Hi-Fi Corner Insider - By Hi-Fi Choice
David Price talks to Struan Mackenzie - managing director of one of the UK's leading hi-fi retailers - about ever-changing purchasing habits and how to deliver the best customer experience
You can’t sit idly by and wait for people to buy hi-fi”, says Edinburgh-based Hi-Fi Corner’s supremo Struan Mackenzie. “Fashions change and what people want in their houses is changing. What we’ve had to do is alter the retail experience - the customer experience - because the internet has changed so much. We as a nation are now very comfortable buying high-value things online, which we didn’t used to be. And so the question begs itself: why would you then go to a retailer? The answer is simple - you’d only go if the experience and service is way, better than the internet. That’s the offering we have to give people - our service, our staff and actually having a facility that allows customers to listen to the products we sell.” Struan says that in a way, the internet has separated the wheat from the chaff in retailing. “Parts of the high street are certainly dying. Retail is changing and if you are not able to evolve quickly enough in this ruthless market, there are tough consequences. Actually, many of the big retailers that have gone under have done so because they have been holding huge debts, and have been unable to invest in their own business and develop it. If you don’t constantly innovate - increase the level of service and improve your offering, then the way the market is these days you will die, and quite rightly so.”
"The internet might be able to give you choice, but it can't help with guidance and service"
He says that people’s expectations are now far higher than they used to be. “This is because there is more access than ever, it’s a far higher bar. If you can’t jump over it, then you’ll fail. And the thing is, it’s always moving, and that is the challenge for us. The bar is always going higher. I think we’re getting to the point where the only types of retail that will survive are those that offer a superb level of experience and customer service. They have to have a track record of proving to clients or consumers that they will be there to support them, and go on the journey with them to protect their investment in their audio equipment.”
These days, people buying expensive hi-fi see it as an investment and have high expectations of it, he explains. “Basically, it should last a long period of time. One of the things that I am very proud of is that I can sell somebody a pair of loudspeakers and know it will last them decades. They’ll only change it because they want to upgrade, not because it’s a poor-quality product. That’s important, but we also need to be able to show people that if something ever does go wrong then we’re there for them - if you need a new speaker drive unit or power output transistors or whatever. We’re here and can service them.”
In its modem guise, Hi-Fi Comer started in 2007 when Struan took over from his father, Colin Mackenzie. His dad was extremely well known on the Scottish hi-fi scene, having run the business since the early seventies - and he has also been the man behind the Scottish Hi-Fi Show. His son is at pains to point out that even in the 12 or so years that he’s been running the business, customers’ expectations have changed radically. “Back then, they were happy to spend a certain amount buying something online, but wouldn’t spend larger amounts - but today they will. So we’ve had to differentiate ourselves from this, so what we’ve done is moved from a central city location right in the middle of Edinburgh to somewhere far larger on the outskirts of the city. This is to get more space, to give the customer dramatically more choice - and we also have a Hi-Fi Comer in Falkirk, too.”
Choice is the key, he believes, but it’s a major investment in both people and stock for a retailer. “Having a much bigger selection of equipment means hiring more specialists in our team, people who have vast experience in their respective fields. They know how to setup and maintain top-quality kit, and give good advice. It’s focusing more and more on getting the right product for a particular system or customer - because the internet can give you choice, but not bespoke guidance and service.”
Interestingly, despite selling a lot of expensive audio equipment, Struan doesn’t like the term “high end” one little bit. “For me it’s a dirty word! As is ‘high-end retailer’
"We're truly independent and are not motivated to push any particular brand onto our clients"
and talking about ‘specialist hi-fi’! Our products are accessible to everyone to hear, and we’re not elitist. We’re just about getting products in front of people that will bring them a lot of enjoyment. So if a Sonos sound bar works for somebody then that’s absolutely fine. Whether it’s that or a pair of large Wilson loudspeakers, our philosophy is to show people what is achievable for them.”
The problem for the whole hi-fi industry is that not enough people actually know that the products exist, he says. “People don’t get to experience good-quality audio equipment enough. For me personally, I was hesitant to move away from the high street because I was always mindful of this. At least by being right in the centre of the city, we were exposing passers by to good-quality audio equipment and what’s possible from it. But we still think we made the right call because we’re still reasonably accessible in a busy residential area and we now have six good-sized demonstration rooms. This lets us show so much more equipment than before, and tailor things better to the customer’s needs.”
