If I have good local shops available, should I restrict my purchasing?


So, the title of this post is a bit tendentious — I'm actually interested in a canvas of the ethical landscape. Let me explain….

A few different reviewers I like (Guttenberg, others) have made mention of how important it is to support one's brick and mortar shop, should one have one near enough to visit. I actually have several, though a bunch of them are actually installation businesses that also sell gear.

As I've spent time in these shops listening and learning, I've also gained an amazing education online (thank you Audiogon, YouTube) about the variety of audiophile gear out there — including older gear, and gear made by small, independent artisans. They too deserve support and patronage.

What I'm struggling to determine is how to spend as ethically as possible. Assuming (1) a reasonably good selection and (2) reasonable prices, what do you think is the ethical thing to do as regards audiophile equipment? (I am NOT talking about major manufacturers such as Denon, Yamaha, etc.)

Here are some options, placed roughly on a spectrum. Where would you place yourself?

(a) "Totally limit to the local shop." All purchasing of audio would be restricted to what is available locally. No buying of gear auditioned locally online or used.

PLUSES: supports the local merchant and a place to hear new gear while providing the listener with products that meet the threshold of good audio.
MINUSES: Costs more, limits brand options, cuts out many small makers who sell from far away.

(b) "Partially limit to the local shop." Some (not all) purchasing of audio would be restricted to what is available locally. No buying used or online what is available locally. Exceptions would include products from small makers who sell direct.

PLUSES: supports local merchant, but not as much. Expands brand options, supports small makers. May influence local merchant to carry more artisanal lines (assuming they get the message somehow).
MINUSES: Costs more, less support for local merchant.

(c) "No limits where to buy, but truly audiophile-level products available new should be bought new." Purchasing could be done anywhere, but avoiding used versions of products that are presently available new would be prioritized to support the manufacturer and/or dealer carrying them. This could include the local shop or the online dealer.

PLUSES: Supports makers and those who carry new, good gear. Vintage gear is still ok to buy.
MINUSES: Costs more, reduces support for those making deals and discounts available.

(d) "No limits, period." Any product can be bought anywhere. You can go listen in your local shop and then surf online to buy it discounted or used. If this continues the trend of the disappearance of brick and mortar stores, that's fine. The number of direct to consumer companies will increase, and that model may be the next evolutionary step.

PLUSES: Cost savings (discount, used, etc.); flourishing of new direct businesses; continued health of used markets; increased importance of online reviewers (professional and amateurs).
MINUSES: Traffic and pollution from even more delivery vehicles; demise of curatorship role in audio stores, and the face-to-face relationships they foster. Demise of place to see gear simultaneously and do comparison listening.

This is just a sketch of the ethical landscape. I undoubtedly left our options and supporting/detracting pluses or minuses.

If you've thought about the ethics of your audio purchasing and have some thoughts, I'd like to hear what you take to be ethically relevant.

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Showing 10 responses by hilde45

@tvad I’m not sure there will be a one-size solution to the dilemma. I’m ok with that. The point of such dilemmas is to elicit additional ideas and sub-principles which can help.

When you say that you would pay $3500 to the dealer IF that $3500 represented a discount (in response to the lower price $3000), you’ve articulated a "best practice" as you understand it in the customer-dealer relationship. I hadn’t thought of that!

It reminds me of shopping for carpets in Turkey. If you didn’t haggle or even make a move to walk out, you’d get no respect from them. They wanted to haggle — it was part of the relationship-expectation. Would they like it if an idiot tourist paid full price? Sure. But the norm of haggling fulfills something beyond the sheer quantitative goal of the business relationship. In our culture, haggling is very awkward and sometimes completely inappropriate. It’s hard to know when that is, especially in business like high-end audio, where there’s an expectation that rich people are buying the stuff and they’ll pay whatever it costs.

@tvad Attending audio show goes around the dilemma, for sure. It solves the problem of "how can I hear things outside the context of my local shop" but it doesn’t choose within a dilemma I posed.

Regarding the idea of mentioning the online price to the dealer, I tried to build that in:
"I ask the store for a better deal, and they cannot get close to the online price point."
The question becomes, for example, "Are you going to pay $3500 rather than $3000 for that amp in the store because that’s the best the store can do — given their overhead, salaries, etc." I’m all for finding ways around a dilemma, but what if the dilemma is truly unavoidable?

Part of the question becomes very subjective at this point. You might think that paying an additional 15% above online prices is a fair cost to absorb, given what the dealer does and can do. Others might set their margin lower. I don’t know a principled way to deal with those differences.

