Integrators: The New Independent Specialist

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Today we have audio, video and home theater, often with links to computers facilitating all sorts of things. This offers both great sales potential and an impediment to sales. Not only must we sell product now, but of greater importance we must install and explain how to use it. Unfortunately the independent specialist sales channel most capable of doing that is a mere shadow of its former self, killed off by the industry's unrelenting drive to reduce cost. But there is hope.

I recently spoke with an ex-Pioneer co-worker, Ron Stone, now, among other things, a Volutone board member. Founded in 1902, Volutone is a Southern California-based distributor carrying more than 75 lines and more than 18,000 SKUs. During the conversation Ron told me about Volutone's 3,000-plus California integrators, individuals who buy and install all manner of home CE product carried by his company. Still not sure what an integrator is? How about "trunk slammer," the derogatory term used by many to describe dealers without storefronts who sell and install home CE products. Based on that chat it occurred to me that, disparaging labels aside, these individuals could be the core of a new independent specialist channel. I believe this conclusion even more having met with Volutone's Trevor Hansen and Steve Honig.

Volutone's sales are increasing dramatically, and most definitely include home audio, a nearly-dead category in most brick-and-mortar retail. How'd they do it? By recognizing the power of the integrator within the consumer's home. Once inside integrators can not only execute what they were originally retained to do, but can also exploit opportunities for additional sales — sales that benefit the integrator and provide the customer with a system he would never have envisioned on his own. This is a whole-house complete solution proposition that in the best of circumstances represents an ongoing upgrade of home CE technology using best-in-class brands.

At the center of Volutone's success is the recognition that its integrators, and by extension, Volutone, will fail if the consumers whose homes they enter aren't satisfied with the product as well as the service surrounding them. At the heart of that is a mandatory, Volutone-directed training program required of all integrators who buy from Volutone. Does it work? Again, sales are increasing across the board well beyond the industry average. It's not perfect, a fact well known to Volutone. The distributor knows there more it can do, and more it must do, if it is to continue its profitable growth.

With that in mind let me suggest the following: a business model focused on retailers who actually work inside the consumer's home regardless of whether or not they have a storefront. It's a model that (hopefully) puts aside the tired notion that only those with storefronts can sell CE technology.

Most of the necessary pieces are already in place although there is need for refinement to really make this a success.

There are potentially many Volutones out there that could do this. Moreover, I am most definitely not saying that brick-and-mortar retail is no longer necessary, only that a storefront does not guarantee success. Indeed, I can easily see the accomplishments of a brick-and-mortar retailer/integrator alliance being far greater than either will achieve alone.

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