Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Steve Jobs killed one of my favorite retailers

This post is not about bashing Steve Jobs. I am a Steve Jobs fan. I have owned Macs since 1989. There five Macbooks and an iMac at my home, along with innumerable iPods, so I am a credentialed Apple customer and enthusiast, too.

This story is about how technology set back the state of the art and ultimately fostered the demise of one of my favorite retailers: Tweeter, Etc., a Boston based audio retailer, which started as one store on Commonwealth Avenue in 1972, grew to over 100 in eighteen states and after one try at reorganization was forced into liquidation in 2008.

I can count the retailers I admire on one hand. How did a retailer, whose stores I actually visited perhaps only a dozen times, make such a short and prestigious list? First, they employed passionate, knowledgeable and loyal people who stayed at Tweeter for years and decades. Second, every time I shopped there, I spent more money, sometimes MUCH more money than I had planned, yet I always left the store with a big smile and never a regret. Third, their after-sales service was terrific. If any of this sounds like Charles River Saab, good, it’s not a coincidence.

I first encountered Tweeter in my teens, but did not enter one of their stores until I was a student at the Boston University School for the Arts, which was right across the street from their original store. I did not become a customer, though, until the 1990’s when I was working with Joe, a fellow musician and former Tweeter employee. To that point, we had used my wife’s stereo, purchased while in college (1980?), and exchanged/added a couple of components along the way. Finally, her large floor-speakers blew, and we knew it was time to make a wholesale change. Joe made some basic suggestions about systems and told us to bring our favorite CDs to Tweeter when it was time to make our purchase.

We had a fabulous experience. We listened to our music played through a variety of receivers and speakers, and finally opted for some Boston Acoustic main speakers, a killer Klipsch sub-woofer, and a Denon CD changer. Yes, we bought Monster Cable to connect it all. We spent much more than anticipated, but we enjoyed not only the buying experience but the equipment we had chosen as well. Not long after, we went back and bought a Yamaha surround-sound receiver, and some BA rear and center channel speakers. Then, deciding that we needed to see movies better, since they now sounded awesome, in the early 2000s we went to buy a flat-panel TV. Again, I walked in with a certain size in my head, but Sue was taken with a certain 16:9 42” HD projection TV, and we were set. There were some other smaller purchases, always with the same salesperson, and the experiences were always great.

Service after the sale was terrific, too. Tweeter was the first company I knew of that had an after-the-sale price match guarantee, and I did receive a check from them unsolicited because they found one of my purchases advertised at a lower price elsewhere. Then, they advised me that they were GIVING me an extended warranty on my Toshiba television because they were dropping the line and had had some trouble with the units. OK. Good thing, because we started to have problems with it. Lots of problems. Ultimately, they agreed to replace the unit with a similar Mitsubishi, but after delays due to Mitsubishi on a 42” unit, they replaced my television with a 50” set.

Around 2005 I had gone into “my” Tweeter and noticed how the store had changed. The audio sections were smaller. Much more of the space was devoted to television. The biggest change, though, came when I talked to my salesperson. Where he and the entire staff at Tweeter used to always be vibrant and excited, there was an air of resignation and gloom which hung around the store. We chatted for a bit. When I commented on the number of televisions, he sighed that they had become a bunch of glorified TV salespeople. I asked if people stopped really listening to music in the same way we once did with the advent of the iPod. That got him going. He practically ranted. Didn’t people realize how compressed iPod sound was? With the source sounding so bad, what was the point of listening to music through quality components? That’s when it really struck me. This new technology which was so wonderful in some respects had so thoroughly changed peoples listening habits, that high-fidelity, or even good-fidelity had become irrelevant, and thus, so had Tweeter.

I can’t lay the demise of better audio solely at the feet of the iPod. Its cousin, iTunes, has killed the CD, and with it, for most purchasers, CD quality sound. While Tweeter had always managed to hold its own against other brick-and-mortar retailers, the confluence of emerging internet sales and the decline in high-fidelity sales spelled doom. It was a perfect storm, and in the end there really wasn’t a place for a Tweeter. I knew it on that one fateful visit. It was going to be impossible for Tweeter to reinvent itself, because changes in technology and tastes had sucked the passion out of its people, and without those people—and their knowledge and enthusiasm—one might as well order their electronics on the web.

