‘The future of British hi-fi is independents’
Fanthorpes Hi-Fi is a Hull institution and is 70 years old this year. Owner Marc Fanthorpe tells Sean Hannam why he hasn’t got time for hi-fi snobbery, but how selling upmarket products is the key to survival…
This year is a big one for Marc Fanthorpe. His business celebrates its 70th birthday and he turns 50.
“It’s amazing for me. I’ve been coming into this building for 45 years – I used to work here as a Saturday boy. My early memories are of it being an Aladdin’s cave of components. I’d work here in the morning, then I’d meet my mates and we’d go and see Hull City play,” he tells ERT, sat on the sofa in the upstairs dem room of the store, located in the impressive, Victorian Grade II Listed Hepworth’s Arcade in Hull’s old town.
The arcade is home to several independent retailers, including a vinyl record shop and a vintage boutique.
Fanthorpes was established in 1948 by Marc’s grandparents, Arthur and Laura, who started buying and selling US army surplus radios after the Second World War. Marc’s father, Michael, inherited the business from Arthur, who died when Michael was aged 18.
In the 1970s, the store started selling mid-market hi-fi, but in the ’90s, when it was run by Marc’s mother Susan, it diversified into flat-panel TV. Marc took over the business 15 years ago – “I’ve always been into music and gigs – I had a definite interest in listening to music” – and, in recent times, he’s shifted its focus toward selling premium and high-end hi-fi kit from the likes of Arcam, Chord, Cyrus, Devialet, Kef, Martin Logan, Ortofon and PMC – in 2017 it won PMC’s Retailer of the Year Award for the fourth year running.
“You’ll notice we don’t have Naim or Bowers and Wilkins – we don’t have all the big hitters. We actively went out and sought brands at hi-fi shows and every time we found a brand, we would buy a core of products and see how they went. Our thing was to grow every brand organically, find out what worked and then build it up. If we’ve got a brand, we stock it very wide,” he says.
Mr Fanthorpe, who heads up a team of eight staff, also has a background in IT, which has helped Fanthorpes to seriously develop its online presence. “I had some time out of the business and I went to work for a computer company. I knew how to optimise a web page, back when it wasn’t very difficult. I did our website pretty much by myself and after a short while we were coming up on the first page for this, that and the other – people began to find us. The web has been transformational for us.”
Fanthorpes is also proactive with social networking – it has regular news and blogs on its website www.fanthorpes.co.uk. “We try to do more – it’s the key. The arcade we’re in looks fantastic on our website – people look at it and infer positive things about my business. Our shop is a Hull institution – everybody knows it.”
Q: What are your strengths as an independent?
Marc Fanthorpe: Being an independent retailer is really good, because we can be faster and more reactive than the chains. It gives us a real edge. A company that has 10 outlets has to be coordinated across its chain – it can’t end up competing with itself and undercut itself, although I think some do. The companies I see as competition are not Sevenoaks or Audio T or Superfi, they are strong, one-man-band independents.
The future of the British hi-fi market is independents. We can go above and beyond in ways that are not hard to do, unless you’ve a structured business that won’t let you. We offer great customer service – even if I say so myself. There’s a lot of hi-fi snobbery, but we fly in the face of that.
If anyone’s got a problem, we’ll go to the nth degree to solve it. We learnt our customer service selling low-margin products, like TV, to the good people of Hull, with all their quirks and moans. It was great while we were doing it, but I could tell you stories you would not believe! So, now, when it comes to giving customer service to people who are buying expensive stuff, we find it really easy.
Because we’ve not been dealing at the high-end for 50 years, we don’t pretend to know everything – we’ll tell our customers that we’re still learning. If we get something wrong, it’s not because we’re cutting corners. We offer a really knowledgeable service, but it’s been an organic learning curve. We all enjoy what we do and everyone who works here gets on really well, but it’s not like David Brent…
Q: Hull was the UK’s City of Culture in 2017. How has that affected local retail?
MF: We picked up customers who had come to visit the city for the culture – we had someone walk in and buy a pair of Martin Logan speakers. That was a considerable sale. I also think the new Siemens plant and wind farm will attract professional travellers to the town. Hull is a long way to come, but if you’re here for work and you like hi-fi, then you’ll come and see us.
Q: Do you hold listening events in-store?
MF: We do. I was quite against them, because people didn’t like to come into Hull at night – it was deemed not to be safe, or they couldn’t park – but the City of Culture has changed the feeling in Hull.
The best event we’ve done in ages was with Henley Audio – we had an Ortofon cartridge day and did about 17 grand’s worth of business. The idea was to do a good, better, best demonstration of cartridges – we had about 20 people come to the event and their engagement with it was fantastic. We played the same tracks but with different cartridges and people could hear the difference – it was a no-brainer for people to buy cartridges at the end of it.
We also do some hi-shows – the North West Audio Show and Whittlebury [National Audio Show]. We do well from shows and we meet new customers. The hi-fi shows are a great way of connecting to people who know you from online.
Q: How’s the market?
MF: Business is OK, but it’s the toughest it’s been in five years. The recession’s been going on for 10 years. When it started, we grew year-on-year because, with the internet, we were ahead of the curve. The bottom end of the market has vanished. We used to sell loads of little Denon hi-fi systems with speakers, but now everybody buys a speaker you can talk to. We saw the lower end go about five years ago, but the mid-market – £1,000 a box – was still strong. Now we’ve lost that. It’s gone – I’m not missing out on it to another retailer.
Q: Has the vinyl revival helped your business?
MF: Entry-level turntables has slowed, but high-end is doing really well. This week we sold a £17,000 Avid deck.
Q: What’s your customer demographic? Is it wealthy, middle-aged men?
MF: They’re not necessarily wealthy. It’s middle-aged to pensioners. We can sell a Luxman amplifier for £6,000 to an old guy in a sheltered home – it’s his last hurrah.
Q: How far do you deliver?
MF: Our best customer is on the Isle of Wight!
Q: Where do you see the business heading? Would you ever open another store?
MF: I don’t have the energy to open another store! To open one in Leeds would be great, but I need a life…
Long-term, I’m not optimistic about high-end hi-fi. I don’t think we’re attracting younger people in. You’re preaching to an audience that just doesn’t care. I think the front-end products – other than vinyl, of course – will go into the hands of the computer and tech companies. It’s not the front-end that’s going to keep us going – it’s the big Martin Logan speakers and the big amps that drive them.
If I’m honest, I’m not interested in bringing new people in – I’m interested in finding the people who are in already and helping them get to the next level – people who are on their second and third systems and are looking for the fourth.
We make things easy for people. If you’re trying to buy a hi-fi, we will help you sell your old one, we will come to your house and demo the new one and we’ll bring more than one piece of equipment, so you can do a side-by-side comparison.
Our store isn’t a walk-in one anymore – when I used to arrive at work on a Saturday morning, I’ve have 10 customers outside. Now, we’re a destination – people travel from all over the country. It doesn’t really matter that we’re in Hull. Hi-fi companies still think on a geographical basis – ‘you’re the Hull store, you’re the Leeds store…’ but people aren’t prepared to shop like that anymore. The hi-fi companies know it, but they don’t want to admit it.
I see the future as upmarket, where we develop closer and closer relationships on a client-based, advisory level. If we can persuade you that we’re the people you should be doing business with, then we will. We’re very good at that.
It amazes me that we’ve sold a pair of PMC speakers to a man who lives in the Shetland Islands. At the end of the day, we’re just a small shop in Hull.