[SoundStage!]The Y-Files
Back Issue Article
November 1999

The Home-Based Dealer

The one place where audiophiles love to congregate the most, besides their own living rooms, is in the comfortable, well-equipped audio salon where repeat visits are strongly encouraged even though the checkbook has been intentionally left at home. Remember the old-fashioned neighborhood hardware store? The owner knew you by name. The sales people not only cared about making sure you had the right tools for the job at hand, they went out of their way to explain how to use them properly. They’d even loan you an expensive tool if you’d only use it for a quick one-time repair. Contrast this with the Home Depot-ism that’s put this type of store on the endangered species list. A much larger corporate outfit with perchance lower prices and bigger, guaranteed inventories has replaced many a specialist store of yore. In this evolution towards more efficient consumerism, something vital and irreplaceable has been lost -- the very human element of relationship.

The Internet began as an external materialization of the human nervous system, making possible near-instant information exchange between the individual cells of the great organism that is mankind. It is now also becoming an agent for the associated exchange of hardware: e-commerce. Because this is a novel enterprise without precedent, nobody yet knows whereto this trend may eventually lead, but there simply is no retailer in existence now who doesn’t acknowledge that the traditional ways of selling merchandise are impacted. The most drastic visions foresee an end to traditional retail altogether or expect at least a severe change-over. Audio-related dot-com sites such as Audio Shopper or Audiogon are more than merely modern-day versions of the traditional classified ad that was placed by end users within a limited local area. Besides squaring the personal impact of an individual buyer/seller to infinity by exploding his restricted local audience into plugged-in humanity at large, more and more professional retailers can be seen to use these sites. Impatient to sell off "dead" inventory in the local market, they use open commercial listings or disguise themselves as end users. In either case, the Internet is becoming an adjunct to traditional walk-in sales for audio stores. Interestingly enough though, most Internet transactions are price-based -- either because the gear sold is used or because it’s significantly discounted.

Let’s repeat this last point to make a point: Internet sales are nearly always based on price. What does this mean? Simply that sales transactions without the personal human relationship of a face-to-face contact aren’t worth as much as those with. If it was otherwise, you could rest assured that the seller wouldn’t accept anything other than full price. It’s his profit he’s giving away after all. Consciously or not, we put a price on human relationship and personal interaction. If "faceless" sales begin to proliferate -- and appearance indicates they are -- what exactly are we saying about ourselves? Are we too cheap to honor human relationship? Has saving money become more important to us than the enjoyment -- and challenge -- of human intercourse?

It’s fair to suspect that this trend towards less rather than more personal interaction will only continue to grow and spread. Too bad. An e-mail from someone or a JPEG of him or his merchandise are only symbols of the real thing, faint shadows of having a living person react very unpredictably to another in a shared physical space. Or touching and handling an object with one’s hands rather than its likeness via one’s mind.

As a passionate music lover, would you rather share your hobby with a real person while listening to music over a stereo system, or do you prefer chat rooms and sound-byte exchanges of digital files? Would you rather evaluate a component via JPEG and spec sheet, or by first-hand experience? If your answer favors real people and gear, I wager a bet that you would be sorry to see the traditional enthusiast’s audio salon become a thing of the past. However, just as animals don’t go extinct on their own accord, cozy storefront retailers don’t close their doors without our doing -- or non-doing as is more often the case. Last month’s installment of this column was the first article intended to clarify some of the retailers’ perspectives. If you know what their needs, concerns and worries are, you are better informed and empowered to do something about these matters if you care to. There are issues at hand and at stake, and it doesn’t take a grizzly vampire impalement ritual to distract from our own personal and very real involvement.

This month’s spotlighted retail outlet is called Sound Mind Audio of Austin, located on 1206 Haverford Drive, Austin, Texas 78753, (512) 251-7301. Owner-operator Brian Kurtz, in blatant disregard to my previously published advice "think Manhattan not your house" when you decide on a store location, has made his home his place of work. And that’s precisely why he’s featured in this month’s column, to serve as counterpoint to last month’s Audio Expedition, which is a prime example of a traditional storefront done right.

Kurtz, of course, isn’t the first audio dealer who’s home-based. In fact, this particular business profile not only has many precedents, but the trend is growing. The audio consumer today is faced with many non-traditional shopping options that, truth be told, are in many cases overt minefields just waiting for an unsuspecting customer to be taken for a serious anything-but-joy ride.

