The Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the strangest events in recent human history, as we have witnessed a completely new and – initially at least, very poorly understood – virus spread around the world with alarming speed. Like many pandemics before it, it spread via trade routes, moving from China’s Wuhan province to the world’s top western travel hubs like New York, London and Paris for example – then beyond. Although it is now receding in the West, South America is currently under siege and there’s even been a minor resurgence in Beijing. It’s clear that the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.
The human effects of this pandemic have been terrible of course, but its impact on world trade have been no less significant. Given that ‘the wheels of industry’ must keep turning to pay for the world’s healthcare systems – in one way or another – it’s impossible to estimate how many more people have or will be indirectly affected by the coronavirus. This isn’t just because large parts of the global manufacturing sector had to shut down for several months, but also because the customers who normally buy its wares were ‘locked down’ – socially distancing themselves at home – and therefore not out consuming. In the UK for example, GDP in April 2020 was around twenty percent down on 2019, which is a staggering figure – and not an outlier from other advanced economies.
Most Western countries are now cautiously moving beyond this and business is returning to normal, with governments fully aware that the measures now being taken will have a major impact on the wider recovery. New consumer data from the US is encouraging, with retail sales for May 2020 up by over seventeen percent, for example. Here in the UK, the first retail sectors allowed to re-open last month were garden centres and car dealers. This is because it’s widely believed that the virus best spreads in confined spaces, rather than outdoors. The scientific consensus is that at least fifteen minutes exposure to an infected person indoors is needed to catch Covid-19, and they need to be less than one metre away. This naturally makes conventional hi-fi retailing a particularly difficult proposition.
During the lockdown, many hi-fi dealers have shifted their business model towards online sales, or mail order via the telephone. That’s meant plenty of long, in-depth phone, FaceTime or Skype consultations with prospective purchasers, with customers buying on the strength of dealer recommendations and/or magazine reviews. It’s meant careful attention to detail ensuring that safety is maintained regarding courier deliveries and fulfilment parters, following all the government guidelines. All this has been done whilst implementing social distancing in the workplace, often with staggered start and finish times and working remotely when possible. Many dealers have offered free drop-offs of products, too.
Customer loyalty has helped good dealers. If buyers have got sound advice from them in the past, they’re likely to trust them with purchasing recommendations now – and that has helped top-tier hi-fi retailers all around the world. Such trust extends to letting people have products on approval to audition at home in many cases, too. A strong customer base has proved invaluable to long-established and highly respected dealers – precisely the sort that sell dCS products. Certainly at the upper end of the market, there’s a really important bond of trust, built up over years of good relations with customers, that pays dividends in a time like this.
This pandemic has forced hi-fi retailers to adapt, and those with expertise and passion for customer service during the good times, have been better able to respond in the bad times. If anything, recent events have simply underlined the fundamental importance of great service. In these trying times, we have been attempting to replicate the traditional model of retailing as much as possible – whilst obeying social distancing. Trusted and knowledgeable dealers have continued to dispense old fashioned advice, but are no longer standing next to the customer in a dem room. If anything, this whole experience reinforces the need for expert guidance, something that simply isn’t there when people click ‘Buy it now’ online.
Overall then, the coronavirus crisis has underlined the basic need for high quality service. Yet there is still a large question mark over how quickly things will get back to normal. We’re now seeing effective new treatments for Covid-19 such as Dexamethasone – with successful clinical trials just completed by Oxford University – but until a successful vaccine is found, we just don’t know the answer to that. Indeed, it’s even possible that we may never get such a thing. Meanwhile, some audiophiles may be reluctant to visit hi-fi showrooms for the foreseeable future, and so-called ‘bricks and mortar’ shops in general. The in-store experience of a top-flight dealer demonstration is a truly special one, and – as this terrible pandemic teaches us – is hard to replicate in any other way.