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Shopping for a Shop

In another time in America, food was purchased from small corner markets where the owners knew every shopper’s preferences, tastes and predilections and could look into a wicker basket of ingredients and give unfailing guidance on how to turn those simple items into a savory, satisfying meal. This was a time when shoppers’ purchases were driven not just by family traditions but also the wisdom and knowledge of purveyors who still held passionate opinions about food and its preparation.

Now consumers blindly throw boxes and cans of bland, processed comestibles into grand piano-size carts as quickly as they can race through the megamart. Should help be needed on how to cook polenta or how to prepare a certain cut of meat, God help ’em. The majority of supermarket employees today would not know polenta from oatmeal-the encyclopedic experience of yesterday’s shopkeepers, and their obvious devotion to good food and that intimate, personal service is long a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, by and large, most retailing has followed this trend of depersonalization: you buy tires from a warehouse, food from a warehouse, stereo equipment from a warehouse and CDs and books from a Web site.

Ever try to get into a meaty dialogue about late ’50s Coltrane or Tony Williams’ contribution to contemporary drumming with the shopping cart of an online CD seller? We used to have those afternoon-long chats in real record stores where clerks shared a passion for music and were generous with their time and opinions, often opening new windows on new players and recordings.

Now imagine assembling a dream stereo or home-theater system based on advice from a minimum wage “associate” whose last gig was at Burger King. Mention you want a system that will bring the most out of your old Blue Note collection and see where that gets you.

But there are alternatives, as I regularly remind readers of this column. By carefully shopping around, not only can you find a dealer that will understand the significance of shelves full of Blue Notes and Riversides but who can, for about the same money you spend on a reasonable system in the anonymous warehouse, custom-fit you with components that will surprise your ears with oodles of accuracy, warmth, aliveness and thrills.

And while not every customer will click with every retailer, after visiting the stores in your area, you should be able to find the one that fits best with your personality and needs.

“You have to feel comfortable, that things are happening in your time frame and not someone else’s,” insists Steve Cohen of New York City’s In Living Stereo, a comfy little shop conveniently located in the musically significant Village. “You don’t want to feel like you’re being pushed. You should feel in synch with the dealer who should, from the start, exhibit some sensitivity to what you are trying to achieve.”

“You can’t feel comfortable buying something expensive from someone unless you feel a rapport and trust,” agrees Galen Carol of Galen Carol Audio in San Antonio, Texas. “You need to feel that what they are telling you is not just a line to sell you a product but that they are being honest with you. To me, it’s all about helping people find the right component, whether it’s from me or someone else.”

Kevin Deal of L.A.’s Upscale Audio, a store known for its deep commitment to tubes and other esoteric audio gear, shares similar ideas while outlining his technique with new customers. “We like to keep this place a bit goofy; I think that helps put people at ease. I don’t want us to have any sense of stuffiness. Sometimes a customer might be sitting in a chair as I talk to them lying on the floor. And maybe I’m wearing fuzzy slippers even though I sell some of the most expensive equipment in the industry to some very well-heeled people. But my style disarms them a bit, so they know I’m not just trying to get into their pockets.

“I have a very informal conversation with people and I ask a lot of questions. I want to get a sense of what is important to them, what floats their boat. I have to find out what they have seen and heard and what their expectations are. I lay people out like a psychiatrist to get to some core stuff. Often people are trying to recreate something that hit them when they were younger.

“Usually I don’t ask a customer what kind of music they listen to. I ask them what gets them off. Do they want the music to have that clear sparkle or do they like that glass of Courvoisier, that golden-glow thing. You can play your favorite jazz LP and have it with a little bit of bite, or you can play it with a smoky, rounded crunchy sound, but it’s still going to be jazz. So asking someone if they like jazz is a silly qualifying question. ‘How do you want it to sound?’ is a more appropriate question. And I never ask a customer to buy anything; I give them enough information, after their interview, so they can make their own decisions. I help them find something fun that has an emotional hook, so when they turn it on it’s going to trip that trigger.”

When you buy a custom suit, the tailor measures every inch of your body to assure a good fit, and that is what Deal is doing when he lies on the floor to conduct his interview. Carol, who does much of his business by phone with clients who may not have dealers in their areas, conducts a similar set of qualifying questions, and for all we know, he might be in his underwear, but he gets the job done. “We have to understand-with a great amount of specificity-what a customer’s preferences are,” Carol says. “What the budget is, what equipment they already have at home, what they may have already heard, what the room is like they will listen in, what kind of volume they like, who will use the equipment, how it will integrate into their lifestyle. We try to do our homework up front so they end up with something that will make them happy.”

Cohen’s process does not veer from this line of thinking. “I’m interested in helping people achieve a synergy with what they already have at home. A good dealer should help guide a customer toward a synergy no matter what. Someone might go from store to store buying good pieces based on good reviews that, in reality, won’t work well together as a system. A good dealer will help the customer choose components that will work properly as a system to achieve that magical synergy. But the key is that relationship and that faith that a customer can have in a dealer who can show them a path that is sensitive to their budget and that will achieve their goal, that fills their needs. That is more important in my book than searching the Internet for the best deal.

