Specialist Retailing’s Time to Shine
Marc Rushton issues an impassioned plea to hi-fi retailers to change with the times. New business is there for the taking, he says…
We owe a debt of gratitude to Apple, because it put music at the forefront of consumers' minds, inadvertently creating a new wave of enthusiasts. The largest demographic to embrace portable audio ever is now all grown up and ready to spend. Consumers are coming back to quality products and brands – and with higher than ever expectations of value-for-money.
This is good news for the audio and audio-visual industries. Buyers now demand higher quality sound and stunning picture quality, and also want to control both and more from the universal remote control that's already in their pocket – the smartphone.
Various traditional hi-fi manufacturers have embraced this new enthusiast. Brands such as McIntosh, Linn, Cambridge Audio, Naim, Chord Electronics – to name a few – have worked hard to keep relevance in the market, spotting the trends and reinventing themselves with products that deliver for the new generation of discerning punter.
‘Wireless connectivity’, ‘seamless integration’, ‘media streaming’, ‘head-fi’ and ‘desktop audio’ are all keywords that continue to rank high in StereoNET's search traffic. So can we still call this category ‘hi-fi’? Some would argue that thanks to the likes of JB HiFi, the term itself encompasses all these categories and is universally understood. I disagree, and believe it's the thinking of yesterday. So perhaps it is time for our specialist retailers to follow the lead of their suppliers, and reinvent themselves?
Melbourne's Tivoli Hi-Fi and its dedicated and extensive headphone demonstration area.
At hi-fi shows across the world – at least in the last decade – one needs only look at the average age of attendees; many audiophiles are in their fifties and sixties. Similarly, the active members of audio clubs are no longer the core demographic. Manufacturers, distributors, and retailers should now be looking to the next generation, and the future generation of enthusiast, if they aren’t already.
Some years ago we were asked by some readers to increase StereoNET’s font size to make it more legible, but instead chose to take our own advice and actively pursued the next generation of readers. At that time our tagline was “where audiophiles click”, but needless to say our fonts are now smaller, and our tagline is “audio-visual, lifestyle & technology”. We also added dedicated head-fi and portable audio sections, digital streaming and – wait for it – vinyl and turntable sections too, and our readership is at record levels.
Is our industry evolving fast enough to cater for future generations of music lovers?
So, as stores like JB HiFi reduce the amount of floor space offered to hi-fi, this creates an opportunity for specialist retailers catering to the more discerning buyer and enthusiast. The new wave was not brought up being told to buy a car, find a partner, settle down and buy a house. Instead, they yearn for the latest gadget, want to fill their rented apartment with streaming music and media – and like hearing high-quality audio while on their laptop or smart device.
This is why retailers need to change, in order to stay viable. We know there are some real challenges facing bricks and mortar sellers having to compete with the convenience of online shopping, but this can be overcome. Retailers need to show their customers why there is real value in dealing face-to-face with an expert. It's time to bring hi-fi stores out of the nineteen nineties; they need to be bright, inviting, minimalist in design, and give the customer an experience. Apple stores anyone?
Retailers need to ensure they are tapping into a relevant audience by hosting social and product nights for customers, reaching out to them regularly. They have to keep records of their purchases to let them know when an upgrade or relevant new product is released. They must make sure they’re up with current trends, techniques and new designs. I recently heard a story where a prospective purchaser entered a prominent retailer and asked to see a range of DACs to connect to his laptop, only to be told that it wasn’t required if you already have a good soundcard and amplifier! The customer duly went to a nearby store and purchased a DAC, headphone amp and headphones for a cool $4,000…
Audio Solutions (Mascot, NSW) hold regular customer evenings to discuss new trends and the latest products.
I have yet to discover the right term for this growing category, as it’s evolving and broadening to cover so much more than the traditional ‘hi-fi’ of yesteryear. If you have thoughts on this then please let us know in the comments below, we'd love to hear your suggestions.
So I implore retailers to deliver a worthwhile experience for shoppers, giving an immersive look and feel to the branding of their stores – rather than just focusing on the brands they sell. There’s only one chance to make that all-important first impression, after all. This also applies to retailers’ social media platforms, which exist to convert a lead into a new customer. Change is coming, but not before time.