THE ART OF SEDUCTION
What made Gary Penska (pictured left) walk away from a successful career in direct selling to pursue his passion for quality hi-fi? And why did he end up in a 15th century manor house? Chris Frankland gets the full story
You can forget passing trade. You can forget signage, too – there isn’t any. In fact, from the main road, you can’t even see the 15th century manor house that is home to Analogue Seduction director Gary Penska, his family, and his business.
Located in the small town of Whittlesey – just five miles from Peterborough – Analogue Seduction is one of a new breed of high-end hi-fi retailers that have turned their backs on the high rents and tyre-kickers of the high street to set up shop in a relaxed, homely environment that is more conducive to providing the kind of demonstrations their customers expect.
Mr Penska and his family live upstairs, and downstairs he has his business with a kitchen, office space and two demo rooms – one two-channel, and one home-cinema.
But where Analogue Seduction differs from many is in its thriving internet sales business and its philosophy of stocking a very wide range of brands, at a time when so many retailers are cutting back on the number of suppliers they sell.
We catch up – by appointment of course – with Mr Penska and his sales manager Terry Field (pictured right) to find out more.
Q: What was your background and when and why did you set up Analogue Seduction?
Gary Penska: I was in direct selling – anything from finance and insurance, replacement windows, etc. Hi-fi was my hobby since I was a teenager. My father passed on his music centre to me and then I upgraded to a Pioneer separates system with a Technics turntable for my 21st birthday, which really spurred me on. When I got bored with direct selling, I decided to take a risk and start my own business.
We started it in 2006, me and my wife are both directors. I started selling bits and pieces of hi-fi, accessories and cables I no longer needed on eBay. Because I have always loved turntables, I got involved with selling vinyl accessories and started to find suppliers, and it grew from there. I was doing that from home and I moved to larger premises, took on one member of staff, and it grew and grew.
Then we moved here. We have been here six years and we now employ four full-time staff and one part-timer.
Q: Was it quite a daring step?
GP: It was a risk. We had to come somewhere like this because in our previous property we were using our family lounge as a demonstration room. And even though this is our home, it is such a large property that we can separate it from the business.
And because of the nature of the manor house property and the demonstration facilities we offer, we get so many lovely comments from customers and suppliers telling us it is so much better than going to a high-street store.
We offer demonstrations by appointment, which is a far better way of giving customers the service they require, spending more time with them and being more professional.
It also takes time to set up a system. That’s why we need a couple of days’ notice. We can’t keep everything here, so we have a warehouse up the road with two full-time members of staff and one part-time, and we keep most of our stock there. They dispatch all the internet orders from there.
There are two dem rooms – one two-channel and one home-cinema.
Because we do dems by appointment, our strike rate with orders is very, very high.
Q: How has the move here worked out?
GP: Physical store sales have increased by 40 to 45 per cent and we have taken on more bespoke manufacturers who don’t want to deal with internet-only retailers. This gives us the edge over our online competitors.
Q: So how does the internet side of the business dovetail with the physical store?
GP: Online we tend to sell accessories – LP records, recording cleaning machines, cables. We sell the odd large item, but the larger items, such as speakers, tend to sell from the physical store, because people want to listen before they buy.
Q: You also sell vinyl LPs. Is that a good area for the business?
GP: Our vinyl sales are very, very good. The vinyl revival has happened as CDs sales are starting to die a death because of streaming and vinyl is the only physical format you can hold in your hands. Customers like vinyl – they think it sounds better. There are a lot of specialist labels starting up now and we buy a lot of our vinyl from them. We don’t stock LPs that every Tom, Dick and Harry are selling.
Q: What about the home cinema side?
GP: Home cinema is still a new thing for us – we are dipping our toe in the water. It’s not a big seller, but we are hoping to improve on that. We only sell medium-to-high end. We’ve been asked by the lower-end suppliers if we would do their stuff, but we’re not interested. There’s no margin in it.