“In truth even a budget system put together properly will be more musical than an expensive mistake. So system matching is most important. People often are not aware that every aspect of the system, from the outlet to the speaker, has its effect on how the system will sound. This information ultimately may only be helpful to the true enthusiast. But there is a more practical basis here. Often times customers come in with a certain perspective like, ‘it’s all about the speaker or amplifier,’ wanting to spend their money on that particular item without understanding that a balance between components is preferable,” Cohen says.

So what happens once you find that dealer that clicks?

“The bottom line is listening. This is a very subjective hobby,” Carol says. “When you first get into this level of equipment, everything sounds better than what you’ve heard before. But as you listen, the key is, over time, refining your ears and taste to determine what you’re happiest with. To do this, you should do as much listening as you can and then get into a system that fits the budget with the idea in mind that, in a year or two, one or more of the components might be upgraded to further refine the sound as your ideas change. But ultimately the customer should trust their ears. Certainly having a relationship with a client is important, but not at all costs. I often recommend that a customer buy something elsewhere because I don’t have what will suit their needs.”

Deal concurs: “Speakers, especially, are something that should be listened to. And listen for a long time. Just like with an attractive member of the opposite sex, sometimes the thing that gets your attention is the thing that drives you crazy after a while. Some speakers can sound very exciting on first listening, but that very thing that brought you to them is the thing that will irritate you later. In any case, a dealer should never recommend a product to you without having that long, huge discussion I mentioned earlier,” Deal insists. “If they make a recommendation without talking to you at length, to find out what bugs you, or if they say something is ‘the best,’ be wary, because it’s not about the best, it’s about different shades of color.”

Many dealers will allow, once you’ve narrowed down your choices, a short in-home audition, perhaps just overnight, but sometimes longer, to evaluate a component’s interaction with your existing system and your room. Carol, who conducts much of his business with customers he never sees, is a big believer in these intimate evaluations. “I think home trials are very important, because there is so much of a difference in the listening, not just in what the room does to the sound-the same equipment will sound different in different rooms-but the main issue is the atmosphere,” he says. “Listening needs to be done in a relaxed scenario on your own time, with your own music, as opposed to having someone standing there staring at you while you’re trying to concentrate on the music and how the equipment conveys the music. That is very difficult without taking something home.”

Something else to consider that can make shopping easier in the long run is making appointments to audition equipment, especially in larger stores in big cities where customer traffic is heavy.

“Besides,” Cohen says, “some speakers and systems are more complex to set up and require some advance notice in order to prepare them properly for an audition. And some stores have so much gear they need some time to set it up. Plus, the customer doesn’t waste time waiting around for a system to be assembled, making the time invested in shopping more efficient.”

Cohen reminds us that specialty retailers also offer a wider variety of services than large-volume warehouses. “We are always available by phone to answer questions without having to fight a voicemail system, to help walk customers through the setup, especially of home-theater equipment, which can be very complicated. They are buying into a better level of service for sure, but we also have the equipment set up correctly in the first place so they can get a better sense of how it sounds and how they feel about it.”

But it’s not just the customer who wants quality in a dealer. Manufacturers, likewise, need to trust the people who are selling their products. “Old-fashioned customer service is what we want to hear about,” says Jim Smith, U.S. importer of the unique and critically acclaimed Avantgarde horn speakers. “We’ll maintain a dealer who ‘gets it’ but isn’t able to sell as much as some other dealer that, in spite of wonderful sales figures, does not, in our opinion, serve the customers properly. That type of dealer doesn’t stay in our family very long.”

Jim Price, director of sales and marketing for PSB Speakers of America, echoes Smith’s sentiments. “We use field reps to monitor all PSB dealers to ensure they continue to meet our standards, which include having an established specialty position in the marketplace, maintaining a sales force that understands specialty products and the value of service plus dealers who must be able to appropriately demo the equipment they carry. Other products they stock should complement PSB in quality and market position. We will terminate a dealer, regardless of sales volume, if any one of these criteria deteriorates.”

Deal sums it up this way: “Look for a retailer who carries good lines and has stability. It doesn’t have to be a big store; some crappy little stores have great sound. But find someone you really like who has products you are interested in. A dealer should be willing to invest the time it takes to understand your needs. I don’t mind people who are labor intensive, and I deal with the nuttiest segment of the market because of the stuff I sell.”

But don’t forget, customer behavior is part of the equation as well. Have respect for the dealer, what they are trying to teach you and the time they are willing to spend helping you. And very important to remember: It’s very bad form to “break the balls” of a local dealer and then try to find a better price on the Net. Just as you can go to another dealer, many dealers will not be shy, letting you know when it’s time to hit the road because, despite the old adage, the customer is not always right. Says Deal, “There should be a nice groove thing going on both sides. You both should be having fun.”

Anyway, isn’t that what music is all about?

Originally Published