If retail is a minefield not just for the consumer, then there are different solutions on how to best deal with it from the distribution end as well. The home-based business model attempts to overcome certain problems while creating others in turn. An obvious issue for the home-based dealer is his relative invisibility, and the concomitant need for direct mail, national advertising or e-commerce. An equally obvious advantage over the traditional storefront is the potential for superior one-on-one service, after-hours or by appointment, without any competition for the owner’s attention from other customers or demonstrations.

The home-based dealer needs to decide whether he wants to address the national or the local market or how to integrate both. The discount mail-order house that specializes in close-outs, discontinued merchandise, gray-market models or factory refurbs crouches, on a scale of ascending reputation and service, at the very base of an imaginary totem pole. A dedicated professional like Galen Carol Audio of San Antonio, Texas proudly occupies its lofty top. Both address a nationwide audience, but their approach is different, and so is their merchandise. While the discount mail-order house rarely if ever does actual walk-in business, Galen Carol’s ground floor at home is a dedicated, highly professional business environment where some of the finest audio components available are on active display, which is continuously adjusted to suit the needs of the appointment-only visitors. This includes a home theater with remote-controlled screen, curtains and deluxe seating for seven. I’ve seen it and can unequivocally say that many highly successful businessmen and women would be very proud to call Galen’s home their own.

Unlike Galen Carol, who’s well established, Sound Mind Audio of Austin is new, hence Kurtz’s main focus is his local audience -- Austin and environs. This is both a function of necessity (you have to start somewhere) and preference -- Brian’s belief in hands-on service is best satisfied when he can personally deliver and set up systems.

What can a walk-in customer expect from a Brian Kurtz that he couldn’t get from a storefront dealer in his town? In a nutshell, superior product, superior know-how, superior service. And obviously, this comes with a price -- you cannot expect superior anything for free or for a discount.

Let’s investigate the product selection first. In the 2000-square-foot house, 70% of which is dedicated to business, the very sizable living/listening room features a stunning $65,000 vinyl/tube/’stats system. From source to speakers, the signal begins life with a Basis 2001 turntable powered by Walker Audio's Precision Motor Drive, Benz H2O cartridge and Graham 2.0 ceramic tonearm and continues on to an Airtight ATE-1 MM phono stage sandwiched by Walker Audio Valid Points and Resonance Control Discs, Airtight ATC-2 preamp, Airtight KT88-based ATM-2, ending in a pair of gigantic Sound Lab Ultimate-1 full-range electrostatic panels. For digital, an Accuphase DP-55 is on tap, and cabling is Tara Labs The One with the ISM floating ground-station devices absorbing stray EMI/RFI. A Tara Labs Power Screen is implemented for low-level signal, and a triple-shot of Audio Line Source devices are used with the ATM-2 and Sound Labs. Further tweaks will be added as revenues allow.

How many audio stores can you name that display Roger West’s top-of-the-line, $27,000 full-range electrostatic speakers, by many golden-eared listeners considered to be the finest examples of their breed? How many stores do you know that sport literally walls of vinyl where the record of your choice will be VPI-vacuum-cleaned and Record Research Labs-treated right in front of your eyes before it’s spun? I thought so. But before you conclude that Sound Mind caters only to the financially liberated, a quick glance at one of the upstairs sound rooms will allay any such worries. The Audio Refinement Complete system with ProAc Tablette 2000 speakers or Soliloquy 5.0s sells for about $4000, including accompanying Tara Labs cables, and the system synergy will make you entirely forget that in high-end terms, you’re listening to an entry-level rig.

Those readers with prior exposure to this mad audio hobby of ours will, in the choice of components listed here, already detect a connoisseur’s touch. This is entirely due to a few relevant factors: the owner of this establishment cares passionately about sound. Call him a tweak, but from the sane as opposed to gone-over-the-edge school. He has hard-earned experience to know how to go about assembling a top-notch system and making it work within your budget and space. How hard-earned?

How about six years’ worth of audio retail experience in various stores? From mid-fi to if-you-have-to-ask-you’re-in-the-wrong-place-fi, Kurtz has seen and done it. Afterwards, he worked for the Tobias Rep firm that handled brands like Audio Research and Mirage and now represents Airtight, Accuphase, Golden Tube, Golden Theater, PSB, Tannoy and Tara Labs (they were also the first NAD rep west of the Mississippi -- 25 years ago). Never mind a good three years of working as national sales manager for the Tara Labs.

