Although high-end audio marches to a different beat than most retail concepts, it's a tough world out there at the moment. Global uncertainty, threats of recession in parts of Europe, and a collective waiting for the other shoe to drop in Brexit negotiations in the UK have all sapped consumer confidence, and sales of luxury goods like audio have stalled. This environment has already taken a scalp in hi-fi, with the closure of hi-fi retail chain Superfi.
The feeling is at least some of this downturn is short-lived. We are (hopefully) in a very different place than we were a decade ago when the world was mired in the depths of what would become known as the Great Recession, and in a way, a lot of the retail problems today are in response to being unable to react to changes in the retail sector quick enough. Companies going to the wall in this sector are doing so because they cannot compete with the Internet and because of spiraling business rent and rates for retailers. Napoleon once called Britain 'A nation of shopkeepers' but right now they are trying to keep those shops alive!
Couple this with the first months of the year when the UK is at its gloomiest, and it's not hard to get incredibly maudlin and doom-laden about such things. But, in a way, that got blown away by the visit to the two Loud & Clear stores in Scotland. While no-one has all the answers – and if they do, they are either lying or delusional... or both – the stores there are like an oasis of quiet confidence and success. No one is under any illusions that the retail world isn't struggling, but these are companies that aren't just bucking the trend, they are building business at a time where most are scaling back. While the 'duck and cover' approach of withdrawing to home and hoping for the best works from a cost-saving point, it also moves the business – and the specialist audio world in general – to greater invisibility.
That affects all of us who love music and the sound it makes. With the likes of Superfi shuttering its stores across the country, the good audio map got that little bit smaller. And from the perspective of those working in the stores, it
couldn't come at a worse time. I hope their skills are picked up by manufacturers and retailers alike.