Master Retailers: What I’ve Learned

During The 2017 NAMM Show, Kevin Cranley of Willis Music hosted a who’s who panel of music retailers at a special NAMM Idea Center session. Panelists included Sammy Ash of Sam Ash Music, Cindy Cook of The Candyman Strings & Things, Pat Averwater of Amro Music, Whitney Brown Grisaffi of Ted Brown Music and George Quinlan Jr. of Quinlan & Fabish. The powerhouse lineup featured the largest family owned music retailer, NAMM’s 2014 Dealer of the Year, a successful family business dating back to 1921, a leading retailer with six stores in the Pacific Northwest and a top school music retail chain from Chicago.

Cranley asked each master retailer to weigh in on the seven most important issues affecting business today. Here are highlights. (Watch the video for their full comments.)

1. How do you bring people into your store?
Ash: In addition to various in-store events, all of our stores participate in Wednesday open mic night. We give performers a $10 gift card for a future purchase, so they need to come back again to use it. It’s been a nice thing for us.

Averwater: There are only two kinds of customers: repeat or new customers. If you have repeat customers, then you’re doing the fundamentals right. People who have never been in your store before are looking at your Google, Facebook and Yelp reviews and deciding whether or not they’re going to stop by. Review all of your reviews, minimize the negative and maximize the positive. That will drive new people to your store.

Cranley: Sometimes, it’s the ones who have a problem with your store who can turn into your biggest advocates, if it’s handled personally.

2. What events are working and what are you doing to get people to attend?
Averwater: You can earn a reputation for hosting a good event. We sit down with our staff and talk about why we’re having the event. I challenge my staff to list eight to 10 objectives. We want all the players (attendees, clinicians, staff) in the event to have a goal. The event needs to be well-defined. We hosted an emergency band director repair clinic, and we had 35 band directors turn up for this. The band director’s goal was to learn emergency repairs, keep repair costs down and get in-service credit. Our goal was to get band directors in the store, have these key influencers meet our staff and develop those relationships. We learned that the band directors wanted to get out of the house/office, come to the store, enjoy a social night and see their friends. Our repair shop was the host of this event, and our technicians wanted to communicate that they are the experts and to teach band directors how to recognize a quality repair and what it costs. That’s the strategy for us—that an event must have a goal.

Quinlan: We like seeing customers, and we love seeing band directors and orchestra directors. Many of our events are targeted to get these key influencers involved. We partnered with Vandercook College of Music to teach weekend classes at our store (they get college credit), such as percussion instrument repair. We do a student-teacher day and provide a full day of programming for college seniors, including a guest administrator to teach them how to prepare for jobs. We want the graduates to remember us when they’re out in the workforce.

Cook: We entice people with food—Frito pies (invented in Santa Fe, New Mexico) and beer. We post our events on Facebook and that they’re free. In our community, we notice that people will come out in droves to celebrate and be part of community. We started a new community event that was hugely successful called the Beer and Gear event. It was held in our parking lot, and it looked like a flea market, with people bringing things from their garage to sell and setting up a booth. The local brewery also had a beer garden.

Ash: We’ve done a number of customer-appreciation days in our stores. We ask customers to come on down, enjoy bands and food, and we also get our manufacturers to participate. It’s a low-key event with giveaways, such as T-shirts and hats. It’s an all-day event, and it’s not a sales event. The store has to want to do it to make it successful, and it has to be a team event.

3. What marketing and promotions are working for you?
Cranley: We used to say what worked 20 years ago doesn’t work today. Now, we say what worked a year ago doesn’t work today.

Cook: We need to get up to speed with technology, new apps, and millennials and Gen X. What has worked for us is our own belief in not wanting to be just a retail store in our community but an integral part of our community. We had a fundraiser in our store for a young student who needed medical treatment, and we had people come into our store who had never been in or wouldn’t have come in to donate. It was a magical experience.

Grisaffi: Whenever we’re asked for a local donation, we give away a birthday party—90 minutes of structured activities in the store valued at $150. We have a party room where we can host drum circles or karaoke rock ’n’ roll birthday parties. It’s a way to support people who are asking you to be part of their community by giving them something of value. We also have an outreach program that collects used instruments. We fix them at no cost and put them in the hands of students who might not afford to play in B&O or be part of a music program. It’s a way to be part of the community and feel good about it.

