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Competition, Programs On PARA Agenda

Coping with e-commerce competition, developing strategies to market new technologies, and improving day-to-day business practices are high on the agenda of this year's Professional Audio/Video Retailers Association (PARA) conference.

During the April 13-17 event in Monterey, Calif., the association also plans to outline multiple new member programs, including support for dealer-sponsored consumer A/V shows and the buying of web pages at group rates, said executive director Debra Smith.

About 500 people representing retail members and associate manufacturer members are expected to turn out for the 21st annual event.

"There will be several areas where we didn't go last year," Smith said. One of them is how to create a brick & mortar shopping experience that will differentiate retailers from e-tailers who threaten to "commoditize all goods and services that have not already been commoditized by superstores and mail order," a PARA brochure states.

On that note, Smith said, the conference's first full day will be devoted to "leveraging the retail experience," starting with a keynote address by consultant and author Joe Pines.

Pines will explain why he believes the only reason consumers will go to traditional stores in the future is for the experience, a PARA brochure states. Specialists, he contends, will no longer be able to differentiate themselves from commodity sellers simply by offering better products and higher levels of service, especially as more e-tailers begin offering more personalized services such as customized book-recommendation programs.

After his keynote, Pines will lead a workshop outlining steps that must be taken to create a compelling customer experience that will motivate them to buy. Some of those steps, PARA's Smith said, will be to create a fun atmosphere in a store.

At Audio Concepts in Houston, she noted, staff members lead consumers into a conference room where, at the touch of a button, walls part and a screen drops down, turning the staid room into a home theater room. At Ovation AudioVideo in Indianapolis, the company has built a house and patio area inside a store to excite people about home theater and custom installation. "When people have fun, they feel like buying," said Smith.

On the second day, the web will again be a key topic, with consultant and author Chuck Martin outlining ways that specialists can harness the web to market the specialty message online without selling online. He'll explain how to develop a web strategy to create new relationships with existing customers and to create new customers.

Also that day, attendees will be treated to an update of e-commerce developments in the consumer electronics industry and in other specialty product categories. Independent rep and technology consultant Steve McNaur will deliver the update, which Smith described as a "nonpartisan review."

The third day will focus on two topics. First, consultant Mike Heiss will help dealers evaluate new and still-emerging digital technologies and create plans to market the technologies to consumers through improved communications and organization. His address will include home networking and how it will affect what dealers sell and install.

Later in the day, the discussion will turn to custom installation during a four-hour presentation and workshop that will identify the analytic and financial tools needed to forecast and control expenses in custom.

On the final day, PARA will devote six sessions to such topics as managing inventory and cash flow, selling more two-piece projection TV and DTV, and interpreting balance sheets to identify problems.

Also during the conference, PARA will detail an assortment of new member programs. One of the key additions is the PARA Consumer Expo Program, which will help competing dealers in a given market work together to put on a selling show for consumers.

To promote and organize these shows for PARA dealers, PARA has tapped Phoenix-based promoter Laura Stewart, who has already organized several such shows. Competitors will be working together to promote the specialty concept in their markets, Smith said. The events are usually held at hotels where space is sold to individual manufacturers.

PARA will also outline a web content program in which dealers will be able to buy web pages every six months for incorporation in their websites. Smith compared the web pages to a newsletter on specialty topics.

The association's new home theater A/V technical-sales-training manual will also be introduced. The 300-page primer, updated by Madrigal's Jon Herron, is used to prepare retail salespeople for PARA's technical-sales certification tests. Herron has expanded the chapters on such topics as home theater, new digital technologies and HDTV.