Talking Shop

Last holiday season, when flat-panel HDTV prices sank to all-time lows, many people hit the big-box superstores and discounters and got unbelievable deals. But a few months later, some of those people discovered they'd derived more satisfaction from getting a great deal than they did from the gear itself. That's because most of these stores are all about the price, with the customer left to his own devices to make an informed buying decision.

One remedy to commodification is to shop at an A/V specialist, where a well-trained staff can offer guidance based on your particular needs. There are several good reasons to shop at a specialty store. One is that many offer higher-quality products you can't find at big-box dealers. Also, thanks to memberships in "buying groups" that harness the buying power of dozens of independent stores, specialty shops often offer surprisingly competitive prices. And while the sheer number of products at a superstore can be overwhelming, specialty dealers can act as a filter, narrowing choices to a manageable number of brands with proven levels of performance and reliability. Also, with products becoming more complex - and the desire for interoperability and unified control growing even more important - specialty dealers can leverage the higher competence of their staffs to manage larger, more complex installations. But maybe the best reason is the most prosaic: Since repeat business and referrals are a specialty dealer's lifeblood, he's more likely to care about you as a customer.

Here's a look at three successful specialty stores. Although each has taken a different path, they all have one thing in common: They're not just selling products - they're selling the excitement, enthusiasm, and enjoyment that comes from a great-looking, great-sounding system.