Will brick and mortar headphone stores work in the U.S.?

HeadRoom recently opened a retail storefront area in their Bozeman, Montana headquarters. It's not really an optimal city for drumming up a booming business selling headphones. I think they did it mostly because they want to figure exactly how to do a good job of selling headphones in a brick and mortar shop. You know, the physical layout, how to make displays people can easily use to demo headphones, what headphones sell well in that way, what sales people may need to know that's different from the phone and web sales they already know how to do quite well. I'm excited to see them exploring this direction ... but I've also heard of a couple of U.S. brick and mortar headphone stores that didn't work out.

Another Montana company (Vanns) recently opened a brick and mortar electronics store called "The ON Store", which is roughly modeled on Apple stores and sells headphones and personal audio stuff, as well as various other computers and electronics. Their idea is to go into the mid-size markets where Apple doesn't have a brick and mortar presence. Their first store is in the Missoula mall, and by the look of it, it seems like it might work. We all know Apple stores are doing fine, but they're another thing all together.

I'm pretty sure the InMotion personal gadget store in airports are doing quite well. I talked to the sales people at a few of these on my recent trip to New York and they all claimed to sell $300 headphones (Beats Studio) quite regularly. But an airport is a captive audience, and the imperative to buy a pair of headphones after sitting next to a screaming baby on the last flight may be higher than normal.

The question, it seems to me, is do people think they have a problem buying headphones on-line that can be solved by going to a store at which they can hear the headphones? Will people easily understand why they want and need a headphone store? If a headphone store is to be successful, people have to "get it" easily.

There are other questions as well: Will they listen in the store, and then go shop on-line for the cheapest price? Is the category "Headphone Store" too narrow? Besides headphones and headphone amps, what other products should be carried in such a store? I'm curious about your thoughts on these thing as well as the poll results, feel free to vote and comment!

Will brick and mortar headphone stores work in the U.S.?
Heck yeah! People will come in droves. Put the cans on their heads and they'll buy.
17% (192 votes)
People need headphones and curiosity will bring them, but demos, sales training, and product hygiene may be too costly.
25% (271 votes)
Lots of folks will come, but most will go away and buy on-line.
44% (487 votes)
No matter how compact you make the store, headphones and closely related items just won't bring enough customers.
14% (154 votes)
Total votes: 1104

Satya's picture

Can they match on-line prices, or at least get close enough such that the cost of shipping and the waiting time of an on-line purchase starts to sound less desirable than just plunking down the credit card and walking away with a new treasure?  Headroom may be able to get lower wholesale prices from its distributors and keep a mid-market store going, but a Mom & Pop in Walla Walla (like Bozeman, a small college town) may not be able to keep the lights on...

gorboman's picture

I live in Jakarta, Indonesia. Here we have 5 headphones stores: 2 Jaben branches, Kantong Kresek, Don't Blame Your Ears, and Headfonia Mike's Analog Head. Try googling them to see what kind of stuff they're selling.

What I've learned is that personal experience beats reading reviews and impressions. You can literally take the impressions to your dream. It's what we call a "poisonous" effect.

Another case study is Jaben that has 6 branches in Indonesia alone, and the stores are all located in Java island. But they sell all over the country. I've noticed a couple of things that helped their business:
1. Audiophiles are impulsive buyers.
2. Get as many impressions about the products, not the store.
3. Get noticable in community forums.
4. Network system. Sell first and send particullar item from other branches.

In short, I've seen headphones brick n mortar style stores work, but will it work for you guys in the US? I honestly don't know.

timmyw's picture

I live in Australia, and have been wishing for something like this near my area. It literally took me years to find and listen to the gear I finally purchased (finding a pair of T1s for me to listen to in my area was probably harder then flying to the moon unassisted back in the day). 

Unfortunately there isn't much. There's a place in Melbourne, and one in Perth that I know of, and those place are a long way away from me. Seems the same problem would occur in the U.S.

The simple facts are a bricks and mortar store will have more overheads than running an online store. Wages, electricty, rates/rent/tax, security and other costs depending on where you are and what kind of building you are in will come into play, they have to charge more.

I hope this and other stores like it work out for sure. But I think these days with the ease and convenience of the internet This kind of store is an endangered species. Personally, I would go to a store and listen before purchasing. I would bring my gear even and set it up there so I could get a feel for what it would be like.

I am not sure how many others would do this as opposed to just whipping the card out and ordering something online though. I think to survive perhaps a store would have to share space with something else. Attract more people in the door. "Despecialise" if you will.

