Clarion's Exit from the UK Aftermarket after 37 years signals the End of an Era

[June 2017] Clarion GB's exit from the UK aftermarket at the end of June 2017, after 37 years as one of the highest profile car audio and in-car electronics retail brands, signals the end of an era for the industry as a whole. It will have consequences well beyond Clarion GB and the affected staff - and Clarion had a wonderful group of people working for them in sales and marketing, originally in Swindon and latterly in Wootten Bassett. Clarion has been one of the very most loyal supporters of the independent aftermarket specialists and the various organisations setup to support them, including the Car Radio Independent Specialists (CRISP), which later became the Mobile Media Specialist Association. They had remained our only major sponsor in recent years.

While the in-car aftermarket has gone through a huge shift in focus over the past 10 years, moving (or forced by market conditions to move) increasingly away from audio, Clarion's decision to cease their retail activity in the UK came as a shock to many in the industry. Not because we all thought they were making a tidy profit from it - Clarion's underlying strength has always come from their OEM contracts with major vehicle manufacturers. Supporting a scattered network of retail outlets has always been an expensive and relatively inefficient business that - I have very little doubt - has been seeing diminishing returns for all.

In the heady days of the 80s and 90s, Clarion always presented good quality products but didn't have a marketing edge over rivals such as Pioneer, Kenwood and Alpine. They were never really the 'must have' brand with the Sound Off brigade, and yet they kept supporting it. Of course they had high profile suppliers, such as Mike Wells Car Stereo in Fulham, West London - widely acknowledged as the best in the business at the time and installers to the celebs, so many will have had Clarion in their cars - but Clarion's network of shops grew from a base different to that of many of the other suppliers, largely due to the influence of the wonderful Bill Lawrie, whose previous involvement with Radiomobile gave the later arriving Clarion a direct path into the Lucas Electrical network and other well established car accessory outlets. All the time, through Bill and later his prodigy and current General Manager, Graham Case, Clarion were very active supporters of the independents. While other specialist manufacturers held back or pulled support for industry organisations and looked to broaden their reach by widening their retail operations, Clarion kept doing what they could to promote and put the independent specialists first, while balancing the needs to reach as many of the public as they could without having their product in 'every corner shop'.

Adam Rayner, Online Editor on TalkStuff.net, broke the news well before I received confirmation from Clarion, and his opening comments reflect my feelings exactly:
"It is with a deeply heavy heart that I write this next news piece. After thirty five years in the UK, the Clarion GB Ltd., car audio company has been directed by their parent outfit in Japan to cease activities in the UK aftermarket. This means Clarion car audio as you and I know it, will no longer be available. From the 30th June, all staff are no longer going to be there.". Adam obtained a copy of the letter sent to Clarion's network of dealers, sections of which set out the future for Clarion in the UK, since they will continue to be a big player here, just not at the retail level.

The letter to their dealers explains that: "This is a letter of extremely mixed emotion because it is to announce the end of an era and the dawn of a very exciting new age. Our head office in Tokyo Japan has recently announced that it is going to further expedite and concentrate its efforts on developing safety and information products, such as for example, automated parking, autonomous driving and likewise, service related solutions; this will enable them to assertively advance their market share in what can only be described as one of the most fastest (sic) expanding technological arenas in the automotive industry.
This direction however also fundamentally means a phased breakaway from what are perhaps best termed as traditional products and it is with deep sadness that the company's Board of Directors have, in line with Clarion group strategy, decided to terminate its retail sales activity here in the United Kingdom, where our predominate strength is within the OEM sector.
This decision is specific to the United Kingdom and is due to the esoteric structure of the market in this region, which means neighbouring European countries are not affected by this strategic action."

In a way, that's a damning comment on the specialist market in the UK. The question will of course be asked, 'is this a Brexit reaction?'. Possibly, though nothing in the excerpts of the letter I've seen, or Adam's comments on it, suggest that. But if Clarion, with their resources, decide it's not worth the effort to do retail business here in the UK, how long before we lose it all. A few such as FOUR and Celsus are doing terrific work in keeping high end car audio alive, but take out the visibility that manufacturers like Clarion give to the industry and the public could soon forget there is any choice to the unit fitted at the factory... paradoxically often made by Clarion.

The UK independent specialist, as much as I have admired the work of so many of them and made so many friends amongst them, have been shooting themselves in the foot ever since I got involved in the industry - a year before Clarion GB arrived in Swindon. The build up of all that lead shot has now proved fatal, with Clarion ditching the UK. If you want a Clarion car audio product in future, you'll need to get it while on holiday in France or Italy. How did it come to this? I remember when the UK was amongst the biggest European markets for car audio and produced the most amazing competition systems. I stood on stages in London, Germany and Rome, as an Editor, proudly giving out trophy after trophy to amazingly talented British amateur and professional installers. We were the best in Europe and not far off the best of the installs being seen in the States. What on earth happened?!

I could try to answer that... but it would need a book. Perhaps Adam and I will co-write one one day and a good few people will be diving for cover.

Back to Clarion, because if you own the product you'll want to know your position. The letter continues "...the warranty on all products from Clarion GB Limited will of course be fully upheld by our warranty exchange centre that's located in France, so there will be no significant change in the service support that you currently receive." Remember, this letter was to Clarion's dealer network, so as a member of the public you would simply return to your dealer and they will handle it.

They go on to say "Our authorised out of warranty agents, Clarion Service & Parts Centre UK, will continue to provide its excellent post warranty services, so again no change."

As an existing owner of Clarion product, I don't think you have much to concern yourself. But as a car audio enthusiast, it is news that has left us all mouth wide open. I cannot end without giving a huge, heartfelt 'thank you' to Graham Case and the many others at Clarion GB who have done such a great job over such a long time, both for the industry and in support of my time as an editor and writer. In common with Adam, I have to say goodbye with a deeply heavy heart, and good luck to you all in whatever is next in your journey. I feel no malice towards Clarion Japan or Europe - they have to take commercial decisions. That they were driven to take such a decision specifically on the UK is, however, a damning comment on where 'our industry' has ended up. I still can't quite believe it. [Kevin O'Byrne]

Adam Rayner's breaking news article on Clarion exiting the UK aftermarket is worth reading, if only for the comparison of his career in the aftermarket to Captain Jack Sparrow arriving at Port Royal. Love it. After hearing the news, I needed that to put a smile back on my face, thanks Adam.