Ask an expert: Should I become a UK importer distributor?

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Mr Popeck - what criteria is a potential importer judged on before given sole (or any) import rights? Is reputation not factored in at all? Is it worth doing? Can I make reasonable money? Will the mags support me or hinder me? Thanks.

Note - the original text published in 2009 was revised May 2017

In a word - no! I'll explain below.

In 3 words - save your money.

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Here are typical supplier criteria

  1. Are you willing to pay in advance?
  2. Are you prepared to purchase in bulk?
  3. Are you prepared to fund all the advertising, marketing and promotion?

Those are the first 3 hurdles. Answer those three with a yes - especially in the current economic climate and they'll bite your hand off! Doing a good job though; not really that important because the makers want money now rather than reputation. There are exceptions of course, but don't rely on finding anyone prepared to demonstrate commitment to this despite their weasel words to the contrary..

Then ...... they make it clear that they don't want bright ideas, or any ideas at all from you the importer and certainly none from your UK retailers. Market feedback from the UK is in their view irrelevant and therefore unwelcome.

UK retailers are I guess in many cases looked at with distain, if not outright contempt. As with so many of these things, the US way is (they state or imply) the best. They do it bigger and better - always - and of course as we have come to expect, they are infallible. The default position regarding product unreliability is that it's the customer 'screwing up'.

Moreover, if you really want to succeed as an importer, it seems to me that you must be prepared - on demand - to demonstrate how grateful you are in that they are even prepared to built 230v versions. Usually this requires no more than a deferential bow, or not complaining that you have only received a partial shipment even though as the importer you paid up front weeks back.

Te reward of course is that as the importer, you are under no obligation (moral, ethical or financial) to reduce your already massive profit when the exchange rate swings in the UK’s favour.

Having sat in on a few of these negotiations please note that quality of service to the end-user and their indirect customer (the hapless and usually spineless UK retailer) does not, despite the weasel words to the contrary, usually figure in their thinking.

US makers, the ones that have survived and thrived are in the main run by sharp-suited management accountants. Their rationale is simple in that if 'it' can't be measured, or they think 'it' is irrelevant (where 'it' is customer satisfaction in the UK) then it has no value. None at all. Money is the only thing that really really counts. "Shift the damn product buddy - or we'll find someone else that will. Got it?" That last question is I know from direct personal experience over many years is not, repeat not an invitation to answer. Most US audiophile companies do not understand irony - so they despise it. If they do understand irony, they still despise it - only even more!

You don't engage in a dialogue with these guys. You endure their monologue.

The majority of the rest is just wise-arse speak and nothing more.

With the Japanese makers, or some of them at least, if you ask a question they don't like (which is pretty much anything other than "Can I order more, more MORE) they often claim not to understand English (really, I have had this) or they claim "difficulty due to cultural issues Howard san."

As with so many aspects of UK audiophile business, it's futile to expect to make a reasonable return on your investment as an importer. Moreover all the premier brands are represented and some magazine editors will refuse to provide editorial coverage on new brands. Why? well, that's a story for another time.

Epilogue

As with all aspects of this industry when looking from the outside in, the most solid piece of advice I can offer you is to carefully consider at what point your optimism might just be self-delusion. Many decent hard-working people before you have had their dreams trampled into the mud. Are you prepared for that eventuality?

Howard Popeck hp@no-alibi.demon.co.uk

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