‘We don’t have to sell anything, people want it…’
How did Paul Clark turn a mid-life crisis into a thriving hi-fi shop and set up a high-end headphone business that is really going places? Chris Frankland talks to him
and his wife Wendy
Hi-Fi Lounge is most definitely not your typical hi-fi shop. Situated in a beautiful converted 19th century granary and stable buildings on Millow Hall Farm near Dunton in Bedfordshire, customers here are untroubled by traffic wardens and can revel in a calm, relaxing environment where they can take as much time as they like to choose the right product.
Paul Clark, who owns and runs Hi-Fi Lounge with his wife Wendy, admits that he made the move into hi-fi as part of what he calls a mid-life crisis. He had his own commercial printing business, but had grown tired of the “race to the gutter” with everybody undercutting everybody else on price.
Paul had always been passionate about hi-fi. He tells ERT: “We had a big PMC and Bryston system at home and we couldn’t get enough of listening to music.” His first foray into the hi-fi world was to run the hi-fi department for Zinc in Borehamwood, which also sold TVs and kitchen appliances. There they sold Naim, Linn, Meridian and other good brands.
Paul admits: “We couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t had the experience at Zinc first. It taught me so much. I got to know all the brands. It almost felt like Zinc was just a stepping stone to start Hi-Fi Lounge, even though I thought I didn’t want to work for myself ever again!”
After he’d been at Zinc for a while, he said to the boss: “Why not take all this lovely hi-fi and stick it in a barn somewhere and I’ll run it. But they just laughed at me, so I thought, I’ll do it myself. They shut the hi-fi side down soon after I left. And here we are.”
But to go for an isolated location such as this was a daring move – although it is close to the A1M.
Wendy tells ERT how they spent a lot of time driving around, looking for suitable units, but then found Millow Hall Farm purely by chance on an internet search. But a pragmatic Paul says: “We weren’t looking to be different from everybody else. We couldn’t afford to do anything on the high street because of the high rents. We sold our house and that gave us enough money to pay the rent for two years. So we thought we would give it a punt and see what happened. And it worked out for the best and people love coming here. Parking is easy and it is a relaxed atmosphere.”
And since it started in mid-2012, Hi-Fi Lounge has proved to be a success for the couple. Paul says: “It’s been epic. I really did think we would last two years and then it would go broke and I might get a job at PMC. We hit the ground running and it has been growing every year. It’s a lot harder work than I thought it would be – a lot of hours.
“We couldn’t have started at a better time, really. Five or 10 years ago, it was all AV. We have gone full circle now and people want good sound to listen to their music.”
For a new shop, getting the right products on board can be a struggle, but Paul says that went relatively smoothly thanks to his time at Zinc. “We started off with Naim, Rega, Bryston and PMC. But basically the whole ethos of this place is that we sell the products that we like. I got to know PMC through going to shows, and I wrote on forums and we did a lot of events with PMC at Zinc. I got to know Naim through Zinc, so that was just a phone call. Rega weren’t that keen and said they had enough accounts, but I went out for a meal with the rep, and we got on really well, so he said OK. We built it from there.”
But Paul and Wendy do not regard themselves as salespeople.
Wendy says: “The thing is, you don’t have to sell any of this stuff, because people want it. What we sell is what we love. We’re passionate about hi-fi. We leave people to listen for themselves, but you have to guide them to what is right for them.”
Paul adds: “We try to treat people well, give them a good experience and stop them going somewhere else. But they don’t. And we don’t do discounts. We give service. Like tomorrow, I will be out installing. It’s all about relationships and we become friends with a lot of customers.”
But Hi-Fi Lounge did not set out to sell just the most expensive hi-fi.
Paul elaborates: “The cheapest amp we do is a Rega at around £600. We don’t go lower than that. Most is mid to high end – not the really high-end stuff. But not the cheap end either. Our most expensive system would be a Chord system at around £50,000. Most of our customers don’t spend hundreds, they spend thousands. A friend of ours made the point that our conversion rate must be very high because everyone who comes here is serious. And he is right, as virtually everyone who comes through the door buys something.”
And, says Paul, margins on hi-fi are reasonably healthy, which helps because, as he says, “we invest a lot of time. There’s all network stuff now too, so you’ve got to know what you’re doing. And I don’t charge for installs.
But what makes Hi-Fi Lounge different is that it has made a serious commitment to selling headphones. Paul and Wendy set up a separate business, High End Headphones, in the nearby converted stables building.
As Paul points out, they sold headphones from the start, mainly Grado, because headphone listening has always been a passion of his, and while he dedicated a small room for them, which is now the demo loudspeaker store, he says it just didn’t work and he wanted to grow it.
“Then I brought in Odyssey and it all suddenly started to turn,” explains Paul. “Before I knew it, we had so many headphones it was ridiculous. I was struggling to keep up, so Wendy gave up her job and we decided to start up High End Headphones. That was in 2014. There was no high-end market three years ago and look what has happened. We try to have as many high-end headphone brands under one roof as we could – which you can’t do with speakers. No one else in the UK has the range that we’ve got.
“And people come from all over the country, Europe and America as there is nowhere they can listen to all of these headphones in one place. Reps tell us ours is the best headphone shop they have seen.”
Wendy says that revenue from headphones is now equal to around a third of what they take on hi-fi. And on the back of headphone sales, they sell a lot of DACs and headphone amps, too, from the likes of Chord and McIntosh.
Paul reveals his passion for headphones when he tells ERT: “I get annoyed when the magazines say headphones are OK to keep the noise down. With our audiophile headphones, you will get a level of sound quality that you would never get with speakers. It is my mission in life to get the message across of how good these top-end headphones are.
“Last year, on the headphone side, we sold 150 more than the year before. It’s definitely growing. I can’t get my head around the fact that no one’s thought of it before.”
He also reveals that Sennheiser has promised that Hi-Fi Lounge will be one of only two dealers in the UK to get a demo model of its new £35,000 Orpheus Reference System.
Streaming is big news in the hi-fi and music industries, so is Hi-Fi Lounge doing well with such products?
“Streaming is a big seller,” says Paul. “It accounts for around two-thirds of what we sell. And we’re definitely selling more turntables now than CD players. We saw a massive increase in turntable sales in the month before Christmas. It went ballistic! I love vinyl but streaming is great too.”
On the Hi-Fi Lounge website (www.hifilounge.co.uk), there are details of some of the many special events they have run. “It’s a key part of the business,” says Paul. “I’d always wanted to do an event with cars and we did that last summer with PMC. More than 200 people turned up. Then we took people over to PMC to look round their factory.
“We have a Spendor event planned for March for the launch of the new speaker they’re unveiling at the Bristol show. We try to have one event a month. We also run the headphone section at the National Audio Show at Whittlebury – that was huge. We did tens of thousands worth of business.”
So what’s next for Hi-Fi Lounge?
Paul smiles and says: “Keeping up with it! We won’t expand or take on more staff because I think that will ruin the whole ambience. We never wanted to take over the world, just earn a living.”