By Dan Ferrisi
In its role as an advocate for independent music products retailers, The Music & Sound Retailer seeks regularly to feature the views of the men and women we mean to represent and fight on behalf of. That is why, every year, we feature our anxiously awaited Independent Retailer Roundtable. This year, however, the conversation was so wide-ranging and content-rich that we simply could not fit the entire conversation into a single issue. Therefore, rather than cut out valuable information for reasons of space, we publish the second part of the Independent Retailer Roundtable this month.
As has long been the trend, we drew on the expertise of members of the Independent Music Store Owners (iMSO) group. This year’s participants are Chris Basile, South Jersey Music (Sewell NJ); Allen McBroom, Backstage Music (Starkville MS); Don Tegeler, Tegeler Music (Clinton IA); Bryan Loy, Paradise Music (Franklin NC); and Lisa Kirkwood, Discount Music (Jacksonville FL).
The conversation took place in mid-summer. Add your voice to the discussion by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Retailer: Since our previous roundtable back in 2011, I suspect all your stores have evolved at least a little bit, whether in response to economic conditions or general market trends. Explain some of the changes that your store has undergone in the past year.
Chris Basile: Especially in the past six months of this year, we’ve tried to change: again, to surf along this ebb that we’re in. Trying to change the business model. So, we revamped our lesson program completely on how we advertised it, to bring new students in. And, instead of advertising that we have the lowest price in the area and the best teachers, we actually gave an introductory price for the first month of lessons. We’ve been running a promotion for many years where we give a free guitar away if you sign up and pay for three months of lessons, and that was always a big part of our advertising. Well, we dropped that down to smaller print, and showed a first month at $69. And that has enabled us to bring in some new students. We lost quite a few students last year between the end of April through August because of school being out and summer vacations. This year, we’ve lost a very small percentage of students and picked up a lot of new students because of that one-month promotion.
Now here’s the problem: retaining those students. It seems like the parents look at that first month and go, “OK. I’m getting it for a little bit less. We might get them for the second month.” And then, all of a sudden, they’re dropping for July and August. I’m writing that off to, again, summer vacations. So, we saw that starting to happen in June and, what I did was, I came up with an add-on promotion that any student who stays throughout the summer can pay just $50 a month and choose two lessons through the month, and schedule those around their vacations. Well, we held on to a bunch of students who were planning to leave and, actually, a few did come back because we ran that in an e-mail promotion, also. So, just taking that one big part of our business—lessons—and trying to rework that to keep the students has seemed to hold us through the summer.
Don Tegeler: I’m trying to do more social media-type things. That has gotten us more in touch with our younger customer base. I don’t know if anybody out there is familiar with Pinterest…apparently, it’s the next new social thing and they say it’s the fastest growing community so far. Unlike Facebook, Pinterest is suppose to be more business friendly allowing us to start marketing in a social environment with a lot less restrictions than Facebook.
Bryan Loy: We have been pushing repair work and service work, encouraging people to drag out grandpa’s old guitar that’s been under the bed for 50 years and that nobody has been able to do anything with. They can bring it down and let our crew of professionally trained service people get in and do the necessary repairs. Bring out the old Fender super amp that’s been sitting in the closet for 40 years—you probably forgot how good those things sound—and get it in circulation again. Sometimes, it’s not very repairable. And, if it’s junk, we can salvage the parts off that. If I buy the thing, I might buy it for about $50. But, we’re getting a lot—just a lot—of repair work coming into the shop right now. Like, we’ve had maybe five amps come through here just this week alone. So, maybe it goes back to that tough economy again. We’re seeing people, instead of buying new guitars, bringing in the old stuff so that it can be refurbished and used again. That is making us some money. We are making some good money on repair work. I have a pretty good crew in right now, and a shop set up at home. And, if we make them happy, we hope they’ll come back the next time they need something fixed. Or, if they decide it’s time to buy something new, we hope we’ll stick in their mind.
