Live from Casa Saxon

May 1997

Adventures in South America, Part I

Even audio dealers in Paradise suffer burn-out from time to time. You sneer. Well, how much chocolate cake can YOU eat, how much love can you make, how many recommended components and records to die for can you listen to? Well okay, studly, maybe you have more stamina than I. Let’s try a different angle. How much import duty can you pay, how many blown components can you support, how many uncivil manufacturers can you stomach without kicking the cat? You’d have to be in my tennies to appreciate that a year in the hi-fi business without a break is a long, long time.

[IT'S NOT ENOUGH]Recently, I pondered getting as far away from the office as I could afford. When a friend of mine, Roberto Rojas, who is an audiophile and Grand Dragon of the Bricklayers, invited me to accompany him on a trip to a ghost conference in Santiago, I pondered the opportunity. Quickly boning up on Chile, I learned from the beautiful and personable Chilean seņora who owns the gym I belong to, that the long, skinny country is Paradise South, except that it is much bigger, more prosperous, and produces even prettier women than does Costa Rica. Strong arguments. I booked passage to Chile the next day.

During the seven hour, one-stop flight, I imagined myself a modern Humboldt following the Andes to a land of wonders. Arriving late Sunday, I faced my first wonder, nighttime smog. The only other place I know that can bring tears to the eyes after dusk is Mexico City. Santiago is igual if not peor. The second wonder was the beer at the hotel bar. Chile, like other countries to which Germans emigrated in the 19th century, has great beer. All Canadians should move there.

Over a pitcher of liquid gold, I formulated a relaxed game plan: absorb the ambience, commune with nature, eat fresh seafood and aged steaks, imbibe local beverages, and admire the lovelies. I completed much of this agenda on Monday by driving to the seaside communities west of Santiago, Viņa del Mar, Reņaca, Con Con, and absorbing, communing, eating, gawking, etc. In Con Con I enjoyed the best shellfish platter of my life and learned of a native drink called pisco, which is pronounced the way it sounds. The Chilean national drink is not Concha y Toro wine nor Cristal beer on tap. The national drink is the Pisco Sour, which is like a whiskey sour, except that pisco, a distilled by-product of winemaking, substitutes for rye. When you sit down in a restaurant, they bring Pisco Sours along with the buns and butter. All topers should move to Chile.

After a fun-filled Monday, in which I gained eleven hundred pounds, I resolved to do the same on Tuesday. Except that on Tuesday morning after a Pisco Sour breakfast, I found myself with Yellow Pages in hand, looking for hi-fi stores to visit. Burn-out doesn’t last all that long.

Under "Sound Equipment", the Santiago Paginas Amarillas listed thirty-eight vendors of audio gear, a decent show of musical interest in a city of five million souls. Ads displayed a mix of mid-fi and professional brands, such as Aiwa, Bogen, Peavey, Altec Lansing. The last entry, for Wharfdale loudspeakers, caught my eye because it gave the same address as my hotel. Elevatoring down (?) to the lobby, I found a commercial concourse with no less than six audio stores in a row. Except for the Wharfdale merchant, they all sold musical instruments and sound re-inforcement products. Since Wharfdale was closed (and remained steadfastly so each day), I drifted into a store which had guitars hanging in the window and asked an employee if his company offered home stereo. He pooh-poohed the idea. When I asked if he knew where I could buy hi-fi equipment, he told me to try the Yellow Pages. Oui, but of course.

As I learned, Chileans are mad about music in clubs, restaurants, stores, schools, offices and cars. They are not yet mad enough about music in the home to look beyond Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer and Samsung, all of whose monster billboards can be seen (barely) through the smog of Santiago’s skyline. Big brand stereo equipment is available in electronic variety stores, next to fax machines, video cameras, discmen, etc. Although proponents of ABX testing claim the big brands sound the same as Krell, Classe, etc., I have never found variety stores congenial to stereo auditioning. Once in New York, I asked a salesman at Brother Computers to fire up a Daewoo receiver I wanted to give as a gift to a shut-in and he laughed. When I asked about taking it home to audition, he threw me out of the store.

