Veteran New Jersey Dealer Holds Onto Retail Store Despite Growing Custom Installation Success
When a customer walks into Sound City’s A/V retail store in Denville, New Jersey, they probably don’t realize the amount of work that is going on behind the scenes. The store, which features standard A/V vignettes in various price levels, a wall of in-wall speakers and several high-end demo rooms, conceals the innerworkings of its sophisticated and successful custom installation operation behind closed doors and in a separate warehouse at another location. It’s not that Sound City intentionally hides their custom installation business, it’s that store’s staff is just as happy to assist a customer willing to part with only a few thousand dollars, as they are a prospective custom installation client.
When, as it happens more often than ever before, a new customer walks into the store with a set of blueprints and a $150,000 A/V budget, a Sound City sales associate has been trained to treat that person with equal respect. He simply adjusts his approach, focusing on a different category of products primarily from Middle Atlantic, B&K, Triad and Crestron. Once that customer is properly qualified, he or she is eventually introduced to Sound City’s director of sales and home theater designer, Stephen Plafcan, who helped guide the previously retail-only Sound City store toward his growing passion, custom installation, over a decade ago.
Although the allure of high-end home theater custom installation has led many companies to distance themselves from the highly cyclical world of retail A/V sales, Sound City views specialized retail in a much more positive light. Greatly influenced by its president and CEO, Kamel Yassin, Sound City continues support its retail store, viewing it as an integral complement to a highly profitable, yet slow and steady, custom installation business.
“Although you will get a custom job for $150,000, you won’t show it as profit until the end of the install,” Yassin explained. “You need the bread-and-butter, day-to-day income to pay the bills. The customer that’s going to buy the $150,000 theater still needs a digital camera; he still needs a car stereo installed. I don’t see why retail and custom shouldn’t exist side-by-side. You need the cashflow; it’s important.” Not to mention that his retail sales enable Sound City to buy all of its product lines direct from the manufacturer, rather through a distribution firm.
Yassin began his career as an engineer working for an electronics company. In 1986 he opened his first A/V store, a 2,000-square-foot building in New Jersey. Every year in that business’ first five years, sales doubled as a result of Yassin’s “sell, sell, sell” energy. Then, around 1991, Yassin says he began to see home theater developing as an attractive new sales opportunity.
“I was one of the first guys to put Irwin seating in my retail store, and I was the first to have the drapery and the projector,” he explained. “Everyone thought that I was crazy back then. But, you know, it was really the beginning of the whole home theater trend.” Six years later, Sound City moved into its current building, designing its interior with home theater themes in mind.
“We really tried to create a marriage between custom and retail in our new store,” Yassin said. “We continue to watch both areas and see the economy change and the needs of customers change. We try to keep up with everything.”
Even within the retail-centric setting, Sound City (www.soundcity.com) constantly strives to improve the way it presents custom installation to its customers. Yassin and Plafcan try to offer a lifestyle presentation with their demo spaces, instead 40 feet of TV walls or boxes of products stacked in a corner. From the beginning, Plafcan has played an integral role in the design of the store, and many of its elements reflect his dedication to custom installation.
“From the beginning Kamel has been very supportive of me and has allowed me to go get the training I need, and then taking a ‘leapof faith’ with the idea of moving toward custom,” Plafcan recalled. As time went on, Sound City was able to place less emphasis on the “one-day sale” mentality of price-driven retail, evolving toward a “concept-style” sales approach.
“I was never a big fan of the one-day sales,” Plafcan admitted. “Custom installation was much more appealing. I still remember the first time I sold a $20,000 system; I was like ‘Oh my God!’ Now we’re receiving a $20,000 deposit or more just to get started on a project.” Yassin says that he’s the type of person who has always researched and read a lot about potential technology trends. His background in engineering formed in him the need to brainstorm new ideas, and this approach helped him to connect with Plafcan’s contention that more of their business should be geared toward custom installation offerings. “You look into the future, and try to predict what’s going to happen,” Yassin explained. “Once you have the vision, then that’s where your success will come from. If you don’t have a vision you’re not going to be successful at all. You’re just going to continue with your daily life and eat your breakfast and eat your dinner and that’s it.”
That vision has enabled Sound City to successfully maintain an evenly balanced mix of specialty retail and custom. The store consists of 43 employees and seven vans (four of those used exclusively for custom installation). Sound City’s sales staff has logged an average of five years of A/V selling experience, having been trained to both sell on the retail floor and also go out and finish jobs on their own. Within the store, a dedicated project manager takes customer phone calls and organizes installation schedules. Yassin handles all product buying for his company, both on the retail and custom sides, while Plafcan leads the custom installation division and supervises the retail store’s manager. Other staff members fill roles in accounting, warehousing, systems programming and customer service.
The Sound City store has 11 rooms, including two dedicated theaters and one media room. Three retailed-focused “switched” rooms provide “good, best, better” product comparisons, and the main floor features “room vignette” setups for more entry-level customer demonstrations. Actually, all of Sound City’s environments are set up to represent specific price points, offering the “good, better, best” product choices within that category. Like any dealer, Plafcan prefers certain product lines over others and generally steers his clients toward his favored vendors.
“We feel very strongly about B&K, and the Triad speakers are excellent for in-wall or in-room applications,” he said. “But more than anything we’re creating a theme with our rooms, and we are telling a story behind it. I think the customer feels confident about that and most will say, ‘Well, what would you do?’ Nine times out of 10 they will feel comfortable enough with me and agree with my recommendation.”
Yassin argues that even as custom installation grows in importance for his company, maintaining a retail store enables Sound City to maintain better contact clients who might otherwise fall out of touch with them. Yassin believes that many “pure custom” companies are at a disadvantage, years later, when their customers come looking to spend more money.
“I’m building a very good foundation for my future custom installation business,” Yassin explained. “When the customer comes to me five or 10 years later, they do not forget where they bought their stuff and who installed it for them. I think the marriage of retail and custom must co-exist. I cannot let go of my showroom, because it not only provides the look and touch and ability to experience technology, it also creates a place for existing customers to return.”
Jeremy J. Glowacki is editor of Residential Systems magazine.