The customer as a dealer-groupie aka am I just one more on the list?

Normal, counter-intuitive – or what?

If in the normal course of events you engage with sufficient people, then inevitably you’ll get to experience a wide cross-section of attitudes and behaviours. And so it is, in the audiophile world. And yes, I do from time to time encounter perverse (well, perverse as far as I'm concerned) behaviour which depending on your point of view is both amusing and counter-intuitive. However ... it's also symptomatic of so much that is wrong in the retail side of our industry and must surely makes us look like nutters to outsiders.

I'm talking here of about the industry ‘groupies’. I use this disparaging term because I can’t think of a more appropriate description. Such people are typified by their need to listen to every major brand of equipment in as many retailers as possible – and here’s the cruncher – because they need to rather than want to.

The chase is everything.

They dread the day that they’ll find something they really like because … the chase will be over.

Their reason for existence will be compromised and sadly, they’ll either have to find another quest or more poignantly, will confront the inescapable reality that all this equipment merely serves to reproduce music, which in turn means sitting down and listening to (and dread of all dreads, actually enjoying) music. Both potential outcomes are unpalatable for these lost souls.

I'm exaggerating of course, but only very slightly.

Now don’t get me wrong here – I'm not talking about the over-enthusiastic changing of equipment; box-swapping and so on; although excessive changing might be considered eccentric, I don’t believe it’s symptomatic of anything more than another curious aberration in what is already a relatively paranoid arena.

No, what I'm talking about here is the sort of person who during the initial dialogue with me here (yes, I know it’s old fashioned to actually talk to the potential customer) bangs on about PraT before they’ve even taken their jackets off – but I like being old fashioned. Anyway, through this they reveal a curious and sometime benignly disturbing view of the audiophile world; that music is merely a tool to evaluate audio equipment. Anyway … because I can think for myself, and generally speaking find that visitors here can too, a dialogue, or at least some semblance of it takes place. So anyway ….

Here I am, sitting with a visitor and he tells me he’s been to 17 audiophile retailers – so far.

I kid you not. Stereonow (that’s me incidentally) is number 18, and “there are just three more to go”. So what’s going on here?

Am I wasting my time, and his?

And what should I do about it?

Nevertheless, despite encountering this sort of thing perhaps no more than two or three times per year during the past 33 years of audio retailing, I am nonetheless curious. Frankly, it’s hard for me to either (a) keep a straight face and or (b) not degrade myself by adopting a mocking or condescending tone.

The retailer as a therapist?

I certainly hope not. I thought I was an advisor (consultant really is too grandiose a word for what I and others like me do) helping the visitor get the result they want, when they want it and at a price they can afford. This, after all, is the core, the foundation or the ethos if you like of ethical selling. But in the instance I'm describing, all of that goes out the window. What I'm confronting here is a deep-seated neurosis – and I'm inadequate in the face of it.

What Mr. X desperately wants (but simultaneously doesn’t want, if you can get a handle on this contradiction) is in this instance to hear “all the great, the truly great power amps. All of them” – but without reaching a conclusion. His objective is the polar opposite of the conventionally required outcome.

I'm on his list because I have a couple of them (he perceives) and I'm the only UK retailer for them. Fair enough. Or is it?

Mr. X is I feel fundamentally incapable of making a positive decision.

He can make negative ones, but positive ones are beyond his neurosis. As evidence, consider the strong probability that had he heard what he was truly looking for (if indeed he’d thought it through in such terms) at any of the previous 17 specialist audiophile retailers, he’d have stopped there and then; but he didn’t.

Moreover if by some miracle my equipment was the greatest sound he’d ever heard outside of a concert hall, jazz club or whatever, he’d be incapable of making a positive decision (i.e. “I’ll buy it”) because his neurosis compels him to listen to whatever solutions the final three retailers on his current list might offer. Also, do bear in mind that by the time he’d got another dose of free entertainment at say retailer #21 he’d already long forgotten how good or bad or indifferent the sound was at the first few retailers.

And so it goes. My Mr. X brought along his reference CD. Just the one.

It had travelled with him, as his faithful companion and possibly his only friend (albeit a 4.5" dia one) across the length and breadth of the UK and was in use here on this momentous day. The opening conversation had already revealed both the hopelessness of his cause and my utter inability to offer him anything constructive. But he had travelled a long way and I thought it rude to curtail the confrontation there and then. And anyway I knew from experience that a person with their solitary CD and tunnel vision would in all probability bring the demo to a shuddering halt – without my intervention. And so it was.

The amplifier he had travelled all this way to hear was plugged into the most musically satisfying combination of ancillaries I had. One track was selected and Mr. X uttered the immortal statement to the effect that he’d heard the decay on the guitar "better" elsewhere.

Oh really?

Better in what way?

I receive a blank expression. I try to help.

Err, was the decay here longer or shorter than you’d heard elsewhere?

Both. Apparently it was longer than some and shorter than others.

“I see”, I told him. Mind you, what I was seeing was not necessarily what he was seeing.

And so the comparative merits of short versus long decay are debated.

Note please, just a binary situation. Long better than short – or vice-versa? Note also that at this point I’d not introduced the concept of long versus short versus the real thing. It was pointless anyway as he’d previously opined that he didn’t like attending live performances because “they’re too real” and he preferred the “controlled predictability” of the “studio sound”.

I gently pointed out that I’d rarely confronted a challenge such as the one he’d presented me and that candidly he needed a retailer with more experience and expertise than I was able to bring to bear on the situation.

I thanked him for his time.

He seemed crestfallen though. After all, he’d brought sandwiches and a flask – clearly with the intention of making an afternoon of it. No doubt (as I’ve experienced previously) he’d have offered me one of his sandwiches and a sip of his herbal tea (his own blend – of course, complete with a conspiratorial wink) had I given him the opportunity.

Meanwhile I wondered if I was physically fit enough to go back to tarmac-spreading; my occupation of choice when i was 19. It was thankfully only a fleeting thought and as Mr. X strode down my road with his solitary CD, his flask and sandwiches unopened and his thoughts of retailer #19 already acting like some sort of audiophile Viagra, I retreated happily to my office to respond to emails while listening to ‘You Don’t Know Me’ – by Ray Charles. And – just like that – I remembered precisely why I stay in this crazy business.

Thank you for your attention

Howard Popeck