Struan likens it to everyone having different favourite colours, or even foods. “Everyone has their taste so we try to select products that we feel lead these different categories. There are lots of different ones, so we make sure the brands we sell have a good service history. We want them to have been in business for a while and offer a good level of service for our customers. It has to sound seriously good and be reliable. No pressure, then...”
I ask him if a customer came back to him after a few weeks and said he simply wasn’t getting on with his new loudspeakers, would he take them back? “If someone came back to me after a year and said they hadn’t got on with them I would take them back”, he replies. “This is because it’s far more damaging to our brand for people to know that we have things wrong, than it is to take things back. Of course we don’t always get it right, but we don’t want people to end up with something that they are not happy with. That is my number one thing. The business is more of a consultancy than a retail outfit and that is the critical difference.”
Struan points out this isn’t just pure altruism on his part. “Financially it’s better for us long term to offer this level of service because that client will then come back to us for the next thing. We think about things long term, and one of the benefits of being here at the tender age of 33 - and having started to take over the company when I was just 21 - is that I’m in it for the long haul. My belief is that a short-term hit is completely unacceptable.”
Bridging the gap
At this point in our interview, I mention to Struan that what I think has been missing from the modern retail environment is a bridge between mass-market and specialist hi-fi. I cite the example of my own early days as an enthusiast, where I would pop into my local hi-fi shop in Oxford to buy a TDK SA-C90 cassette for a few quid, and they would let me have a listen to the new Nakamichi cassette deck while I was there. They were exposing me to what was possible through the everyday things that I already used. This became less possible when computer audio arrived, as consumer audio and specialist hi-fi moved further apart...
“Yes, it’s an interesting point, actually. The purchasing of physical media made folks go into a shop. Then there was a small blip where you’d buy it online, but then very quickly there became no physical media at all. In a way that’s great because suddenly music is so much more accessible and easier to access than ever, with Youtube, Spotify and so on. This means that there are fewer people coming into hi-fi shops for small repeat purchases, so when they do come in, we need to give them an altogether better experience. We have to let them hear a wider range of equipment, at a number of different levels and price points. So that’s precisely what we’re doing here. It’s a great big space where you can really hear the difference for yourself. Sales are only a consequence of people having a good experience and seeing the value in the product.”
Experience is everything
This is the fundamental shift in the new retail environment, and Struan has an evangelical zeal. “Option one is that you can try and sell something. Option two is you give people a great experience, let them hear a wide range of equipment, give them a great time, a nice coffee, let them play their own music, respect their wishes and offer a home demonstration or home installation in many cases. Also, we can part exchange people’s old equipment, which is a big part of our business now. So things are far more complicated than the old days.” That’s why so many of Hi-Fi Comer’s customers go back a long way, he tells me. “They actually become friends and indeed advocates for the business. They know that our staff aren’t on commission because that breeds ‘selling’. We don’t ‘sell’ to people, we put ourselves up as a resource for them to decide if they like the products in front of them.”
Hi-Fi Corner’s product portfolio is an interesting one. I have reviewed - or at least heard - most hi-fi separates on sale, so I know what’s hot and what’s not, so to speak. I am struck by both the quality and diversity of kit on demo at the store, and the fact that they never seem to overlap or clash. “The good thing is that we’re a truly independent company, and that’s the most important thing to us. We are not motivated to push any particular brand onto our clients. Our team is trained to provide the right product for the job, and the brand is secondary to that. It’s about getting the client the product, system or solution that matches their needs. In pub terms, we’re a free house rather than being tied to a brewery.”
When customers come into the store, they are asked key questions to help the various
specialists to ascertain precisely what the customer thinks he or she might like. “We ask what they like about their hi-fi, what they don’t like about it and how they think it could be improved upon. Often people come in with an idea about what it is that they want to buy, but after that conversation and then a demonstration, they begin to realise that there may be something that we can suggest that suits them better to get the result that they want. Often, we actually save people money doing that.”
Struan gives the example of a client who wanted to update his entire system because he had to play his music really quiet. “We talked about it for a while and then realised he really wanted more low-end warmth when it was being played at low levels. Of course, when you play a system quietly, you do lose the bass. So rather than changing his whole system - and because it was only while his kids were young - he bought a
"One of the things I am proud of is that I can sell a pair of speakers and know it will last decades"
subwoofer, which fixed things. When his kids grew up a bit, he sold it on and once again started to enjoy his existing system at more realistic listening levels.”
