While I can only speak for the UK -- every country is reacting differently to the relaxing of the lockdown -- I must admit to a newfound pessimism about the future of all retail, but especially hi-fi. Stores in the UK deemed “non-essential,” which includes anything other than pharmacies or supermarkets, reopened on June 15th, but shopping in 2020 is (1) hellish due to limited numbers allowed in-store so one has to queue, the 6' distancing, and wearing masks, and (2) unsustainable for something like hi-fi, where you don’t just enter a shop, pick up what you need, pay, and depart.
Without mincing words, high-end audio is going to suffer another cataclysmic change to its selling practices which will rival the devastation imparted upon it by online retailing and the general shrinking of the hi-fi separates market. OK, so staff can stand 6' away from you while performing a demo, and send you home with your purchase or deliver it, but the all-pervading air of misery, nervousness, and concern for infection will combine to make listening to music in a hi-fi store a joyless experience.
Partly because I’m an old fart, I prefer going to stores when buying anything from apples to eyeglasses. I realise that one of the industries benefitting from lockdown has been home delivery of groceries, but equally I hear that the fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and meat being delivered ain’t necessarily the items with the longest sell-by dates. It’s fine if your online order lists specifics like “a large can of Bush’s Best Vegetarian Baked Beans,” as that’s what you’ll get. Otherwise, I wanna squeeze the tomatoes and select a loaf of bread with more than eight hours of remaining shelf-life.
Before portraying myself as the last champion of keeping the high streets healthy, I confess that I’m an incorrigible online buyer of books, LPs, CDs, and other articles for which only one choice exists. While guilty of adding to Jeff Bezos’s purse, as said old fart who lives in the countryside, sometimes online shopping makes life too easy to resist. But not so hi-fi, save for used stuff on eBay.
With eyeglasses, clothing, and other wearables, I differ from millennials who are happy to order shoes or shirts online, try them on, and send back what they don’t want. I just find it inconsiderate. (Unsurprisingly, this gave birth to that new phenomenon and curse of online retailers: women who need a new dress for a special event, order online, wear it once, and then return it on Monday.) Such consumers are no better than the sort of conscienceless audiophile who, back when there were plenty of hi-fi shops to abuse, spent countless hours in the listening rooms, exploited the demonstrations to make their choices, and who then went elsewhere for a discount.
There is only one word for such people, and it is unprintable. If customers expect service, they should pay for it. Conversely, I can assure you that such discount hounds don’t give discounts for their wares or services, whether it’s a dentist or a baker or a plumber or a lawyer or a barber or a car mechanic or a gynaecologist or a tattooist. So why should a hi-fi seller be expected to give away his or her profit?
A hi-fi shop in Seoul, Korea, in 2002
Now I know that there are people for whom the word “discount” is a religion, who would go without rather than pay retail, but the ridiculous thing is that the worst of them are those who don’t actually need a deal. But as my old man told me, “The rich didn’t get rich by giving it away.” And for this type of consumer, it affects every purchase imaginable, though they can’t go into a supermarket and haggle over the bananas, or expect McDonald’s to knock a buck off a Big Mac.
Undoubtedly, the most offensive example in my experience was a dot-com millionaire whom I didn’t know, but whose wife was an old friend. Out of the blue, he asked me to get him “a deal on a watch.” I can’t begin to list how much is wrong with that, and every journalist has to deal with weasels who think they are entitled to breaks within their fields of operation -- regardless of all that it creates in terms of conflicts of interest and other malfeasances. But the fact that this worm wanted to deprive someone of his or her profit was sickening. Had the tables been turned, I doubt that said individual would offer a discount on whatever he was selling.
Audio Classics, located in Vestal, New York, in 2004
But back to hi-fi. I’m a grown-up, so, categorically, if you are a seasoned audiophile, and are not incapable of, say, installing a cartridge, there is no reason I can give you for not buying online. This also applies even if the online vendor is not offering a price reduction because of sheer convenience. The item arrives at your door, and you unbox it, install it, and enjoy it without having to leave the comfort of your home. Whether you use a general supplier like Amazon or a seasoned specialist such as Music Direct, the bottom line is that you will have back-up and a guarantee, but the onus is on you to make it work.
If there’s a downside, it’s what happens if/when something goes wrong. You then have to box it up and wait for the courier to collect it, while it takes x-number of days or weeks being dealt with via the online retailer . . . instead of the immediate response of a dealer nearby. The choice is yours, and this has nothing to do with prices, only with the means of acquisition and delivery and back-up.
Skinflint audiophile behaviour is, of course, nothing new. Back in the 1970s, when the default budget system in Great Britain was a Dual turntable, an NAD 3020 amp, and a pair of UK-made speakers like Wharfedale Diamonds, with a recommended package price of £295, I knew of scum who’d enjoy the demos locally, then drive to, say, London, where some oily discounter was selling it for £279. I couldn’t even be bothered to point out that the round-trip cost of gas was higher than the £16 they saved.
Then again, as an old fart whose misanthropic tendency is ever-increasing, I know that audiophiles have always been the stingiest consumers on the planet, though wristwatch buyers are doing their best to wrest the title from them. I tell you this because I want the guilty among you to remember it the next time you really do need a proper demonstration, or require help with the installation, or a repair, or anything else that is beyond your own skill set.
I remember a retailer who made it his policy to refuse to undertake warranty repairs of products which he knew had been purchased from notorious discounters. Blessedly, the manufacturers backed him. He was teaching miserly people a painful lesson. Thanks to the lockdown, with hi-fi shops under threat as never before, they need our support. But hear this: if you are one of those adhering to the above penny-pinching buying habits, you have no right whatsoever to whine or moan about the lack of hi-fi stores when you want to undergo a freebie demo. And when the last hi-fi specialist stores close down, it will be audiophiles, not COVID-19, who killed them off.
. . . Ken Kessler