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    Dear Mom and Pop... Make Me Want to Give You My Money

    By Chris Loeffler |

    How to Beat Big Chains and Run a Successful Independent Music Store

    By Chris Loeffler


    Dear Mom and Pop,


    I know it’s been a while since I’ve come to visit. I keep meaning to swing by, but life has a way of changing plans, and next thing you know it has been years since we last saw each other. I heard you guys have been thinking about moving in to a smaller place to save some money; that’d be a shame. I really liked the place and have a bunch of fond memories, but I suppose you have to do what you have to do. In any case, I hope you’re doing well, and I’ll be sure to visit the next time I’m in town.


    Your Customer


    Like every retail sector, the music instrument industry has been forever changed by the growth of larger chain retailers and online stores. As with traditional, small retailers of books, music, or even groceries, the Mom and Pop family operations that specialized in carrying products and serving their community have faced challenges competing with the SweetAsh FriendCenters of the world. It’s a hard pill to swallow, having spent decades building brands and players and watching them now walk to the convenience of online shopping or big box stores that consider MAP a starting point in negotiations. That said, I doubt musicians miss the days of paying 30% more for instruments due to a lack of price comparisons (or a price below MSRP) or having to settle for what’s on the wall.


    Time are tougher: margins are thinner, there’s online competition that can go cheaper with a virtually endless product assortment, and popular music seems to have a lack of (insert-instrument-here) heroes. It would be easy to give up (some have) or blame change (many have), but those who are in it because they truly love the MI industry have many advantages up their sleeves to keep them as relevant as ever when it comes to building musicians and selling gear.


    So, Mom and Pop… Here’s what you'd better be doing-




    You don’t have infinite floor space (nor the finances to fill it if you did), so you can't stock everything. What you do have is the knowledge of your community of musicians, and the ability to help introduce them to great gear. A guy (or gal) who needs a pink polka dot Strat in an HSS configuration with a maple neck may not be an immediate sale (cough... SPO... cough), but the person who walks in looking for a great guitar is going to be well served by your careful ly selected assortment and the fact that YOU put thought into every instrument you ordered and can explain why they are worthy. Customer service and a passion for your offerings is what builds a customer for life instead of a one-time transaction.


    Speaking of which…



    Support Your Vendors


    As the customer-facing end of the supply chain, you have a symbiotic relationship with the brands and suppliers who provide you the gear that lines your shelves (and, ultimately, your pockets). Frankly, there’s a general sentiment that some retailers are interested only in guaranteed hits and easy sales on the supplier side. Support your suppliers and learn how to sell their gear. They’ll love you, and they remember dealers who took the time to fully support a new product launch. You’re carrying thousands of SKUs, but that’s no excuse to not constantly stay in tune with what's new to market...be an active participant in the MI industry.




    I often hear the cop-out from M&P that social media (and the internet in general) have changed the way people socialize, and that “hanging out” IRL doesn’t happen. But like many objections I’ve heard, it’s a passive shoulder shrug of resignation. Look at your shop, M&P… is it a place people want to be in? Is it comfortable and easy to audition gear, or has nothing but the inventory been updated in 30 years? Of course you don't want your sales floor to become the unofficial weekly practice space for local thrash metal bands, but your biggest advantage over big box and online is that you can create an environment condusive to comfortable gear evaluations for customers and demonstrations by your staff. Use that space to serve the need of exploring gear, and make it easy. Everything in that store was chosen by you, and you should be able  to match your inventory to almost any customer's needs. Serve your customer well, and most won't bat an eye if you're selling gear at fair prices...they understand they're paying for your expertise and experience.




    You can’t sell gear unless you have people who want to play it. Public schools continue to de-emphasize and underfund music programs, yet students still need a place to learn how to play. You are that place. Lessons from instructors' homes will always exist, but you are a one-stop shop and should be your community’s first choice for starting new students on the path to music. You have the instructional materials, the instruments, the accessories, the teachers, and hopefully the repair techs. You are literally creating new customers every time you sign up a new student. Students make for loyal customers, and the convenience of trying out gear and purchasing at the same location where they're learning is an added value.


    Build Community


    Get involved in the local music scene, be it through sponsorships, gear loans, or even just helping clubs and events advertise within your store. You’re selling tools and inspiration; make sure you’re connecting to the end goals of performance or recording with your clientele. They learn from you, they buy from you, why stop there? Community involvement through sponsorships and events promotes your store, gets you closer to the customer base you want, and helps to inspire the next generation of players to walk in your door and ask for a lesson. Connect musicians with recording studios, venues for live performance, and local civic events with the pure talent you're incubating in your shop. 


    Sell Used


    The margin on used gear is nice, and accepting used gear will ingratiate you to those local musicians who can't afford something now and keep them from heading to Craig's List. Next time they do have cash, they'll be more likely to return to your store. Online storefronts can help you manage your used inventory if you need to free up some cash, but having cool vintage gear you can't buy from a big box will guarantee regular visitors hoping to see what's new.


    There are very-real challenges faced by people like you, M&P, who have poured your heart, soul, and savings into your shop. And you absolutely DO deserve to be paid for the value you add to your students, customers, and community. You aren’t a corporation with a massive warehouse and financial reserves that enjoys an extra 10-30% discount for placing $300,000 purchase orders, you have to artfully merchandise a showroom, set up gear so it plays perfectly, and answer hundreds of questions a day from people who walk into your shop and hopefully become customers. You inform your customers, you educate students, and you support the vendors and suppliers you carry. This is value, this is why people come to you, and this is why you can offer gear at fair prices without racing to the the bottom.


    Your local musicians want to support you, but sometimes you make it hard. Selling a pack of violin strings for $40 when we all know they can be  purchased for $20 elsewhere is almost offensive. Support your community of musicians and students, be a partner with your vendors, and create a superior store experience - and you'd be suprised how much of those efforts will come back in kind.




    Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 

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    Word on the street is that Mom & Pops can't "curate" from Fender or Gibson - they have to accept a mix of desirable and undesirable models and sell a rather unrealistic number or be cut off. That's why we don't see new Fenders and Gibsons in these smaller stores :( .

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    Some of the more savvy independent stores have joined together to make group buys from the larger manufacturers. Some, like Wildwood, even order one-off limited runs that the big chains can't get. 

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