Lisa Kirkwood: Again, what’s working really well for us is being able to carry used inventory. Parents don’t mind as much spending money on a used drum set or a used guitar, just in case their child decides not to stick with it. That’s what we hear often. “Just in case this isn’t what they really want to do.” In addition, we carry a lot of parts and pieces. We have more than 17,000 used parts in our drum department. So, if a customer needs something from vintage to this year’s model, if you need the throw-off, we have it. And, so, a lot of people will come into our store looking for the small part and, fortunately for us, before they leave they spend a little bit more money on extra things. So, that’s working for us.
The Retailer: It’s important for independent retailers to develop strong, personal ties to their respective communities. What do you do to fortify your store’s value to its community and its neighbors?
Basile: I am totally onboard about being in our community: not only for my business, but I’ve been involved in the community since I was a young teenager. So, that’s carried through with me all the way into my adult life. We work very closely with the marching band in our town here. It’s a marching band of about 340 students; that’s very large for the area. There’s something called Band Boosters, where the parents get together to raise funds for traveling for the band and some other things that they do throughout the year that the school district won’t cover. So, as part of that, we offer a band booster program. We gave every student who came into the store a plastic discount card. All they do is present it when they come in to buy their reeds and their oils and everything else that they need—and they can buy guitars or anything they want—and we offer a 10 percent discount. Out of that, the student gets the eight-percent discount immediately, and two percent of that sale goes to the Band Boosters as part of their fundraising.
Another community event in which we participate is the town Super Saturday event in May of each year. This event is a large community event in the park. It brings out lots of vendors and has live music all we set up a tent on a 10×10 space. We bring some merchandise such as ukuleles and acoustic guitars, hand out flyers about the store, and I give away T-shirts and other swag that our vendors provide free of charge. We probably had 5,000 or 6,000 people come through that day and it is great exposure for our business. We do a lot of advertising in ad book programs for sporting events and dance recitals and things like that. Even if it’s just a business card-sized ad, we try to do something. It’s to get our name out there, but also to show just how community-based we are. And we’re constantly giving stuff away for auctions and charity events. Again, it gets our name out there, and it also shows that we want to be part of whatever they’re trying to fundraise for. There’s also the feel-good factor that we’re helping the community out. We also participate in the Strings for Food event each November as part of iMSO.
Allen McBroom: Back in November, we participated in something iMSO promotes called Strings For Food. And people could come in and bring in canned goods that we would donate to the local food banks, and we would restring their guitars for free. Manufacturers like D’Addario and Curt Mangan contributed strings for this effort. We contributed labor. And the people in the community contributed food. We had 51 guitars restrung in our shop in one day, right before Thanksgiving. We collected over 600 pounds of food. And the food bank was stunned when we showed up with it, because they were out. They’d actually been out for three days. The local Catholic church runs it, and they were out. Without a group like iMSO, it would never have dawned on us to do a promotion like this on our own. But the brainiacs who are involved in iMSO come up with these ideas that they share among the group, and they benefit us. That’s a great piece of community involvement we had that we were thrilled about. We enjoyed it. We’re looking forward to November again. We just can’t wait to do this.
We do other things. We contribute sound systems for cancer-research events and for all kinds of local events. We do sound set-ups and contribute constantly to the local community. But, we got more personal satisfaction and joy out of that one community event that iMSO generated. I just can’t say enough good about it. Oh, and we got great news coverage in newspapers and on TV as a result. That didn’t hurt my feelings any, either!
Loy: We did Strings For Food last year and had a great time with it. If I remember correctly, it was about 380 pounds of food and 40-something guitars restrung. We didn’t do as well as Allen did, but it was really good for a community this size, I thought, for the first year. But another thing I’ve done, which I’m going to try to resurrect this year, is something called Rockin’ For The Hungry. You find a venue in town, like a movie theater you rent for the night—some sort of place that has a stage and where you can set up a sound system—and you sell tickets for either a $5 donation or five pounds of food. And you get three or four of the local area bands that want to donate their time and play a set. You get like four hours of music, with 45-minute sets and 15 or 20 minutes of teardown in between.
You do that, and you get donations from your suppliers. I had T-shirts from Dean Markley and several different other things that I threw out to the audience. We had a really great time with that in years gone by. And you get local merchants to give away things while the bands are changing. You can auction things off, and the money goes into the local food bank. That seemed to have a positive effect. Since I have moved to this town, I haven’t done that. But, this is something we are planning on reinstating this year. It gets the local high school-aged bands out there. It gets them some exposure. You screen them a little bit to get the quality bands…the ones that can play the best and are the most enthused about it. They’ll bring all their friends, and their friends will bring food because it’s cool, and they don’t have to spend money.