We don’t do custom installation, but our suppliers tell us that there is a big market out there for people who just want freestanding equipment. Our sales are steadily increasing, and we are hoping in 2017 to beat last year’s figures by a lot. But the two-channel side is a good 95 per cent of our business at the moment.
Q: How do you advertise and promote the business?
GP: We don’t spend a lot of advertising. We have tried the hi-fi press but had zilch results. We also advertise in a local colour lifestyle magazine called ESP. But what we have found is very good and positive is Facebook.
My daughter works for me part-time and she is a whiz on Facebook and she updates it every week. We are getting orders and customers come in from that. It is probably the most positive thing that has happened in terms of advertising.
Q: How do customers find you?
GP: Online, because our website is Google-friendly. We also have an eBay and an Amazon store. Plus referrals from existing customers. And a lot of the specialist brands list us on their websites.
Q: You deal with a lot of brands. Your website lists 24 brands of turntable, 34 brands of speaker and 35 amplifier brands. At a time when many businesses are slimming down on ranging, why offer so many?
Terry Field: Increasingly, a lot of hi-fi retailers across the country have been closing down, and when customers come here, they often come from quite some distance. They say this is one of the few places they can listen to the four or five brands they are looking for.
Q: But do you generate enough sales to keep all your suppliers happy?
TF: They’d like us to do more. Every rep says sales are good, but they’d always like you to focus just on their products. It means sales have further to be shared around, but they realise it is better to sell something than nothing. They are quite happy.
Q: Do people come in with their own preconceived ideas?
TF: Yes, they come in with a magazine and products they have ticked. But I have a lot of experience. I have been doing this since I was 17 and I am 50 now. One customer had ticked three What Hi-Fi? five star-rated products and I said to him don’t put those three together as they will sound awful. People come here for that experience.
GP: What is interesting is that a lot of these ‘anorak’ customers that we tend not to sell to – because they’re just here for a day out – have never been to a live gig. They are too engrossed in the technical side, the specs. That’s got nothing to do with it.
Q: Has the vinyl revival had a real effect on turntable sales?
TF: Massive. I think we sell more turntables than anything else. And it is good to see younger people coming in to buy one. Late teens and early 20s are coming in looking for a turntable. I had one guy who was shocked that you turn over the LP and there is music on both sides! I sold him a Rega RP1.
Q: What are your thoughts on high-res audio?
TF: Meridian MQA is very interesting. You are listening to a master disc, whereas often with streaming you don’t know what you are getting. With MQA, you know it is as it left the studio. That is really exciting.
Q: Is vinyl the most popular front end for your systems?
TF: Our source component sales are 70 per cent turntables – ranging from £150 to the Avid Acutus I sold the other day at £10,000 – but you can go much higher than that. Our best selling turntable is Rega and we are their biggest independent store in terms of UK sales.
Then it’s a mix of streamers and CD players, although we don’t sell that many CD players. We do Naim streaming systems. We have some nice streamers and storage devices – proper audiophile storage devices and network libraries, such as Melco, and the Musical Fidelity M6 Encore one-box solution.
Q: Talk me through what you typically offer the customer.
TF: We offer the hospitality, tea and coffee – we want them to feel welcome in a nice environment. We discuss their requirements and if they have any products in mind. Then they can trust us to give them good advice, find two or three items to listen to, mix and match items that will work well together, and then let them listen to their own records or CDs. We leave them alone to listen. We don’t badger them and pressurise them.
Q: Do you think that, with the likes of LG, Sony and Samsung getting more active in audio, there may be a revival coming soon?
TF: I don’t think there will be an audio revival – it’s never gone away.
Q: What are your immediate plans for the future of the business?
GP: We are thinking about opening up a vinyl record store in Whittlesey. The vinyl revival has really boosted sales. We would also sell some turntables, such as Rega and Pro-Ject there, with some record cleaning machines and accessories.
We don’t want to grow any more in terms of brands – we’ve got enough. Enough workload as it is. We wouldn’t open another store. We are happy to stay here but with a record store as a sideline.
We are also hoping that the home cinema side will pick up.