There are still a handful of retailers that I admire or can enjoy with a visit, whether a purchase is made or not. I am delighted that some small progressive retailers, like Newbury Comics, have successfully reinvented such that they are not only hanging in but thriving. While Saab is not a retailer, I do hope that once the current high-wire act is finished, that a thorough consideration of their vision takes place and that they too will enact a revolution which will keep them relevant and thriving in the automotive marketplace. I don’t want to see another company I like and admire disappear. Companies are a bit like people, and once lost, they never come back.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Saab guy on spending a weekend in a Volvo S60

Were it not for the time I spend instructing for In Control, given that the six cars belonging to various members of my household are all Saabs, I might never have the opportunity to really get to know what any other cars are like. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to spend two full days in a 2012 S60, put it through its paces, and I thought it might be interesting for a Saab guy to review our most direct competition.

I’ve done crash prevention training in lots of different cars over the years. Surprisingly, when it comes to the student’s experience, the type of car really doesn’t matter much. Good techniques are good techniques, no matter where they are applied. Each different type of car used, though, has to be handled slightly differently from the instructors point of view. The first car I instructed in was the Volvo S40. Say what you will about its humble origins, other than the cramped quarters (not for my diminutive frame, but for larger students), the good seats and ergonomics made the S40 a nice place to spend your day. It did everything reasonably well, and handled very predictably. Later, a second fleet was added and they were Kia Spectra SX. While we, the instructors, initially sneered at these cars, we grew quite fond of them. They were simple and fun. They did everything better than you thought they would, often better than the S40’s. While not as nice a place to spend your day as the S40, the Spectra was an easy car to learn to drive and performed surprisingly well in handling and braking maneuvers. Most recently, at In Control, I have spent a couple of years in Toyota Camrys. Instinctively I do not like these cars or what they represent. However, I recognize that for many reasons, they are the perfect vehicles for crash prevention training. A Camry is spacious, reasonably comfortable, completely familiar to students, and the performance surprisingly good. In fact, I’ll say that with the slightest bit of tire pressure manipulation, I can hang the tail out on a Camry better than any other car I’ve ever driven. Now there is a new car in the stable, the Volvo S60.

The Volvos arrived last week and I was asked to instruct in them for two days and give an assessment to help management and other instructors. Asking a Saab guy to test a Volvo is like asking a Ford guy to spend a weekend in a Chevy. While those of us with an enlightened view of Swedish motoring might make fun of our cousins from Gothenburg, more than ever the two Swedish brands seem to of a similar mindset. Where a generation ago, other than being safe and from Sweden, there was nothing similar between a Saab and a Volvo—not shape, not configuration, not drive-train layout—today there are lots of similarities. Volvo has seen the light and produces front-wheel drive cars with turbos. Saab saw the light and produces all wheel drive and station wagons. Both make distinctive CUVs, the S60 and S80 certainly beg comparison to the 9-3 and 9-5, and Saab and Volvo both engage in performance variants.

Of course the first impression of the car is of its external appearance. In general I am a fan of the corporate body shape which Volvo has adopted over the last decade. It is distinctive, and sometimes handsome. From most angles, I like the new S60. From the rear there is a bit too much Honda Civic, but that’s OK. The real problem is the nose. Sorry, Volvo. You almost got this car looking right, even “naughty,” but the front fascia is just ugly. Then again, so am I, so I won’t dwell on appearances. Getting inside, I think the Volvo folks got this right. This was a basic car—textile seat covers, no sunroof….The black interior with metallic accents is very handsome. The flow of the dash and door panels works well. Most of the bits had visual and tactile appeal. Ergonomics were good: I appreciated the very long throw of the telescoping wheel and an excellent dead pedal. Gauges and displays were clear, and the center stack video display integrates nicely and is not distracting. Seats were supportive, probably tight for larger frames. The big surprise was how pinched the rear was, both laterally and longitudinally. Not unlike the 9-3 (though the 9-3 has the same front legroom and 1.5 inches more in the rear), put someone tall in a front seat, and you simply can’t seat anyone (with legs) behind them. So far, I give the exterior design a “B” and the interior an “A-.”