In order to produce good sound, one requires massive exposure to what’s available, and a trained ear to sort through the chaff and end up with the choice grains. What better way to hear most everything the market has to offer than being a manufacturer’s marketing guy who handles a North American array of audiophile-grade retail accounts on a personal basis and attends trade shows two or three times a year? It also requires hands-on experience. In Kurtz’s case, working as a manufacturer’s rep is about as hands-on as it gets. But none of this would matter a bit if he didn’t possess the innate desire to help others. That’s something that can’t be learned or transferred. You either have it or you don’t. If you do, chances are good that sooner or later, you need to become your own boss, especially if your ideas about what constitutes good service are extreme.

For those readers who entertain notions about opening their own home-based audio shop but aren’t independently bankrolled, consider this: Brian is very candid about the potential risk for failure involved in setting up shop at home and only having a limited budget to survive dry spells or a slow ramp-up. The only way he could even begin to inventory the choice gear described above was through the very generous help and support of friends and acquaintances in the industry. When he approached Richard Gerberg of ProAc, for example, he told him bluntly that he couldn’t afford to buy the entire ProAc offering hook, line and sinker. Because of his long-term commitment to the line and his excellent reputation in the industry, Brian was able to work out a mutually equitable arrangement with the ProAc importer. This allowed him to display a few ProAc models immediately and roll future ProAc sales revenues into more models on the floor without putting any of it into his pocket. Ditto for some of the Accuphase and Airtight gear. He originally obtained some of his display inventory on loan from friend Terry Combs, the proprietor of Sound Mind Audio of Dallas, and through support from the brands’ importer, Art Manzano of Axiss. Mark O’Brien of Rogue Audio was equally willing to work out special arrangements to facilitate representation from a quality dealer. To state the obvious: a shop like Sound Mind Audio doesn’t spring into being from a vacuum.

What does this all mean to the music lover who is presented with so many choices as to where to shop? I don’t know about you, but my take on the evolution of the Internet, and more specifically its e-commerce ramifications, combined with the preponderance of warehouse-style mass merchandisers in all arenas of retail, has me worried. I worry about the specialist retailer who epitomizes human and service values that by now seem like a throwback to gentler times, as though caring, expertise and service were somehow outdated and passť, replaced by instant shake’n’stir gratification. I’m fond of saying that consumers vote with their pocket book each time a purchase is made. Judiciously monitoring whom we support and whom we shun can become our grassroots contribution to affecting the vast landscape that is our consumer society. If you’re sick of seeing the mom-and-pop stores disappear, do something about it -- gift them with your business. If you’re frustrated by getting poor service from "burgerflippers" who sell audio today, used cars tomorrow and solicit you over the phone for life insurance next week, go support the store that is willing to bend over backwards for you, the customer, because he honestly cares. Not only does he care that you get the best product for the money you have to spend, he is also adamant about your purchase; giving you all it’s capable of.

My hat is off to audio entrepreneurs who dare challenge the current trends and put their personal life savings on the line to make a difference. Others seem to echo my sentiments. Brian reports that since opening Sound Mind Audio in February of this year, only three customers that visited with him didn’t buy anything at all. While he’s still about 10-15% away from break-even and supports himself with a part-time gig at the Tobias rep firm, Brian’s committed to doing whatever it takes to weather the initial hatching season for his business. To those calling in expecting a discount, he simply replies that in such a case, he won’t talk to you longer than 10 minutes because he can’t afford to do business on that level, nor does he care to -- "no offense, it's just not a survivable transaction."

There is something noble in sticking to your beliefs, whatever they may be, and people respond to sincerity. Kurtz recalls a customer who was a bit belligerent about "getting a deal" after they had spent phone time together proposing a system for shipment to Arkansas, where the customer didn’t have access to any of the equipment he was interested in. When Brian refused, the customer hung up only to call back 45 minutes later and close the transaction. I imagine he was tickled a very rosy pink when he took delivery and heard what Brian’s advice and expert selection bought him. Brian adds he’s been a repeat customer since

...Srajan Ebaen
srajan@soundstage.com

 

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