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Plasma In The City: A New Way To Market and Sell High End Home Theater Print E-mail
Thursday, 24 August 2006

I recently traveled to Manhattan with my fiancée, who had never been to “the city” (as if there aren’t any others), a challenge considering we only had so much time yet so many possibilities as to what we could do. Beyond dinner at Mario Batali’s Babbo, I think seeing the Museum of Modern Art was highest on my list. We have begun collecting some modest 20th-century modern art and it would be a great opportunity to see in person some not very modest works by some of the same artists who grace our own walls for millions of dollars less. After an hour or so of me lusting after quite a few bitchen paintings, we headed out for our next appointment in the Village. En route, we bumped into the nearby Manolo Blahnik shoe store. If you aren’t looking carefully enough, you can miss this place, but they seem to subtly exude the smell of $950 strappy “f*@%-me” pumps onto the street and, yes, they were having a sale. In fact, they were having a big sale and, as much as my eyes popped out of my head looking at a 10-foot Andy Warhol Flowers painting, my fiancée got equally excited at the prospect of some new, uncomfortable and expensive shoes. Once getting past the biggest security guard (think the huge Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile), I was amazed by the enthusiasm these well-heeled women had for these shoes. The lustful smiles implied that shoe shopping for them was more than shopping. It was pure lust. And lust got me thinking (as it usually does, but I don’t often write about it).

Look at the response that a pair of $3,700 strappy heels can elicit from very savvy female shoppers. We all know that there isn’t $3,900 worth of materials in any pair of shoes, even if they were made of human skin grafts from very beautiful people, yet these women were convinced and, in many cases, assuming the correct size was in stock, they were sold. I guess men get the same goo goo eyes over a plasma TV tuned into HDNET or Sunday Night Football, but the lesson of going to the Manolo Blahnik store started me thinking abut the way high-end home theater is sold and how the sales pitch could be so much better.

Home Theater and high-end audio are luxury products, but make no mistake, they are items sold mostly these days by dealers who are more subcontractors than masters of the art of the demo. At this point, nobody has seen what Blu-ray can do. More wealthy people know about NetJets than they do about Crestron network control systems. Everyone knows what flat HDTVs look like (they even have them at Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik), but few people have ever really sat down with a badass remote and made a top-performing home theater system jump through its hoops. More than a decade ago, when I worked with Mark Levinson at Cello Los Angeles selling high-end home theaters, I always handed the touch-screen remote to the wife or the girlfriend and had her navigate the system. Granted, those systems were far simpler, but as soon as the wife could work the lights, turn the volume up and down and control the basics of the system, we were past the “wife acceptance factor” and into the performance and, more importantly, the emotion of the music and movies, which is how the big sales got done.

Today, people think a trip to a Best Buy or a Magnolia (even inside a Best Buy) can convince people to spend on home theater. In my experience, Best Buy and Magnolia are far better at selling HDTVs than the complete home theater experience. Independent dealers, CEDIA installers and some of the better managed “big box” AV retailers can fire up a wealthy non-AV-enthusiast, but one trip down Park Avenue looking at women’s shoes and purses or one drive down Sunset Boulevard looking at the parade of Ferrari F430s, Mercedes McLaren SLRs and Bentley Continental GTs all suggest that the world of home theater and especially high-end audio spends far too much time marketing to the same customers. Far more wealthy clients are searching for high-end goods on Google or eBay than reading audiophile magazines.

This brings me to my crazy idea thought up while sitting in “the man chair” (yes, these shoe stores have a chair for us schmoes before we break out our credit cards). Imagine if a consortium of AV companies teamed up to market and sell complete home theater systems in a new venue. I am thinking places like Barney’s or, better yet, Neiman Marcus, considering they have more locations. Much like Giorgio Armani and Prada have small boutiques in these stores, so could this consortium. For argument’s sake, imagine the equipment included Meridian electronics, Runco video, servers from ReQuest or Escient, an HP Media Center PC, Xbox 360, a Blu-ray player, an HD DVD player and a few other tricks. The system would be rack-mounted and one of three options (I am stealing from Apple’s Steven Jobs here with his good, better, best marketing) all built into furniture designed by a chic French modern master like Christian Liagre. Installed in a small crèche in a dozen or two dozen stores, this $75,000 to $100,000 system would have all of the tricks. It would be sold by a pre-trained team of salespeople who actually know their stuff and work shifts inside the Neiman store. Systems can be modified in terms of price and scope, but the demo is one bulletproof system that truly shows the cutting edge of what we all love. Installers would be in teams who would fly in to install systems that are preassembled in one place.

Wealthy people would flip. New customers will be obtained in ways that aren’t being done now. As much as the AV industry wants to talk about convergence, real competition for Runco, Meridian, Krell, MartinLogan and the likes of Mark Levinson is Viking, Miele, Fisher Paykel, Sub Zero and so on. But no matter how sexy a $12,000 Sub Zero Pro 48 refrigerator is (and it is VERY cool), it can’t hold a candle to a top theater playing Goodfellas in HD DVD or the latest Madden NFL game on Xbox. I truly believe that if marketed and distributed properly, there is serious growth potential in the high-end home theater world beyond the traditional channels. Bose has proven it further down the food chain. B&O has proven it with some of their high-end stores and, best of all, Apple has proven it with their sexy, high-rent-district stores. Consider this: imagine a Radio Shack store that kept the BNC to RCA adaptors in the back but had three home theater demos (remember good, better and best?) that ranged in price from $5,000 to $7,500 to $10,000 in each of their thousands of stores. Can you imagine how many people would buy entire home theaters instead of one flat HDTV? The potential is truly vast. Just ask the salesperson on a Saturday around noon at Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik.

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