Then it was time to drive the car. In the course of our training, we do a full-on panic stop with ABS, slalom, emergency lane change (with and without brakes) and tailgating drill. At first there was concern about the braking in the S60, which didn’t make sense since its brakes are huge and it is not much heavier than the Camry, which seemed to out-stop the S60. However, after repeated hard braking, the pads seated and the S60 braking was quite good, perhaps a tad better than the Camry and the ABS function much more refined.

In the slalom, I had to relearn, for the first time in ANY car, how to steer. At first the S60 seemed cumbersome and the DSTC (ESP for Saab people) intervened far too often. This brings to light one complaint I have, that the DSTC, even when turned off, still functions, albeit at more extreme thresholds. I think that stability control is one of the greatest innovations of all time, but if you are going to have an “off” switch, let it be truly off. At first I had trouble negotiating the slalom at 35 mph, while in a Camry I didn’t experience any difficulty until 40 mph. Eventually I realized that the steering in the Volvo is just so much faster than in any other car I had used, so significantly less input was required. I couldn’t execute the slalom yet at 40, but 35 became much smoother with no DSTC interference. Overall, I really like the weight and feel of the steering, and the car seemed nicely balanced. I have felt that, with the exception of the NG 9-5, most newer Saabs have steering which is too light, and wish they felt more like this Volvo. In the slalom department I give the car a B+.

In the lane change, or moose test, we always try to give the students a harrowing ride through with no brakes at 45-50 mph. In a Camry, that means getting very sideways by the exit gate. In the Volvo, part way through the second turn, the turn to bring you back into your lane, the DSTC would intervene just as the rear of the car was starting to swing. It made it a bit too tidy, but just messy enough to unnerve the students and show them why this maneuver should only be done with brakes. [In order to get that swing, I did have to bias the tire pressure with 6 psi more in the rear than the front.] I found that making the lane-change with brakes, given speeds of 60-65, that DSTC on or off made no difference, and the car was easy to steer through, though it did take longer to bring to a stop than the Camry. Lane change grade is an A.

Some of the advantage the Camry enjoys may have to do with the tires. We run Goodyear Eagles and they have lots of grip. The S60, by contrast, wears a much sportier profile tire, but the standard Michelin MXM4 has a 500 tread-wear rating, so blistering grip is not a priority. I suspect that when the tires are switched out, the S60 will reveal even better results.

Lastly, the T5 engine in the S60 (given Saab’s history of using T3, T5, T7 etc designations, Volvo should have called this engine something else) was terrific. It has that “odd” sound that is uniquely 5-cylinder, and the intake growl and exhaust note are wonderful. The turbo boost comes on early and is rather subtle. I do like that from a stop there is no delay when the throttle is stomped. While it shares the same Aisin Warner 6-speed Saab uses, the throttle response is much more immediate. I do wish, despite the modest turbo assist, that the car had a vacuum/boost gauge. I give the power train an A-.

I think that Volvo has done an excellent job with this car, with the exception of rear seat legroom. The S60 feels very substantial, very tight and drives bigger than it actually is. That’s not a negative! While very sure-footed, it does not have the quick reflexes of the 9-3, which drives smaller and lighter than it really is. I prefer the elements of the S60 interior over the 9-3, except the seats, but the 9-3 has an airier cabin, likely due to the less swoopy roof line which diminishes the window area on the S60. In automatic trim, I much prefer the Volvo powertrain. Though slightly dated, I prefer the 9-3 exterior design.

I very much like the S60 and think it hits its mark quite well. I do, overall, like the complete package just a bit better than the 9-3. Then again, at list price it is almost $2000 more, and that does not account for the 9-3 having a standard leather interior. Mostly, the preference comes from a better executed interior, better steering and a much stronger engine. Which would I buy? Despite some of the deficiencies, I think I’d just have more fun in the 9-3, so that’s where my money would go.