Kirkwood: We’ve found that Battle of the Band events don’t work for our location. But, one of our high schools has a classical guitar orchestra, where the entire orchestra is made up of just classical guitars. It’s a phenomenal show. The headliner one year was Tommy Emmanuel. We sponsor that every year; we do that for a couple of different reasons. It’s a great educational program. It’s huge in the area for teaching children the appreciation of music. And it’s a great night for us. I think, in general, just on the day-to-day basis, our customers really love it when they walk in our door and we greet them by name. We’ll say, “How’re you doing, Tom? How’s your daughter? Did she finish the third grade as strongly as she thought she would?” If you just learn a little bit about them, I think that goes further than anything else. So, that’s what we do on a large scale, because that makes them feel important on an individual level. If for no other reason, they’ll come back on a Friday and say, “I haven’t seen you guys for a week. So, I thought I’d come to see how you’re doing.” And then, inevitably, they’ll buy some strings or picks or something. I think just knowing your customer is vitally important.
Tegeler: Last year was our first annual Tegeler Music Benefit Concert. We even set up a non-profit bank account for the event. What we did, only using Facebook, was get 13 bands to donate their time for free. We held a most popular band contest at $1 a vote. All the bands brought in their friends, and whoever got the most votes won a trophy and earned bragging rights for a year. We also raised money through donations at the gate, through food and beverage sales, and raffles. Last year, we raised money for MDA. This year, we’re doing Multiple Sclerosis. And we’re going to pick a new non-profit to help every year we do the concert. Since we also have a production company, we were able to set up a big, concert-style system including lights for the local musicians to use. They just love to get on the big stage in our park adjacent to the Mississippi River and rock out. The concept is to turn these young local players into rock stars for the day.
We threw the event together in three weeks last year, because it was a last-minute idea. In about eight hours of time, we raised $3,600 for MDA. So, I think it was a huge success.
The Retailer: What are the latest happenings with iMSO?
Basile: We’re moving along. iMSO is constantly growing. We still are seeing maybe one or two new members a week, on average. iMSO’s main focus and mission is our forum. It’s where dealers can come and talk about their businesses, ask questions of other business owners and take advantage of the many years of experience that are there from the other music dealers. That is our strongest resource, and we will never let that go. Our forum, our iMSO forum, is our strongest point. It’s our sharing network. That is our strongest resource. With more than 38,000 posts chock full of information, no independent music dealer should not consider joining to find better or other ways to improve their business.
The iBuy program is always expanding and growing, and we’re adding new vendors constantly. We’re working hard to get more of our dealers active in the iBuy and using it on a regular basis. We’re listening to them and trying to correct some of the things that they identify. We’re trying to move toward making it easier. It marked its first year in May, so it’s still in its infancy. But, it’s growing and it’s growing quite nicely. And it’s proving to be a nice resource for our group and dealer network, also.
Kirkwood: We’ve launched a new Web site to make it easier for people to find us. It’s musicstoreowners.com, and it’s a nice starting place. You can follow through quite easily to find the information you need to find out about our group. On our forum, as of today, we have a total of 38,205 posts, and most of those posts are very educational for any store owner who wants to learn about lessons, repairs and how to bring more people into your store. What do you do when days are slow? How do you use social media? And, so, it’s such an informative place; and the information is just there for the reading. All you have to do is log in and read it. So, become a member; it’s quite educational. I, for one, am on the forum every day reading something. You wake up every day, and you can learn something new. We have great members who love to share their knowledge.
McBroom: If you’re reading this article in The Retailer, and you find these viewpoints and the openness of this discussion refreshing, you can have a dose of this every single day by joining iMSO, which is free and does not detract from your bottom line. You can read the forums every day. You don’t have to post, but you can participate by reading. Stay informed, and realize you’re not in this alone. Those forums are there to help you…to make your life better and to make your business better. This can help keep you encouraged and fired up about what you come to work for every day. This is just a snapshot of the daily activity on the iMSO forums.