B&H Photo's superstore is really an online retailer

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on September 4, 2013

From The News Desk

The early 1980s was an inauspicious time to break in as a trumpet player, or as a musician playing any analog or acoustic instrument. This was the era of the synthesizer, which quickly plowed under the musical landscape and remade it in its own image. I got my first taste of this in a recording studio, when Galt MacDermot, best known as the composer of "Hair," carted in a $20,000 Synclavier. Today your child’s mini keyboard does far more and costs about 40 bucks. Back then, though, the Synclavier was state of the art.

After listening to what Galt had wrought, I asked why he needed a horn section. Each track he'd recorded had a baseline, electric drums, and lush horn-and-sax-like harmonies. I was feeling about as useful as a Batman costume on November 1st. And Galt, whose band I played in for more than two years, confessed that he was finding the synthesizer too "perfect." He had hired us "to add an element of human frailty and imperfection."

Over the next few years, as their prices plummeted, synthesizers became standard fare on everything from Chaka Khan to Michael Jackson, muzak to Broadway, club dates to bar mitzvahs to weddings. It didn’t matter that the synth couldn’t perfectly replicate a trumpet, sax, bass, drums or violins. It was close enough, and far cheaper. Why hire a full band when all you needed was one dweeb on a keyboard?

But it did much more than simply put musicians out of work. The synth sound became the sound.

Suddenly every recording, every commercial, every movie soundtrack had to have it, and musicians scrambled to adapt. Trumpeters switched to shallower mouthpieces for a tinnier sound; drummers tightened their skins for a more electric timbre; bassists funneled their sound through filters for more reverb.

All so they could sound more like the synthesizer that was designed to sound more like them. For someone hoping to become the next Miles Davis, it was utterly depressing, yet oddly intriguing.

Recently, I was reminded of this as I navigated through the throngs at B&H Photo, a massive 35,000 square foot showroom on the west side of Manhattan that sells camera equipment, audio gear, electronics, computers, and lots more. That's because the B&H superstore is really like an online store -- and online stores, as if I need to remind you, were invented to replace the traditional brick-and-mortar stores after which they were modeled.

The reason I'd come was to pick up a Fiio digital audio converter and a cable so I could hook it up as a portable amp for my iPhone. (Yes, I'm a sucker for higher fidelity wherever and whenever I can get it.) But I was leaving for vacation the next day and even Amazon, with its lightning fast shipping to Prime members, would not be able to get them to me in time. So here I was at B&H. Not only did it have the Fiio E7 USB DAC and Portable Headphone Amplifier in stock, the additional cable for my iPhone was hanging on a hook in the electronics section.

That is, of course, the promise on of online shopping. Pretty much whatever you're looking for, Amazon has it. And that's true for the Fiio L9 cable. But B&H had it in stock too, for the same low price.

Shopping at a physical store has advantages. First, you can actually sample a product before buying. At B&H there were banks of headphones, each piping music through them, and a high end audio room for those looking to purchase amps and speakers. This is certainly what Apple figured with its Apple Stores. People want to look, feel, hold consumer items before buying. Surely it must cut down on returns, a problem that vexes companies like Zappos with its gracious but perhaps self-inflicted drag-on-earnings return policy.

B&H is like an online store for other reasons. After the salesman handed me a receipt for the Fiio DAC, I had to stand in a short line so that the next clerk could order it from the on-premise warehouse. He handed me another receipt to bring to a cashier, where I paid for the two items. Then finally one more line -- to pick up my purchases at a counter that seemed modeled after the coat-and-bag check at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It reminded me of an online retailer's checkout system. I think B&H could use a one-click checkout like Amazon has. Meanwhile, boxes rode along tracks overhead, making their way from the warehouse to the finish line, where customers would pick them up.

The store was founded in 1973 as a tiny shop on the Lower East Side, serving mostly professional photographers. The owner, Herman Schreiber, named it B&H after he and his wife, Blimie. Over the years, B&H became known for its good customer service coupled with knowledgeable sales staff and low prices. Schreiber is a Hasidic Jew and so are many of the store's employees, and the store and website are shut from Friday to Saturday evening, although it's possible to place items in the online shopping cart.

As much of a scene as the Superstore is, B&H's website brings in most of the store's revenue, yet the website was created to mimic the physical store. Then the store began to mimic the website. Now it's bigger. Yet it isn't.

Like the synthesizer, online retail has altered the consumer landscape. Some offline stores -- like B&H -- have adapted by mimicking the online versions of their physical locations.

Kind of meta, isn't it?

[Image Credit: PRWeb]