“A first class demonstration every time”

As part of this month’s Connected Audio feature, Jack Cheeseman spoke to Rob Lawley, MD of Sevenoaks Sound and Vision, about educating consumers and being the go-to experts on all things audio.

Independent hi-fi and AV retail chain, Sevenoaks Sound and Vision, has been at the forefront of the industry since 1972. Today, the business has moved on from the old style of traditional hi-fi retailing and now benefits from the huge rise in connected smart home technology.

With 25 stores spread across the UK, (and in fact just last month it was announced that a new store will open in Manchester in November), Sevenoaks is appealing to a wider audience with a wider portfolio of products; but it’s also doing this with an increased emphasis on customers’ needs as today’s tech gets trickier to understand.

Speaking to ERT at the flagship store in Sevenoaks in Kent, Mr Lawley says the company has even recently set up a new over-the-phone support service to help customers learn more about their devices. But why has it done this?

“Well, we have a huge range of brands in our stores,” he explains. “Sometimes customers don’t know where to start and they just need a bit of help. I think choice is important because there is no one path for consumers.”

Whether it’s an off-the-shelf mainstream product or a high-end, networked multi-room system, when it comes to integrating these products into their home, Mr Lawley believes that people nowadays want something that’s more aesthetically pleasing than necessarily functional.

He adds: “If they want something a bit more interesting because it lends itself to their decor, we should really be aware of that.”

Q: How have changes in the audio market affected your business?

RL: Well, up to a certain point, we were really just offering traditional hi-fi, like amplifiers, turntables and speakers, that sort of thing. But when certain brands arrived on the market, like Sonos, for example, that was an eye-opener for us. Sevenoaks has always been on the edge of first time adopters; our customers expect that from us.

So when we first saw products that allowed customers to escape the confines of just traditional audio, we knew we had to start providing these too. And the up-take was actually quite quick.

Since then the market has changed and grown massively, with people having things like soundbars and speakers elsewhere in their home. People just want a little speaker on the bedside table and one in the kitchen and they want them to be connected. The demand for this came at the same time that manufacturers were creating these products.

The shift with brands such as Amazon and Google has driven more speakers into peoples’ homes and that’s really where the market has shifted dramatically. These products are more about convenience as opposed to the highest sound quality. We have them in our stores and we can demonstrate them, but we prefer to lean towards the more mid to premium range of products that have the voice or remote control facility built-in. So we lend ourselves more to performance and actually our customers tend to as well.

Q: How are you adapting to today’s connected technology?

RL: We are fairly agnostic about it, like saying “whatever you want to use, whether it’s Alexa, HomeKit or Google, or even if it’s very simple, we can make that work for you in however many rooms you want”, and our customers like that.

That’s why we carry so many options and we’re very well versed on the USPs of these new systems and how they integrate with older systems. That’s where we can educate people and demonstrate the different options.

Actually, I’m surprised at how many people come to us after buying products elsewhere to learn more about those products! People really want to understand these things and the information doesn’t seem to be out there. It’s not easy to decide, “why should I spend £500 rather than £100?” and I’m amazed at how many people want to talk this over.

We’re here to offer independent advice and then people evaluate things for themselves. In fact we’ve just launched our ‘Buy by Phone’ service because people keep ringing us saying they want to buy something but just want to ask a few questions first, just to clarify things like “will that work with this router?” and “can I connect to it via my phone?”. Then, of course, people come back to you as a client rather than a customer, which I think is important, especially today.

Q: How do you ensure your staff best demonstrate these products?

RL: We’ve had to invest an awful lot in training because some of our guys were audio enthusiasts or audiophiles but they weren’t network experts, so we had to make sure they are able to advise customers effectively.

In our stores we have everything working via at least two or three networks, plus an independent demonstration network. So, investment across our stores includes having dedicated demo facilities. This means that if a customer wants to jump on and use their phone, we can connect it either with a lead, via Bluetooth or via a network, so they can sit in the demo room and experiment. Otherwise, they can do the same but using our iPads.

I think the convenience of the product interface is quite important. So we ask customers how they want to listen to their music; we try and help where we can and we introduce all the relevant apps and networks so it’s important that these work well.

Some people only use apps like Spotify, whether it’s in the car or at home. Other people want to be able to choose the room where they listen to their music, whether it’s from their streaming service or their local library. So, again, we always try and establish the customer’s needs while they’re in the shop. If, for example, it’s just about playing music in the car and then continuing that at home – it’s important to establish this early on.

That’s a key USP for independents, I think. We call it a first class demonstration and that’s what we try and do every time; whether it’s a £200 speaker or a £10,000 whole home system, the customer is getting a better experience and we’re showing people what can be achieved, actually, very simply.

Q: How do stay on trend with the latest products in your stores?

RL: To be honest, it’s mostly driven by the manufacturers. They’re always telling us what’s coming in the future. Some of the manufacturers, though, are very proactive and they ask retailers, “what else do you think it needs?”; it’s good to provide input on their products, sometimes you see these features incorporated further down the line. We see that quite a lot from a few key manufacturers, which is really good.