“That’s why we back up our advice with home demonstration,” he continues, “because getting things into people’s systems at home is critical at that point. We do a tremendous amount of this now. I’ve even gone to people’s houses just to listen to their systems so that I can make informed recommendations - and we do all of this UK-wide. I regularly go to London, and last week I was in Nottingham. If it’s something that we think we can help with then we will travel for it. Of course, plenty come to us, too. We have quite a few clients who fly into Edinburgh airport and we collect them. We have various products that are extremely rare in the UK, like the Yamaha NS-5000 loudspeaker for example. So folk are prepared to travel from around the UK and Europe to visit us, and install it anywhere...”
The internet hasn’t changed things for Hi-Fi Comer, because it has never been a pile ‘em high box-shifting operation, says Struan. “We’re not about that - indeed we don’t sign up to brand sales targets, because that would encourage us to sell one product over another, regardless of whether it was the right one for the customer. We are proud to say that we sell everything on a level playing field. We don’t have any bias towards products or brands. If a manufacturer said you’ve got to sell x number of products a month or it’s goodbye - then I would say goodbye.”
Struan holds his brands to a high standard - and being one of the largest specialist hi-fi retailers in the UK, that means something. “We demand that the manufacturers who we stock
"We need to be able to show people that if a product goes wrong we're there for them"
support their products properly, by offering spare parts. We’ll ask if they have a track record of supplying parts and repairing kit, and have fair repair and service costs as well. We’re a customer of these companies and so we can put pressure on them to ensure they have a standard of service that we deem acceptable for our clients. Ensuring that our clients get good service bolsters our reputation. I would personally be embarrassed if we sold products that very quickly ended up with no spares support. It’s an old saying that ‘my word is my bond’, so I can only look people in the eye and recommend things which I am sure are a good investment. It’s not just about one quick sale.”
Struan couldn’t have done all this without his enterprising father Colin, who took over the running of Hi-Fi Comer in 1973, via an introduction made by Linn Products’ Ivor Tiefenbrun. Three years later, he launched the Scottish Hi-Fi Exhibition, which was first held at Edinburgh’s Post House Hotel but ended up in Murrayfield Stadium with many thousands of visitors. Colin describes himself as having been, “soft with my staff, but hard with our suppliers - as I wanted to give the best terms to our clients.” The approach continues to this day.
A perfect balance
There are good hi-fi retailers the world over, and bad ones - and Hi-Fi Corner is certainly the former. More of a space to discover hi-fi than a ‘shop’ per se, it’s a great resource and certainly makes living in the Edinburgh area even nicer than you’d think. I spend much of the day there chilling out while customers come and go - and love the relaxed, friendly feel. Yet most impressive is the sheer ‘firepower’ that’s available - loads of demonstration rooms, impeccably knowledgeable staff and a vast array of equipment to hear and to hand.
Any downsides? Well, moving from a vibrant city centre location to a quiet part of the Edinburgh suburbs isn’t ideal - but then all that extra space makes so much more possible. Also, I would like to see more ‘high-end’ loudspeakers on demonstration, although that’s me being churlish because there are already more speakers here than practically any other UK dealer that I can think of. Struan says even more models are coming in the future, because with all that space available, why not? This store is so big that it’s almost a miniature hi-fi show that’s permanendy running.
“I am incredibly thankful for everybody who comes through the door,” he says, “because to me, as soon as someone walks through the door, they have played their part and then we need to play ours...”
Struan's father, Colin Mackenzie bought Hi-Fi Corner from Graham Tiso and some other shareholders in the early seventies, and made the shop a serious player in the Scottish hi-fi scene for decades. "I was hooked into the business aged 15," says Struan, "because my own personal system didn't go loud enough for me to play music alongside my drum kit. I wanted to make lots of noise and play along to my favourite bands, so my dad's answer was - rather than giving me a hi-fi - to let me go and work in the shop. That was how my journey started."