@twoleftears If there aren’t local stores, I cannot see a dilemma.
@thosb I like that story, and clearly the owner is creating a relationship with you. That’s good for his long strategy, as long as folks like you -- once they acquire the means -- are going to come back and spend a bit more with that store.

For me, here’s a tough case:

Let’s say a store nearby gives me a chance to audition two speakers:
Pricey A & Affordable B.
I like them both, but I like A more than B.
If I go online and buy direct or used, I can afford Pricey A. Otherwise, I can only afford B.
I ask the store for a better deal, and they cannot get close to the online price point.
If I buy A online, I get the preferred speaker. If I buy B in store, I get a speaker I still really like.
If I buy A, I do not support the store. If I buy B, I do support the store.
Without the store to audition these, I’d never even know what they sound like, that I like either, or which I prefer.
Also, without the store, I have no one local to stand behind the product if there are issues.

It’s a hard call for me, because a lot of this audio journey is to find the best sound for my ears. Clearly, purchasing a speaker I like less to support the store feels like I’m not doing it right. And yet, without that store, I’d not know anything about either speaker. That tilts me back toward a more holistic appraisal -- it’s about supporting more than my individual preference, but the conditions which make that preference possible. (In this sense, it’s like vaccines; no one likes to get a shot, but herd immunity doesn’t come about if enough people opt out.)
There sure is. Big worries don't eliminate smaller worries, though. The fact that people are commenting here proves that they see something is at stake. Anyone who thinks this is a trivial issue is free to ignore it.
oddiofyl I like your approach, on all levels; especially where you do your best to buy locally but will buy online, too, if there's something unique and a bargain.

Andrew Robinson did a youtube video where he articulated what one pays for when they buy something made in a country where the workers are well paid and have healthcare, as opposed to products from countries which are paying exploitative wages and not supporting workers. That too resonated with me. One might wind up spending more but I know I appreciate my health care and decent wages, so the notion that I'm supporting others that way seems important, especially for something as non-essential as an audio purchase.

Which shop in NH do you like?
+1 @tvad
+1 @lalitk It's up to legislators and lawyers to make the tax law. That said, if one's own state has a lack of funds for roads, schools, etc. then that does make me think twice about sucking it up and paying the taxes -- especially on a discretionary purchase. This depends, of course, on what I think happens to my tax money once it's collected.
Thanks @sgordon1 and @jond and @big_greg

All "should" issues will revolve around "personal preferences" only if one determines that there is no ethical dimension to the question. If that’s what you think, then it may be that any option is acceptable to you.

In my own thinking out of these options, I presumed that because brick and mortar shops are in fact valued by many people (customers, owners, manufacturers) then something of value is at stake. That is why an ethical dimension is opened up. The resolution of questions arising within that dimension could go various ways, but something more than personal preference would be involved. But maybe the answers generated here will show whether there even *is* an ethical dimension. I could have that wrong.

I’ll also admit to having a great time surfing for stuff. It’s just so important (to me) to be able to hear something. And what do I owe the dealer for making that possible? That’s where my question started. I’m not sure where it ends — I’m really not.

@big_greg It seems like you’ve found a way to work out various options — you’re supporting different shops in the ways you find commensurate with what they can provide you. And you owe it to yourself to not throw your money away — which is, in the end, your time and sweat. I will note one thing that ran through everything you said — no matter how much your hard-earned money is worth, you didn’t say you audition in person and then do all your buying for the lowest price, online.
@gadios great list of do's and don'ts. Thanks a bunch.

@millercarbon: wonderful post. I especially love this paragraph:
"Don't abuse it. Do have the guy earn his money. Do ask to swap speakers or cables or whatever in order to compare. Do ask to home audition. But don't waste their time. Do it when you're serious about buying. Then if you go through these steps, home audition and all, don't be looking to shave the last few dollars. Just buy it. He earned it. You saved a ton. Because having done all this you know what you're getting. Internet prices are low and should be because until and unless you've heard it, its a crapshoot. Don't kid yourself. Price is only part of what you pay. There's also time and money wasted when what you bought sight unheard winds up getting traded."
+1 Almarg: "I strongly prefer to give my money to manufacturers who have established top-notch reputations for responsiveness to and supportiveness of owners and potential owners of their products. Even when I don’t foresee a need to ever call upon a manufacturer for support or even with questions, I simply prefer to give my money to that kind of company."

All I can add is that sometimes a company is so new (e.g. the Billie amp) that they don't even have a track record. That's also problematic; of course, everyone has to start somewhere.