It’s been more than a month since Britain’s brick and mortar stores closed their doors in line with government guidelines over the Coronavirus crisis. But like a lot of merchants nationwide, many specialist hi-fi retailers have continued to serve the hi-fi and AV community through online orders and other means of sales and support.
We checked in with a handful of UK hi-fi retailers to see how they've adapted, what changing buying habits could mean for the future retail experience, and to find out how you can support independent traders (and in turn the wider hi-fi and AV industry) during these unprecedented times.
Pivoting sales, shifting logistics
The in-store experience upon which hi-fi specialists pride themselves simply hasn’t been possible. So instead, businesses have pivoted towards online sales, with Sevenoaks, Peter Tyson, Audio-T , HiFix and Music Matters all shifting their efforts to online and telephone sales and services in recent weeks. And of course this isn't as simple as it might sound, with retailers having to navigate product delays, delivery logistics and the schedules of their own workforces.
Sevenoaks’ managing director, Rob Lawley, told What Hi-Fi?: “Whilst our core business is very much about the store experience and test-driving the products on the shop floor and in demonstration rooms, we also have a strong online presence and a telesales facility, where customers can engage us and seek advice on all aspects of the products we profile. We have had to increase our workforce and resources to deal with [an increase in customer enquiries] and at the same time ensure we deliver the same ‘first class service’ we are famous for.
“We have managed to continue to ensure that safety is maintained, with many of our partners able to work from home, and have invested in the technology to do this. We’ve also worked with our fulfilment partners to ensure that the safety of our customers is maintained when delivering products, and that we follow all of the government guidelines.”
Similarly, Peter Tyson has successfully continued the operation of its established web business. "We [have] largely maintained our normal delivery and returns targets for online sales even with reduced staff numbers and increased demand," says director, Matt Tyson.
"Our first thought has always been for the safety of our staff and customers. Working up to the stores being closed we introduced social distancing measures, staggered start and finish times, and remote working where possible. [Since lockdown] core staff have worked in reduced teams to allow for sales, service and warehousing teams to keep functioning in a safe and efficient manner. Locally we have offered free drop-offs (no install) and helped out customers where we’ve been able to, especially the elderly and key workers in these difficult times. It’s been challenging and it’s a great testament to our staff that we have maintained our usual high levels of service.”
Likewise, Audio T has shifted its sales and support strategy, as director Jerry Lewin explains: “Like many serious dealers we do most of our business by listening to customer needs and then demonstrating what we think will suit them. Closing our stores has prevented this, of course. However, we have not furloughed all our staff, so we can continue to give advice by phone, or chat via the website – and this goes some way to helping customers buy what is best for them.
“We have seen a large increase in business via mail order. Many of our suppliers will deliver goods direct to customers and others are letting us ship a wider range of products than is normal. We are finding it hard to obtain all the stock we need to meet every order, but as factories come back on stream in some form or other we expect this situation to improve."
While independent specialist Music Matters has been forced to furlough a number of its staff for the foreseeable, it has managed to keep its long history of service running, operating on skeleton staffing to ensure its four stores can be visited once or twice a week to process website sales.
"Business has been reasonably good given the market conditions," says Music Matters co-owner Phillip Parker. "I think having been in business for nearly thirty years helps. We have a strong base of customers who still choose to buy from us due to choice, advice and reassuring customer service. We carry a good range of items in stock and invariably ship next day with free delivery anywhere in the UK. Our suppliers, such as Bowers & Wilkins, have been able to ship directly to our customers which is enormously helpful."
Increased demand in home entertainment
It’s not surprising that retailers have reported an increase in AV sales. After all, if we can’t be outdoors, we must enjoy time indoors – and what better way to do that than with a cinematic home cinema experience?
As Matt Tyson notes: “The feedback from our customers is that they have brought forward purchases so they can enjoy them during lockdown. Sadly people's circumstances have been changing regarding holidays, planned events and other spending commitments, so music and movies are proving a welcome distraction."
Sevenoaks’ Rob Lawley agrees: "The demand for home entertainment products has remained high. We’ve also seen a growth in large-screen UHD TVs… people are refreshing their living space to better accommodate the whole family and deal with being at home more."
That being said, two-channel hi-fi doesn't appear to have taken a backseat either.
“We have [also] seen a huge interest in audio products," says Lawley, "with a real emphasis on mid to higher-end products."
Impacts on future retailer experiences
Frank Harvey, managing director at Hi Fi Excellence (owner of HiFix), fears that the recent dependency on online sales could detrimentally impact the future of the retailer experience.
“Once showrooms within the hi-fi industry begin to re-open it will take customers some time to move back to visiting them again… habits are hard to break. Coronavirus is a defining moment in world history and may set new standards of consumer behaviour, we may all have to adapt,” he says.
It’s of course something all of us are coming to terms with – the idea that many things won't go back to how they were before, even after the Covid-19 pandemic ends. But Harvey, like many retailers and no doubt consumers, recognises that the special in-store experience cannot be fully replicated by alternative means of sales.
“One of the benefits that customers have in our industry are demonstrations between products and systems, which are important when choosing what to buy. Our sales people love the ability to demonstrate differences between products – and this is not possible when products are bought online.”
Needless to say, retailers will be hoping to once more provide such an in-store experience and impart their invaluable knowledge face-to-face sooner rather than later, of course in a safe manner.
"Once we do get a green light we will be taking measures to ensure the safety of both our staff and customers – masks, hand gel, social distancing, surface cleaning, limited numbers – all to ensure that people can visit Audio T in as complete safety as is possible," said Lewin.
Sharing that sentiment, Parker says: "We're very much looking forward to getting back to business when it is safe to do so."
"During these unprecedented times, a real community spirit has emerged which I hope remains, long after this crisis is over," concludes Sevenoaks' Lawley.
We'll raise a glass to that. In the meantime, if you're thinking about spending some money on upgrading your home music and movie experience, then why not think about your local independent retailer? If we want local businesses to remain, now more than ever is a time to remember the mantra 'use it or lose it'.
Selected retailers' online and phone services are below.
Buy by phone: 07388 472481
Buy online, next day and named day UK delivery options available
Buy by phone: 02476 631 707
Buy by phone: 0121 742 0254
Buy online, next day UK delivery options available
Buy by phone: 01228 546756
Buy online, free UK delivery
Buy by phone: 0333 016 4775
You can find more retailers on the Clarity Alliance website, the trade association for the UK hi-fi industry.