Are DIY Products Are Killing Your Business? (Or Maybe Just Your Ego?)

By Linda Seid Frembes
rAVe Columnist

sonos-edit-1209So I seem to have touched a nerve – a really, really raw nerve – when poking around about DIY whole home audio. I’d been hearing lots of good things about the Sonos ZonePlayer S5 system and thought I would investigate further. Little did I know that this would lead to an avalanche of opinions (via Twitter) from custom home integrators and Sonos customers. Sonos, apparently very diligent at searching for themselves on Twitter, contacted me within minutes to see if they could help with my questions.

What initially interested me about the ZonePlayer S5 – it’s wireless, easy to deploy, offers decent quality audio for the price – has been overshadowed by the debate that rages on whether DIY home products help or hurt the custom install market. Guess what? The answer is they do hurt — your pride, your ego — but probably not your business.

There will always be potential customers who opt for DIY rather than paying you or your competitor to install a piece of gear. Jamie Mason, a realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate in Baltimore, Md., didn’t hire anyone to help her and her husband set up the seven ZonePlayers in their house. In fact, they’ve never hired a custom AV installer for anything. “We are definitely whole-house-music people, but our favorite thing about the system is probably the ability to play different things in different zones at the same time,” she says. “Sonos is unbelievably easy to deploy and use this system.  Party guests have always figured out how to use the controller within minutes.  And I have one friend whose husband is the tech guy, yet she set up their entire system on her own.”

Fact of life: DIY products are becoming more sophisticated and easier to use. This trend will continue indefinitely. Coupled with the vast amount of information from the Internet, a tech-savvy homeowner can deploy lots of gear without any professional help. Now whether they do it well or do it on time is another matter — and here’s where a pro makes all the difference.

As Ricky Williams, a tech with Barad AV of Oceanside, New York, tells me, “AV is a luxury and not a necessity, especially in this economy. Sonos is easy to install, cheap, and there’s no need for rack-mounted components.”

As a custom installer, Williams wasn’t happy when his firm took on Sonos because it was so shoppable and usable right out of the box. He felt like his job as a custom installer was insignificant in comparison. He even pointed out one examples of when a client’s teenage son got it up and running before the team got there, just because the kid wanted music in his room. “But if you open up your mind and get creative with it, you can help your clients use it more complexly than what you can get out of the box,” Williams explains. “For DIY products, it about the way you use it. There are bigger solutions than just music playback or bookshelf speakers.  What we do with Sonos doesn’t come from a manual.”

Tom Cullen, co-founder and VP of market development for Sonos, says that the integrator market is the fastest growing sector of their business, up 45 percent in 2009. Why? “Because the home integrator took it in the chin when the housing market crashed; our products are good for going to existing homes to sell more things. People told us we have great retrofit products,” he says.

Cullen estimates that his company is signing up 40+ new integrators per month. “An integrator’s value-add is the magically clean install – no wires, flush-mounted in-wall speakers, and the homeowner sees nothing but controllers around the house,” he says. “And the S5 is the ultimate plus-one product. With an S5, you can add a zone for $400-$500.”

As for custom integrators who feel like DIY products are the enemy, Cullen says, “The ones who survive are the ones who tear it all down and rebuild. The nature of their existence is that everything that’s new will become mainstream. The clean install doesn’t go away but the technology behind it will change again and again.”

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Linda Seid Frembes is a rAVe columnist who covers AV technology, installs, market trends and industry news. Linda has worked with high profile AV manufacturers, trade organization, systems integrators, rep firms and dealer/distributors in the industry including John Lyons Systems, Eastern Acoustic Works (EAW), Northern Sound & Light (NSL), and InfoComm International, among others. Reach her at linda@ravepubs.com