The problem of things being cheaper online needs to be remedied somehow. That is the biggest problem of all for a bricks and mortar store.

wilzc's picture

There are THREE places in Melb.


Jaben in the CBD, who deals with ALOT of IEMs.   And on display (im not sure if they're gonna let you try, but play nice and who knows?).. are sets like the ATH L3000..  or the..  yeap.. Sony R10...  legendary stuff..  owh did I fail to mention the Grado HP-1?? 

NoisyMotel just off Chapel has some very unique and boutique stuff, and their service is also boutique..  run by the very friendly BillyMav..  and his lovely..  charismatic wife. Some more exotic stuff here like the Thinksounds and the Atomicfloyds.. 

Lastly, the Emperor himself, George from addicted2audio at Kew has just about EVERYTHING. He even wrestled the Grado distributorship. And Stax..  he jokingly mentioned he's almost at the end of his brand acquisitions ...  having on shelf just about anything todo with headphones. He's a little lacking in the IEM department however.

thune's picture

While it may be difficult to comprehend for consumers, the value proposition of brick and mortar certianly exists.  Getting a consumer into a headphone they like will A) increase the likelyhood that the puchase will be used and enjoyed, and B) help avoid the typical online process of buying several headphones over time until one's taste is satisfied. (It only takes one dud online buy to obliterate any potential online savings; it's ultimately way more expensive.)

dalethorn's picture

I did electronics retail for 7 years so this trips a lot of engrams. Lots of questions come to mind.

Would this chain (eventually) be located in high rent high traffic areas, or out of the way places that depend on advertising and Internet work to bring people in?

Would the product lines be medium to high cost or would they be serving up a lot of low-cost low-profit gear? It takes as much time to sell a $30 headphone as a $300 headphone.

What would be the plan to minimize schmoozing, especially on low-cost items, and/or people who bought something returning to ask questions? The Apple stores have enough people and rotate them often enough, and move enough gear that they can plausibly "forget" that you bought a lot of items there, although they'll usually remember your face. It helps to relieve them of feeling guilty for not spending a lot of time with you, and helps to relieve you of the sense that they'd remember you and value your business so much  that they would want to spend extra time with you.

One of the things I hated in retail was in a small store, you might have 3 to 4 people assigned on a given day, and one calls in sick, another goes to lunch and you're left with 2 people, sometimes (it happens) just one person. So someone comes in and asks for something that's in the back, and there's nobody to guard the door. Or you're tied up selling a $10 accessory when people are waiting to ask questions about the $300 item, and they can't wait so they leave. If you're operating on a shoestring and  someone comes in and charges $3000, it's approved, then a couple days later they manage to get the credit card company to cancel payment and don't return the merchandise. It happens in mailorder too, but that's usually centralized and the pain isn't so great there as in a small store.

Then there's haggling and discounting. G-d forbid you're successful and you get competitors down the street or across town and they try to undersell you. Worse yet, you offer friendly service and answer questions and they don't, but they cut prices. Then there's the worst case scenario - you build a good relationship with a major manufacturer of really premium items and establish a predictable revenue, so that mfr. offers a bunch of stock to the guy across town, who finds eventually that he can't sell it, but the mfr. won't take it back because of a special deal they made, so the guy across town decides to dump the stuff for 10 percent under cost (the already low cost he got, lower than you), and your revenue drops in half for six months. This happened to me with a really big computer manufacturer.

In the end, I like retail a lot, but to make the  stores work you need at least one ace at each location who knows what sells, what  the trends are etc., and orders accordingly. When the central location tells the stores what to stock down to the last detail, it really limits what they can do. Another issue with personnel is how much experience they have versus how much you want to pay, and certain risks that go along with that, especially at remote stores. 

ultrabike's picture

My possibly all wrong set of considerations/opinions in order (hey, everybody has them):

1) Location: Airports and on-line stores offer convenience to the likely customer. Park it close to the Mac, Sony, MS, computer, book, music store... Maybe a private university, the concert hall, ...

2) Price: Need to be kept competitive (vs. on-line). Fry's manages this somehow. 

3) Customer Care: Give your customer plenty of corteous and honest advice.

4) Value: Used and refurbished should be available for the value oriented customer. Head-fi, Amazon, and GameStop sell a lot of these...

5) Diversity: Offer related products such as audio optimized laptops/PC rigs, audio cards, software, DAPs, mini speakers, records, CDs...

