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.