[SoundStage!]The Candy Store
Back-Issue Article

September 2003

Come On In

Hi. My name is Bill and I’m an audiophile who works in an audio store. I haven’t had an upgrade in 62 days.


I tell you, it’s hard. It’s real hard. The temptation would drive a lesser man to accept every pre-approved credit-card application he receives and load em’ up. Yeah, though I walk through the valley of single-ended triodes, I will keep the wallet closed.

OK, so I’m not going to get sympathy from any of you. That’s fair.

Almost every audiophile who walks through the door says the same thing: "Boy, it must be great to work here." And after an extended period of intense reflection, I am able to respond with an inspired, "You bet!" Of course it’s great to work here. But I don’t know if that’s really the case for all audio salons. I know I’ll sound like a soccer mom bragging on her little star athlete, but our place really is unique.

It begins with attitude, and it starts at the top. The owner of our store is a music lover first, an audiophile second, and a businessman third. I hope that he isn’t insulted when he reads this, because it’s certainly meant as a compliment. After being in business for over a decade, the owner still comes into the store each day with the same kid-in-a-candy-store grin on his face that he wore when he first opened. He still comes up to me, all excited, with two copies of a new CD that he can’t wait for me to hear. He always gets multiple copies because he loves to share the joy he experienced.

200309_cambridge.jpg (23935 bytes)He also insists that part of my job is to plant myself in the listening chair on a daily basis and listen. Isn’t life a bitch? This is important stuff -- really. One of the most beneficial things your dealer can do for you is spend time in that chair. An audio store is not a salad bar where any item on display will complement most any other item. There are dealers that treat audio as such. "If it’s in our store, it sounds great no matter what you put it with." Experienced audiophiles know better. Our shop is more like a great wine shop. "This cabernet is especially good with Chateau-Briand; the Inniskillin Icewine is fantastic with dessert; the Cary (photo right) really goes well with JMlab." Like getting to know great wines, knowing audio takes practice. The owner of our store just happens to be somewhat of a wine connoisseur as well as an audiophile. Sometimes we practice both at once, all in the name of efficiency of course.

Have you ever been in a small restaurant or pub and just felt like you belonged there, like you were part of the place? The atmosphere created in such places is what makes them special, and hopefully successful. The atmosphere in our store is very much like that. We're a hangout. We have lots of customers who stop by almost every week to see what’s new or share a new piece of music that they’ve stumbled on. WHAT? You mean you encourage customers to come into the store even if you know they aren’t going to buy anything? ABSOLUTELY! We are not a high-pressure, hard-sell kind of establishment. Never have been. Never will be. Do we lose some sales this way? Probably, although I would venture to guess that we gain more sales than we lose. There are customers who seem to need the high-pressure "salesman" kind of attitude. These people actually seem suspicious of us when they don’t get that. On a rare occasion I have seen a customer get quite uncomfortable when he wasn't being pushed. Fortunately, there is another establishment in town that is more than willing to oblige. We prefer to remain true to ourselves and the attitude we choose to foster. When people want to be somewhere, when they want to be part of something, they will invest in it. And if they don’t, we still have a good time. C’est la vie.

200309_cambridge.jpg (23935 bytes)Belonging: That’s what I'm talking about. Becoming an audiophile is like belonging to a gang where the initiation requires you to move away from the mass-market flotsam and jetsam and plop down some green on something really musical. Gangs of audiophiles -- I can see them now. Leather jackets spiked with isolation cones. Armed with meter-long Synergistic Research Master Coupler power cords. Scary!

But perhaps not as scary as the prices of many of the "audiophile-approved" components out there. One of the most important areas of inventory a dealer can invest in is entry-level systems. If a person is forced to purchase a rack system from Best Buy, he is officially out of the game. The greatest joys I have experienced at the store have been with audio virgins. The looks on their faces when they get their first taste is priceless. For under a grand (Cambridge Audio electronics and Acoustic Energy Evo One speakers, photo right), I have had customers so tickled that you would think I had let them in on the secret to immortality. And they come back. I can’t tell you the number of customers who started with Cambridge, Arcam, Yamaha and eventually were buying Conrad-Johnson, Cary, and YBA. You have to start somewhere. Make sure the first bite is tasty.

Choosing the menu is another great part of working here. The owner is not some autocrat who micromanages every part of the business. If he were, I wouldn’t be here. He considers the store to be a group effort. He is hungry for input from me, from other storeowners, even from certain customers whose ears he respects. We carry a lot of product here. Some stores stick with a few lines and thereby limit choice. Our store has an extensive menu, a veritable smorgasbord. Every line we carry is here for a reason. It takes considerable effort to find certain speakers that best match with particular amplification. In addition to that, various audiophiles listen differently and have preferences when it comes to tonal balance, detail and other sonic parameters. We feel a store should have options.

Evaluating and selecting products is a somewhat different process for a dealer as compared to an audio reviewer. The perspective is different. A reviewer listens to a product and evaluates it almost solely on sonic merit. A good reviewer will evaluate the product by trying it with a few different components or speakers, trying to get a general feel for what it can do. A dealer has other considerations. A dealer must decide if the product is saleable. It doesn’t matter how fantastic a $5000 10Wpc solid-state power amplifier might sound. The market for such a piece is miniscule. A store that sells nothing but single-ended triode amplifiers and horn speakers will not stay in business.

Product recognition is another factor. Whether we like it or not, customers like to buy products that bear names they have read about or recognize. Unfortunately, there are many companies who put a lot more money into their marketing budgets than into product development. Our store has tried to be a pioneer when it comes to new product lines that show promise. We were dealers of Edge Electronics products (photo right), Montana speakers, and Gershman speakers when the companies were just getting off the ground. It makes our jobs a little harder when we have to educate customers about new lines, but once a comfort level is achieved, it is the customer’s gain.

Dealers also look at a company's business practices. Does the manufacturer offer protected territory? The number of sales for high-end audio is limited. If five dealers sell the same product in a small area, they all suffer. Does the manufacturer offer quality and expedient service? We have dropped lines that took months for any repair to take place. There are many companies that make fine-sounding components, but not all of their products are good investments for the dealer or ultimately the customer.

In the end it’s all about sharing a passion for music and the means to reproduce it as accurately as possible.

Yes, working in the Candy Store is a blast. We are a unique store in a unique market. In future columns, I will bring you to work with me and share things from my side of the counter. We’ll look at products, we’ll talk to customers, and we’ll listen to some music. Come on in....

...Bill Brooks

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