People buy on-line blindly, and returns are painful. Fry's does not have these problems, and manages to be price competitive. Neither should HeadRoom's newsstand... Or is it a HeadStand?

timits's picture

Similar thoughts to timmyw.  Also:

  • Traffic - high density, easy accessibility and location counts. In the small town I reside in a business can live or die by just being one street away from the main / popular areas.
  • You have a picture of the inside of the store but what does the outside look like?  Is it inviting? Can you easily see what the store is like from outside?
  • Store ambience is vitally important.  Is it a fun and non-threatening place to hang out in?  Are the store staff knowledgable, friendly and not pushy?  Do they speak the same language as the clientelle (techspeak to techies and normal language to folks who are not audiophiles).
  • Is there lots of information available that is easily digestible.  For instance what if a grandparent walks in wanting a headphone for a 15 year old?  Are there a range of choices at various price points that are appropriate?
  • From the limited instore photo I'm just not sure about the store decor.  Standing up to listen to a bunch of headphones is not my thing.  Headphones are intimate so I'd like a space where that intimacy is catered for - great surroundings with careful attention to ambient noise.
  • For repeat customers how about a consultation where they can have their headphone journey mapped out as and when finances permit?  What about a trade-in policy with second-hand headphones to feed the addiction for others or as an entry point?  Sort of like how there is a market for secondhand luxury vehicles.
  • Lots of hand holding and first class service for warranty claims.
  • How about months / seasons where a particular headphone theme could be used as a marketing technique - maybe some of the vendors/suppliers would assist.
  • I wish Australia had a similar scheme to The Cable Company's headphone initiative where folks can fee equipment for a fee in order to try before they buy?  Is something like this feasible?
  • How about headphone/dap packages at different price points?
  • Evening sessions with headphone luminaries for audiophiles or mini-meets at the store to generate interest.
  • Marketing to niche market areas who may not have contemplated headphones (e.g. folks who are downsizing or moving into apartment buildings who still desperately want a quality sound experience but may not be able to retain their speaker based systems).
  • I could go on but you get my drift. 
Alondite's picture

I think the bit about trade-ins and second-hand sales is brilliant. They could offer second-hand products to consumers at reduced cost to compete with the reduced-price online market. If I could walk into a store and buy something second hand for the same price I could buy it online, I'd probably just do it as long as it's in good shape. No waiting for shipping, which is nice for impatient people like me who want what they want when they want it. And then there is the possibility for special trade-in deals, etc. 

Alondite's picture

When it comes to headphones, hearing them is everything when making a purchase. If you give people the opportunity to listen to high-end 'phones, they will buy. How many casual listeners go to Headroom looking for a new pair of headphones? Probably less than would walk into a Headroom store in, say, a mall as they are walking past. 

If people walk by and see a pair HD800s in a display window with a $1500 price tag and a sign that says "Demo Inside," they're going to go in just  to know what a $1500 headphone sounds like, and they'll likely audition a few more while they're in the store. How many people audition Bose and Beats in Best Buy for fun with no intention of buying? Now take the same scenario in a store full of much better-sounding headphones at a wide range of prices. Odds are, they're going to find something that sounds great at a reasonable price, and the idea of throwing down $100+ for a headphone might not seem like such a bad one.

It's all about letting people hear the headphones. Most people would never consider shopping for high-end headphones online on merely a whim, but they might stroll into a store purely out of curiousity.That's the thing that a brick and mortar store has over shopping online. And personally, if I find something I like in a store I'm going to buy it right then and there, regardless of whether or not I can get it for less online. I doubt I'm alone in this. 

I'd love it if a Headroom store opened up in my local mall. I would LIVE in that store, and likely buy quite a few things from there as well. 

TyDeL's picture

I think it could definitely work in the right area.  My guess is that the store would have to make a very minor profit on the headphones themselves.  The kind of people that care enough to go to a store to personaly test high end audio headphones are the type that have probably been researching and scouring prices for months already..  The store would have to pretty modestly price their sets, they at least have the advantage of immediate gratification of owning a set you just discovered that you love, and not having to wait/pay for shipping.

I think there's probably a lot of potential money that could be made with accessories though, things like speaker stands, plugs, cables, tubes, cords, pads, mp3 players, etc.  For that matter, if the store went the extra distance towards offering DIY services, re-padding, modding, recabling, etc.  That would probably be successful I'd think.  I've been real interested in mods like repadding and recabling, but don't trust myself to attempt it, and am not too keen on mailing it away to an unkown 3rd party.

firev1's picture

For at least most of the mid fi crowd, most will try and then buy online, why? Its simply cheaper. I think offering loads of bundles would be nice for a brick and mortar store. I imagine that high end users would want to buy from a brick and mortar store though, so you guys really need to offer good service to the customers. 

