Mail-Order Stereo

How to get hi-fied a hundred miles from nowhere

Conceptual image of inside a warehouse Credit: James Hardy/Getty

Consider for a moment the difficulties of buying stereo components if you happen to be a resident of the quiet rural hamlets of, say, Duck Hill, Mississippi; Shallow Water, Kansas, or even Purgatory, Alaska, below the Philip Smith Mountains. Obviously, you don't have a hi-fi shop down the block desperately slashing prices to compete with the Pacific Stereo store nearby. Indeed, you probably don't even have a stereo store acting as a monopoly. Obviously, you have only two alternatives: to continue listening to your vintage Victor with the worn-out needle or to buy a stereo system via mail order.

Mail-order stereo sounds at first like a legalized form of the old traveling medicine show; I mean, for many people a sound system is going to be the third most expensive item they'll purchase in their lifetimes (after a house and a car) and is not the sort of purchase to be made sight unseen (or more to the point, hearing unheard). Still, if your alternatives are severely limited by geography, mail order is all that's left to you, and the unquestioned leader in mail order is Warehouse Sound of San Luis Obispo, California.

Warehouse Sound grew out of a record and poster shop opened in 1969 by a pair of sophomores at the local Cal Poly State University--Cliff Branch, an English major, and Tom Spalding, an engineering student. Recognizing the lack of understanding for the stereo needs of the college community among San Luis Obispo's few hi-fi shops, Branch and Spalding began stocking stereo components. After ten months, they grossed $100,000, moved to larger quarters and reopened as Stereo West.

"We realized the role music was playing in young people's lives," says Branch, Warehouse Sound's president, as he sits in his office surrounded by bare brick walls and unfinished redwood siding. In his Warehouse Sound T-shirt, Branch exudes a boyish enthusiasm, which pervades much of the Warehouse operation. "The old fogies who were in the business at the time, they didn't understand kids wanted to get ripped and listen to Jimi Hendrix. Kids knew there was a whole lot of hypocrisy in that long cabinet with nothing in it, and that these little components were functional and you got good sound for your money. We just exploited that."

Stereo West quickly grew to five stores along the central California coast and probably would have continued to grow had not Branch and Spalding taken to traveling about the country. What they found was that the situation in San Luis Obispo existed almost everywhere. "We'd go to a town like Columbus, Ohio," says Branch, "and there's 50,000 kids there and one stereo shop where they sold Jesus with each stereo. Literally, it was run by a religious sect. This kept happening over and over again, and we finally said, 'Hey, we can put together some sort of a catalog and relate to the market better than these guys face to face.' We ran an ad in Rolling Stone and got like 5000 pieces of mail."

In 1974 Branch and Spalding sold Stereo West to CBS Corp., which also owns Pacific Stereo ("They made us an offer we couldn't refuse," Branch says), and moved completely into mail order, eventually employing more than 100 people who process some 4000 pieces of mail per day, which adds up to over $10 million a year in component sales, making Warehouse Sound one of the top ten component retailers in America.

To better relate to the kids who'd be buying equipment for the most part on faith, Branch started an advertising agency in San Luis Obispo (Different Circle), which produced the company's carefully wrought catalogs. Until recently, Branch wrote all the copy for the catalogs. That copy, Branch feels, was essential in developing the trust a mail-order stereo firm needed to survive.

"Kids buy stereo," explains Cliff, "because they emotionally identify with the music, and they want to hear it better and they want to hear it louder. Even though it's subconscious, if you can't have a fulfilling experience in buying the thing, you're bummed out to start with. So the thing we did was say, 'Hey, we understand where your head is.' You know, it's no different than the people who sell cologne in Cosmopolitan."

Today, the workings of the Warehouse Sound operation are a model of efficiency coupled with a personal touch. The day an order is received--by mail or phone--an acknowledgment is mailed to the sender. Normally, within another day the merchandise is shipped out, with a T-shirt and frisbee on larger orders, and a letter under separate, cover telling the customer how the equipment is being sent and, more importantly, the "Offeeciale Customer Care Kit," which includes a manual entitled "How to Hook Up Your System without Blowing It," a tiny red screwdriver, 30 feet of speaker wire, various logo stickers and forms about how to match up the boxes with the invoices and how to deal with warranties. In short, it's perfected stereo for the compleat idiot.

With Warehouse Sound's business slowing down slightly in the more competitive, big-city markets as a result of the abolition of fair-trade laws, Branch has expanded his mail-order techniques into a new firm called California Cooperage, which sells hot tubs for $995 and up through the mail. After eight months, Cooperage is the largest seller of hot tubs in the world. "It's the same thing as the stereo systems," says Cliff. "The timing is just right, it's not even a marketing function, it's really a social phenomenon. We respond to social needs more than anything else."