Offbeat Store Design: High Impact on a Dime

Maxwell’s House of Music is not your typical retail store. At 2017 Summer NAMM, owner Mark Maxwell shared his vision for creating a memorable store design for little cost. He advised other retailers to create a unique design and include character and style that speaks to the store’s personality. The goal is to create a “wow” reaction when customers enter. (Watch the full video for design examples and ideas.)

Maxwell admitted that he created a music store that’s “pretty crazy.” He did it with involvement from customers and the community, starting with a vintage logo that describes what Maxwell’s House of Music does. (Tag line: “We create musicians.”) Maxwell shared that he didn’t have money for walls full of gear. A manufacturer’s rep gave him the best advice: “If you’re going to do this, don’t fill it up with a ton of gear.” Based on that feedback, Maxwell wondered what else he could put in his retail space besides gear, and the store design began to take form. He also wanted to make sure the store had plenty of seating and places for customers to get comfortable. “If you create a place where people want to come to, you’ll be successful,” Maxwell said.

Where are the places we play music?
Maxwell wanted to recreate places where people play music or learn to play music. So, he and his staff created little “Hollywood movie-like sets” around the store, including a kid’s bedroom, living room, basement, bathroom, home music studio and even a garage. They also created a campsite with real logs. Maxwell’s wife had an idea for a Uke/Eucalyptus tree—it’s become popular and helps sell a lot of ukuleles. To get started, Maxwell used whatever he could find inexpensively, such as paneling, an old couch from the garage, a TV that didn’t work and a cheap bed on Craigslist. Customers also started offering to donate items, such as a lava lamp.

Every room has something interesting to look at and, sometimes, nostalgic or original items. All were donated or purchased for next to nothing, according to Maxwell. The bathroom has a never-used, real toilet, nicknamed Jamming Johns. Maxwell fills it with candy and Tootsie Rolls. (Kids know where to go when they come into the store.) The garage even has a real garage door. Maxwell approached a local garage door company and offered free advertising in the form of a business plaque in exchange for the door. In doing so, he created a community partnership. Maxwell commented that most of the living room furniture was donated.

He and his staff also created a church with a mini pew to reinforce the idea that they do business with churches. They created a small stage for singer-songwriters to perform, with an adjoining coffee bar named after Maxwell’s mom and dad, Marv ‘N Bev’s Coffee Bar. Maxwell wanted a cozy spot for customers to come in, have coffee and enjoy live music. The stage also gives local musicians a venue to play.

Design so that people are talking about your store.
Maxwell encouraged retailers to design their stores with “amazing” in mind, so that customers say to their friends, “Have you see their shop?” People will come in just because they’ve heard about it, according to Maxwell.

Provide free Wi-Fi for anyone waiting for lesson students. It doesn’t cost much. “If it’s fun, they come,” Maxwell said. “If it’s comfortable, they stay.”

Maxwell advised retailers to stay open to unusual opportunities. A man called him with a surplus of Guitar Hero guitar controllers and asked Maxwell if he wanted to buy them. Maxwell offered him $80. An employee suggested using the controllers, along with two drum sets and an oversized chair, to build a “Game of Thrones”-style guitar throne. A customer, who is a carpenter, helped build it. It creates a photo opportunity in the store, and every day, people get their picture taken in the chair.

Maxwell created a vibe with an album floor and ceiling. He went to Goodwill, picked out colorful albums, used nail glue to make the floor and put a polyurethane coat over it. He shared that everyone who walks in comments on it. He also took the albums out of their jackets and affixed them to the ceiling. Maxwell urged retailers to go to Pinterest and steal every appealing idea.

Create community partnerships.
Maxwell’s store used to be an old theater, and he found the building for cheap. He leases Jazzercise a room, which brings a lot of women to the store, and their kids go to music lessons during Jazzercise classes. One room gets rented to a local church on Sunday mornings. The church invested money in chairs, the P.A. system and lighting, so it has a comfortable place for meetings. Plus, the church pays to use it and locks up afterwards. Maxwell also created private lesson rooms and tells his instructors, “You have to live in it, so make it look great and do something that’s you.” He furnished the lessons waiting room with old school desks, so kids can do their homework while they’re waiting to take their lessons. Maxwell stated it’s about following through on your ideas, asking, repurposing goods and saving money.

Ask, and you shall receive.
The outside area of Maxwell’s House of Music is called Harmony Green and has been dedicated as a pocket park by the city. The buildings and area were developed in 1972, and Maxwell presented an idea to the city to create a community space for people to come, hang out and play music. He brought in a graphic artist, who painted all of the building’s outside walls. (They couldn’t use logos or names because of the city’s sponsorship.) The city put in lighting and benches and invested $30,000–$40,000, according to Maxwell.

He also had the idea to repurpose three grand pianos outside the store. Maxwell and his team approached a local plant and flower store, which planted the three pianos for free in exchange for signage. The city paid for outdoor musical instruments as part of the park, and people play them all the time. Everything is built around fun.