Also for a such a store like timmit says, having a sit down and listen would be A LOT better than standing up. having the customers stand up and listen will make them feel a little awkward and want to leave. 

Your store should also carry eartips and related accessories like adaptors and cables, they are stocks that consume less space and have a high value. Of course, some DACs and DAPs too.

Headroom also should emphasise and aggressively develope its own house brand. Honestly the total bithead and probably the rest of the line needs a update to beat today's fierce competition.

And I think the previous posters on second hand sales or B-stock sales is a good idea too.

The Monkey's picture

And I have given serious consideration into doing it.  Not in a position to right now, but will jump if/when circumstances are right.

friedduck's picture

...but it takes a special combination to make it work.  Yes, I think it's sustainable in towns of 1 million or more.  But we've all seen stores that are special that still struggle even though they're worthy of a visit.

In my search for headphones the only places I've found anything worth buying were in an Apple store, Guitar Center, and places like InMotion at an airport.  They've all had a meager selection and often left me walking out with cash-in-hand.

To be successful an owner's going to need to go the extra mile.  Get the word out among local enthusiasts.  Be willing to demo units.  Work to build a thriving online business alongside the retail part.  And be willing to offer at least modest discounts.  There's a local bike shop that discounts everything 10% off retail and offers stellar service.  I've spent several hundred there and brought him at least another couple of thousand in business.  That kind of combo can work with headphones.

Lawk's picture

I believe this will always be a niche. Some people collect post stamps, some people gather millions of miles on frequent flyer programs, we collect headphones.

It's not about the quest for the best sound. The headphone aficiando can find traits to love in many headphones of all types and sound signatures. Whereas the normal consumer who is just audio quality aware will buy a good headphone and enjoy the music, and thats that. But I fear that kind of person will select one of the better models at big electronic store chains, and not go for a small dedicated headphone shop. So if you could get these people into an Audiophile store, maybe that would boost sales. Perhaps it depends on the marketing. I see that kind of person as the target audience. The true audiophiles will come anyway, they know about the grand opening months in advance cheeky

But I firmly belive that a large portion of average consumers simply don't care enough, the only reason why they buy a new headphone is because their apple earbuds or whatever came bundled with their smartphone broke, or the cable snapped.

But I also believe that people listen to music on the go more than ever, the Beats headphones by Monster are a huge success, but not based on their sonic qualities, but more on their image, status symbol and as a fashion accessory. The "cool kid" headphone for the horribly uninformed.

the thing is, for example here in Austria, probably in the states aswell, the Beats headphones get like exclusive showcase exposure areas in several stores!

and the sales person that is also in charge of selling vacuum cleaners dosen't have anything other to recommnd than "oh yeah, um, the beats are the best..."

Here AKG is fighting back slightly with their own personel in the big stores....

So I think there are 4 market segments, at the very bottom, the apple earbud guy/gal, then come the beats crowd, and then the interesting bunch of not truly audiophile but interested in well above average or good audio quality, and at the very top the full audiophiles.

So I think that in a city of 1 mil+ it would work, and even better if you can scoop up some of those 3rd group people.

We for example do have a dj equipment store with 20 or more headphones on display and to test, but there is sometimes a huge price difference to internet prices. Like a 10-20€/USD premium is OK for me, for the instant availabilty but not more...

but thats a problem in todays economy anyway, smaller shops have a hard time keeping up, as they get different deals from the manufacturers for buying larger quantities I guess.




Tyll Hertsens's picture

" and then the interesting bunch of not truly audiophile but interested in well above average or good audio quality,"

"even better if you can scoop up some of those 3rd group people."

When I worked at HeadRoom, we used to call this group "technophiles."  Basically, people who did know how to set the clock on their VCR ... and no longer had one. These are people who will recognise quality when they see it and understand the value proposition. Engineers, architects, and the various "techy" types fit the bill.

And I think you're absolutely right to identify them as the inportant demographic to target. Nice post.

pbarach's picture

Vanns.com filed for Chapter 11 this week, so who knows what the future will bring for their ON Store?