He explains that at that age, he had no idea it would become his future career. "I literally got roped in to do some Saturday work with no intention of staying, but one thing lead to another. I'm not particularly academic, and fiercely dyslexic, so doing something more creative was better suited to me than continuing on an academic path. It wasn't really planned that I would take over the business, it just naturally happened. When the recession came about 12 years ago we had to do some restructuring, and because I had been involved in every role in the business by then it made sense for me to lead that charge.
"Colin Mackenzie made a success of the original Hi-Fi Corner, and then ran the Scottish Hi-fi Show for over two decades. It was really exciting, with a number of firsts such as the first exhibition of compact disc on BBC radio, the first demonstration of HD TV in the UK - which we did in collaboration with Pioneer - and the first public demonstration of Super Audio CD. It was a prolific time in the eighties and digital audio opened up a lot of possibilities. Today the music market has changed, so it isn’t physical media that's the big attraction any more - except vinyl of course."
Struan says that nowadays Hi-Fi Corner does events themed around streaming, as well as debunking the myths around digital audio. "As the industry changes, and the way we consume media evolves, the business has had to change to keep up with that very fast-moving pace of technology. That's why we have six demonstration rooms of differing sizes, shapes and performance levels, a headphone listening room, a really high-quality two-channel listening room with acoustic treatment and cinema as well."
Hi-Fi Corner has two stores - one in Edinburgh and another in Falkirk. The latter has been running since 1983 in its present location, while the former just opened outside the city centre at the beginning of February. There are 11 people working in the Edinburgh store and four in Falkirk. In both shops, there is a team of specialists - a valve specialist, a turntable expert, a home cinema person, plus installation and delivery specialists. Struan says that because the company has "good values", people end up staying for a long period of time.
"Our Falkirk store manager Paul has been with us for just short of 20 years. The team feel they are doing something they're passionate about, and are made to feel valued." Struan says his staff are critically important because they're the custodians of the company's reputation. "It's about trust. As the managing director, I trust my team and we trust our suppliers to do the right thing as well. A world without trust wouldn't be worth living in."
The new Edinburgh store is approximately 8,500 square feet and, "was a blank canvass when I found it. I knew it was perfect because it had really good parking, it was on a major route intotown, it had a bus stop outside the door, it has good loading and unloading for clients who want to pick things up and move them into their car. It's huge compared with the previous city centre store, which was just about 1,000 square feet, plus 2,000 square feet of warehousing. So we have still more than doubled the size of the business. I knew that we needed to be able to demonstrate different levels of systems in different sizes of room because that is critical to give customers an accurate representation of what they might experience at home."
"We play our part in the community," says Struan. "We have events, we pick a charity each year and a separate member of the team then does the fundraising. Now that we've got this big space here we are also opening up to local community events. There is an arts festival that is very famous, and we have opened it up and said you are welcome to use it. Edinburgh is a great place to visit and we've got this facility, so use it."
I spent a few hours in Demo Room 5, listening to Wilson Audio Sasha DAW loudspeakers (£42,999), PrimaLuna Evo 200 preamplifier (£2,588), two Evo 300 mono power amps (£3,598 each), a dCS Bartok network DAC (£9,999) and a Technics SL-1000R turntable (£13,999). The room also has acoustic treatment by ArtNovian (circa £10,000). The sound is superb; the acoustics are excellent - neutral without sounding like an anechoic chamber or broadcast studio - and the system is revealing yet beguilingly musical. Indeed, despite the relatively low-priced pre/power being used, it is one of the finest sounds I have heard at a UK dealer.
It's not all high-end though, because Demo Room 2 has a Marantz SA-KI Ruby Super Audio CD player (£3,498), Marantz PM-KI Ruby integrated amplifier (£3,498) and B&W 804 D3 loudspeakers (£6,750), making a very nice noise in a smaller space. Ditto Demo Room 3, with its Naim Uniti Nova front end (£4,249) and Spendor A7 speakers (£3,200). Struan says one of his favourite 'affordable high-end' systems is a dCS Network Bridge streamer (£3,250), Chord Hugo TT 2 DAC (£3,999), PrimaLuna EVO 400 tube integrated (£4,599) and Harbeth Super HL5 loudspeakers (£3,895). This is an extremely well-chosen system, about as good sounding as you'll get for its £15,754 price.
ADDRESS 2 Joppa Road, Edinburgh, EH15 2EU
ADDRESS: 44 Cow Wynd, Falkirk, Central Region, FK11PU
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