower overhead, and can pass those savings on to the consumer, but the trade-off is that you don't know what you are getting until you have it. Like most things, the choices made by the majority of individuals will decide this. That's how a free market works!

m's picture

A few of the really good stores that provide excellent service will make it. The others will go out of business as the bargain seekers use up their time doing demos and buy elsewhere. Those who use the dealer demo rooms and buy off the Internet may find their welcome at the dealers withdrawn. And they should not expect free dealer assistance and advice when they have problems.

Nik from Chicago's picture

The business that will weather the storm will provide equipment through several mediums. There have to be a few stores that survive based on the fact that some consumers will want to go in for a demonstration or to compare or to get a live opinion. There are consumers who don't own a computer or refuse to purchase product online. There will be some online shopping because of convenience. Lastly, there will be used or reconditioned equipment that will spark the eye of the bargain shopper.

Jonah Roberts's picture

High-end audio is inherently a qualitative purchasing decision. Online sales deliver low-cost, but none of the intangible benefits of a real-world listening session. Either online retailers will have to adopt a generous pre-sales loan program, or high-end manufacturers will have to subsidize brick-and-mortars in order to provide on-site auditions.

HH's picture

Where I live there used to be three high-end stores. Now there are none. I think we are becoming dinosaurs.

mjazz's picture

I can't imagine much fun in my high end hobby without retailers. And my set would not sound as good as it does now without a retailer. Perhaps we'll go in the direction of Internet sales with consulting.

Mark D's picture

if you've ever been in a brick-and-mortar hi-fi shop, I bet there is a very good chance you really don't care what happens to them. They treat you like garbage unless you flash a whole lot of money and look the part as well. I had $10K to buy a piece, but because I wasn't in one of my suits and I had the wife and kids with me, they wouldn't even talk to me, let alone let me demo my purchase. I ended up buying the same piece directly from the factory ( since I lived far enough away from the store). In my more than 30 years going to that B&M place I have never been treated well—ever. My system to date is $70K and they havent seen one dollar of it, nor will they ever. On the other hand, I get great service from online retailers or factory direct. I'll keep shopping that way. Next up, another $7-10K for a new preamp. Time to fire up the laptop!

Nosmo King's picture

Online, either for used or new products. In the past couple months, I have bought two turntables, both used from craigslist. Have also bought about 100 used records each at a buck a piece or less. I have also bought a beautiful Fisher tubed receiver on CL. Now is a good time to look for used gear!

Robert Gumm's picture

I think people will still have the brick-and-mortar stores, but they will be online mostly and by appointment only.

Dave M's picture

I always thought it was stupid that high-end manufacturers would only sell through brick-and-mortar stores. I notice that trend is changing due to the weak economy and changes in how people receive their music. I still believe this is the end times for high-end audio as we know it.