RPGWiZaRD's picture

I wish there were any place where I could demo headphones near my place but HiFi shops in Finland is such a rare breed. There's some small ones in some towns but it's not anything special, usually selling bunch of AKG headphones, I'd be more interesting in trying out a wide variety of headphones from many different brands. Would be awesome with a meet but even that is not really happening around my place... always have to buy my stuff online based on reviews & measurements. Damn I live in the wrong place for my hobby. :( When I see pics from some japanese stores I almost wanna cry. xD

The Federalist's picture

I know there are qualifiers to something like this working long term... primarily are selection and price. But I think that only matters with your informed consumer and with certain models. If a headfier has access to amp/ cans/ accesories that he otherwise would have to roll the dice on and buy site unseen, it always feels a bit like gambling so a brick and mortar location is a utopian idea. But most Headfiers also know fair market value for cans and amps and so will know online availability of certain components. MSRP on Ultrasone Pro 900s on their website is $569. Amazon sells them brand new all day long for $335. There are a dozen other models with similar discrepancies between their website MSRP and online value such as Sennheiser, AKG and Audio Technica. But there are others like Grado, Hifiman & Audeze who don't have those discrepancies... A Hifiman HE400 is going to cost $399 no matter where you look. Likewise for the Grado RS1 and Audeze LCD2..... But it would be awesome to be able to test drive them before you buy.... if you love them.... why would you delay the gratification... Go home to buy it, pay shipping and wait a week to save $10 or $20 bucks? So in that regard, there are certain models that play much better to a brick and mortar locations because their price points do not fluctuate.

The other thing that will help brick and mortar locations is the coming wave of kids.... My son and his friends (17 yrs old) all have full size headphones (skull Candy) plugged into their iPods and are not meek about walking around in public with them either on, or wrapped around their necks.... There is a large demographic of kids, college age and beyond who grew up consuming music through their iPod, iPhone and who either want to use the iTunes out of their computer or through their iPod with headphones.... The problem is that Best Buy feeds them Skull Candy and Beats headphones at ridiculous prices and they are uninformed about the technology and quality available out there.... I bought a portable amp and let my son try it and it was like a lightbulb went off for him, he has explicitly asked me to get him a portable amp for his birthday. That is all he wants.

But the positive behind Monster Beats and Skullcandy is that they laid the ground work with a broad range of young consumers who view this technology as a primary source for consuming music..... as they grow older the trick is how do you educate them on the better options that are out there.... Part of it has to be marketing the technology outside the audiophile culture.... If the kids are as aware of headphone amps and dac's as they are of Monster Beats and Skull Candy.....A headphone store would be as crowded as any Apple Store. But you have to go inform them, can't expect them to just stumble upon Headfi. And honeslty the Apple Store model is THE PERFECT MODEL that any headphone shop to follow..... Test drive our wares, enjoy it, feel it in your hands, look at all our accessory racks with cables, pads, LOD's etc... and then buy... 4 or 5 or 10 years ago there was no way a shop like this could stay afloat, (IMHO) but I think the transition to digital music storage and the transition to consuming through a laptop and iPod.... makes it a game changer.... I'm near forty so don't exactly have my hand on the pulse, but my son and his friends all wear full size cans.... I see at least one kid walk by my house everyday with headphones on..... The moment my son understood what my portable amp was.... it clicked in his mind.... the first time he goes and hangs out with his friends and they see what his portable set up has become, they are going to want one and so on and so forth.

I think there is a huge potential if its marketed correctly. I think the market doesn't have to be niche if it doesn't want to... if it wants to be an elitist, stodgy group of audiophiles it can be that.... but I think the potential is far greater than some are giving it or want to allow it. :) 

The Federalist's picture

Another thing is the tendency of people to want to keep a culture to themselves.... I don't want my neighbor Doug down the street to know about this kick ass audio gear that I have.... unless not until I have vetted him to make sure he really loves music.... But that tendency of humans as can be readily seen in indy music cultures is self serving and selfish.

I think if you asked Ken Ball at ALO Audio or Todd the Vinyl Junkie if they'd rather their amps stay niche or become as big as Rocketdog or Skull Candy.... they'll choose the latter.

Just my read.

friedduck's picture

I thought about this article when I was in Boston last week.  We went up to Cambridge where there was an in-the-flesh headphone store (Sound Lion) that had some really decent cans and a ton on demo (and the guy working the store offered to demo anything I liked.)

They looked to be busy (helps being in proximity to tens of thousands of students), and weren't selling dumbed-down gear.  THIS is the kind of place that I'd love to have locally, and who I'd buy from given the chance.  Too bad vacation had to end and I didn't have the time I'd like there.

Brianar3's picture

I drove (3 Hours) to montana planing to buy some headphones, after Hours of listening my favorites were the HE400 and the AKG K550. I had the money and I wanted to buy, but neither pair of headphones was in stock. (they told me to come back in a week, so now I can drive 3hours back, or I can buy online for less)