Back in the Yellow Pages, I found a number for Pro-Action, a name which suggests book-making, but whose ad displayed Advent, Bryston, Mark Levinson and Proceed. Blood was stirring. With a few hours left on the rental car contract, I importuned Ricardo, who is more experienced in the cut and thrust of Latin inner-city driving, to chauffeur over to 12251 Las Condes Avenue. Surprisingly, the Chileans are quite mannerly drivers. After a bit of backing and filling, Ricardo located the address in a wood-trimmed, multi-level shopping center. Unfortunately, the matron who owned the store at 12251 sold poster art and fuzzy things to put in the living room, but no Mark Levinson. A search of the open-air walkways proved fruitless. Finally, Ricardo encountered a maintenance engineer, who recalled that the audio/video store had moved to a tower apartment above the management office.

Three flights up we found Edgardo’s Hideaway, aka Pro-Action Ltda. The tall gentleman who answered our knock, Edgardo Silva Stambuck, proved to be a most engaging and knowledgeable person, having served eighteen years in the stereo business. Explaining that Pro-Action’s quarters were temporary until a second-floor suite was ready for occupancy, Edgardo did not apologize for his small inventory of products. The bulk of the business was custom installation work, for which he ordered equipment as the customer’s needs and budget permitted. Customs duties in Chile run about 36%. Buyers do not walk in; they are introduced by friends. Stocking a full line of Madrigal products is an extremely costly undertaking in a sporadic market. I liked Edgardo’s candor. During the subsequent hour we spent with him, he shed an interesting light on home entertainment in South America’s fastest growing consumer market.

First, Edgardo has all but abandoned the over-40 crowd. Having grown up under the pressure of big brand advertising, Chilean baby-boomers believe that Sony is better than Pioneer is better than Samsung is better than Proceed. Proceed? Who they? The good news is the under 40’s group is showing signs of interest in more exclusive products: Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, Mark Levinson. Surprisingly, Edgardo sees a great opportunity to sell hi-fi to young professional women. He has discovered they have pride of ownership yearnings to go with a discerning ear for music and sound. Unlike the fifty-year old homemaker who hates the husband’s hobby, a young businesswomen sees no stigma in liking stereo equipment that costs an arm and a leg.

I was not too surprised. Santiago is teeming with suited-up, pre-occupied women scurrying off to meetings and presentations. The booming Chilean economy could not function without their vast numbers. They are earning money, renting apartments, and identifying their own interests, things which earlier generations experienced to a much lesser extent. The presence of women in the commercial work force has created a cultural revolution with dynamic results for the local economy. Incidentally, Santiago is the only city in which I have been pushed aside by a briefcase-carrying female who found my walking pace too slow. Not incidentally, Edgardo’s partner in Pro-Action is his ex-wife, who is an accountant and audiophile.

Secondly, Pro-Action actually distributes stereo products. Edgardo has a small group of dealer’s who order Bryston, Proceed, etc. from him. In Paradise, we have no distribution. Here, the few stout hearts who sell hi-fi are vertically integrated. We do our own importing, and sell directly to consumers. We wouldn’t buy from one another at machete-point. Chile, with a population five times larger than ours, needs distributors to deal with suppliers and handle import problems, leaving dealers free to do face-to-face selling. This division of labor indicates that a structure for growth is in place, waiting to be exploited. Unfortunately, distribution alone does not yet provide Pro-Action with enough revenues to survive on. Edgardo does installation work, mostly video screens and projectors, in order to support the business. A technician by training, Edgardo loves setting up systems. He needs someone to do the office work of distribution: place orders, transfer money, correspond with occasionally civil suppliers, and keep track of inventory. He needs me. Unfortunately, if I moved to Chile the ever-present Pisco Sour would probably usher in my early demise. Younger, stronger livers need apply.

Finally, Edgardo has tried in vain to advertise but is without a proper medium. The one domestic audio/video magazine has folded, taking with it a page of advertising Edgardo bought for $2,000. The present alternative, a giant billboard across from the Samsung sign, is prohibitively expensive. Foreign hi-fi rags do not circulate enough in Chile to bring in customers. As in Paradise, word-of-mouth is the only way to attract new converts. Some day, perhaps the Internet will permit a cheap, productive advertising venue for people like Edgardo and yours truly. When that day comes, I will think hard about expanding into Chile. By then, or course, it will be too late.

The point of this essay, if any, is that those audiophiles who dream of supporting their hobby after retirement by setting up a hi-fi store can do so in Chile. That is if I, risking cirrhosis, don't go there first and corner the still-virgin market.

Well, this concludes Part I of a Busman’s Adventures in South America. Please tune in next month when Part II, Escapades in Argentina, comes to a small screen near you.

Jim Saxon