My first job in the consumer electronics world was working for a specialty electronics store called The Goodguys! (To be clear, the exclamation point was part of their name, and not me just trying to be all shouty about my first electronics job. Also, please share in my pain just a bit by knowing that every time I type The Goodguys! from here on out, MS Word automatically capitalizes the word immediately following the ! and I have to manually go back and fix it to lower case. This is the level to which I am willing to suffer for you to enjoy a good and grammatically accurate read.)
The Goodguys! was a west coast chain that was a step up from our main rival, Circuit City, in terms of brands and selection offered. My Goodguys! career started out in the back room while working in high school. (I took about half of every paycheck and saved up to buy the most awesome car stereo, consisting of the very best components that a) The Goodguys! sold and b) could be crammed into my VW GTI. It was the first true “high-end” audio that I ever owned.) In the back room I brought in and shelved inventory, handed out merchandise, dollied stuff out to people's cars, delivered TVs, etc., but ultimately I “graduated” to the sales floor.
When I started selling, one of the seasoned sales vets took me around and showed me one of the electronics areas where he pointed out the price tags below each piece of merchandise. (The management team also drilled in the importance of trying to attach an extended warranty to everything, a practice that made the hard-sell of warranties something that makes me uncomfortable to this day.) On all of the tags was a simple “code” that probably went unnoticed by the vast majority of clients. The code was a discreet ranking scale that featured either two red dots, one red dot, one green dot, or two green dots on each ticket.
The salesman explained that each time there was a sale or price change, one of the salespeople would go around and update the code on the price tags and that the dots reflected the profit margin of each item, helping salespeople to “know” what to sell at a quick glance. The two red dots meant “horrible; do not sell” while two green dots equaled “terrific; sell whenever possible.” (If ever asked, salespeople said the dots reflected inventory status.)
Now were the red dot items inherently bad and the green items better as far as performance or features went? No, of course not. In fact, often times exactly the opposite was true. But once you were in on the “game” you could listen to the salespeople using a variety of ways to subtly—or overtly—putting down red items while praising green ones.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t think there is anything wrong with making a profit. It’s no secret that, ultimately, we’re all in this business to make money. And even if you love your job and really and truly love helping people and finding ways to improve their lives with technology, that’s just icing on the you-gotta-make-a-buck cake.
Running a business is expensive. Having employees is expensive. Maintaining a fleet of vehicles is expensive. And unless you are an independent programmer relying solely on your labor and intellectual property then you have got to turn a profit on the equipment that you sell. Because if you’re not making a profit then you aren’t a business; you’re a charity. And if I wanted to run a charity, helping people troubleshoot technology issues over the phone would be way low down on my list.
There is a definite balance here between what was obviously a skeezy practice at The Goodguys! and being able to make enough money to keep the doors open. And there is nothing wrong with selecting product lines and even focusing on specific products that are profitable, as long as they are good and the right solution for the job.
For me, the guiding principle is wrapped up in some advice I was given years ago when I started reviewing equipment and writing my monthly column for Sound & Vision. My then editor, Rob Sabin, gave me a Northern Star to guide my writing when he said, “John, write your reviews and columns as if you are the trusted, expert friend giving advice to people and helping them to make the best selection. If it were a friend or family member coming to you and asking your opinion, what would you tell them to do or buy?”
Our customers so often ask us, “What would you do if it were you?” and this is really what it boils down to. Knowing what you know, knowing what is available, knowing what you need, knowing what you can afford, which component would you choose if you were buying for yourself? This doesn’t always mean selecting the most expensive item, nor does it mean going with the cheapest one. There is a balance here that you, as the knowledgeable professional, need to know how to walk.
If you truly design systems for your customers around that benchmark, then you’ll almost always do the right thing, both for your business and your client.
John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.