Quinlan: We’re already a niche company as a B&O dealer, so we narrow our focus. We opened a high-end boutique flute shop, with the highest-priced instrument costing in the tens of thousands of dollars. Our employee recently shared that she’s become the flute-teacher stalker, networking on social media to get them to come in. We attend the Midwest Clinic International Band and Orchestra Conference and try to tie into their program and support them.

Averwater: At checkout, we have a one-gallon fishbowl with egg shakers that have our logo imprinted. If you visit our page on Facebook, you get a free egg shaker. We go through a bowl of egg shakers a week.

4. What are you doing to recruit and retain good people?
Quinlan: Being in school music, we have a tight window of activity. The rental season is so hot, we hire additional shifts. It gives us great potential when we hire people on a seasonal basis because we can start to groom them for a full-time job. There are a lot of schools that offer a music business degree, and providing internships for those students is a good resource for us. We’re trying to fill the ranks with younger people, so we have a mentoring program to fill people in one of the key spots. We make the younger staff feel there’s a future in our company with special projects to see if they take ownership.

Ash: Recruiting people is easy. Recruiting good people is not. We set up a website, so the information is centralized. We qualify candidates online, and prospects are funneled to the individual stores by our national sales manager. We respond to everyone. We also have an online training module that we invited our manufacturers to get involved with. It covers everything Sam Ash Music is about. This has kept the newer sales person on the floor longer, and our turnover has dropped. Direct access to senior management and the Ash family is important. Our employees like to know where they stand and that they can come to us with any questions. We have a large number of employees who have been with us for over 10 years. The continuity of leadership and management helps us retain good employees.

Cook: I love my employees, and there’s a family feel to our store, although some have been voted off the island. Our staff answered this question for us and said they felt respected and trusted. Customers like continuity of staff. Our staff has fans, and customers ask for them when they come in. We pay above-average salary and are non-commission, so staff time with customers is not pressured and is enjoyable. We give staff ownership of responsibilities, tasks and departments. We find their strengths, set them up to succeed and let them go. Staff parties and social time away from the store is a good idea. Our current employees are also instrumental in new hires, since they know what it takes to fit with our store’s vibe. We rely on their input.

Grisaffi: Part of our best recruiting is from our current staff. To keep those good people, we train them, give them the tools they need to be successful (we also ask them what tools they want) and we get out of their way. We trust that we’ve hired them as experts and people who care about our customers, and we let them do their jobs. One of the things we did this year was to thank them at year-end for taking care of our customers. This gives them added purpose to continue to take care of our customers.

5. What are you doing to differentiate yourself?
Cook: Our biggest competitor is the online stores. We strive to have the support of our community shoppers by showing them we can beat what they might get online. We invested in a Ford Transit, so we can deliver products to the local area and to customers. We’re starting small with this concept. Our staff is stellar, and that differentiates us from the competition. We create relationships that no one else is doing in our market.

Quinlan: We have a huge base of people that rent instruments from us on the school side. One of our challenges is to get them to continue buying. We know that shoppers are finding it easy and convenient to buy online, but we also recognize there’s a risk for them to get exactly what they want. So, we’re trying to partner with teachers and band directors for subsequent sales by building online pages that are under their names, so parents can go to that page on our website and buy the products recommended by that teacher or band director. It’s a big project and challenging to get the information (and keep it updated), but I think it will help us incrementally to get the second and third items that parents probably don’t buy at this point.

Grisaffi: You can’t get our employees online. You can get our experts by coming in (or by phone) and consulting with our staff. Customers want to come in and see their friends, make our store a hang spot and know that our staff is going to come see them perform. You can’t get this kind of relationship anywhere else. We’re experimenting by starting a gamification program with our customers (through a local app builder), featuring bands competing with bands to win a prize. We want our customers to play with us and like to try to different approaches.

Averwater: We just can’t compete against the internet, as a brick and mortar store. It’s not a sustainable strategy. So, we focus on the profitable sales, and we let the unprofitable sales go. We focus on products that have limited distributions. I want products that my competitor doesn’t have, when we go into a school.

Ash: We use our name to differentiate ourselves. We’re a family business, fourth generation. It’s one of the things that sets us apart. Customers know they can come to any of our stores if they have a problem and get satisfaction all the way to the highest level.

6. What are you doing to inspire yourself?
Averwater: If you’re the owner of the business, staying one step ahead of the creditors is pretty inspiring. I ask myself these questions frequently: what am I passionate about; what am I good at; and what drives our economic engine? If you can have an honest conversation with yourself and answer these three questions once a year, you’ll find your inspiration. Things change every year.

Quinlan: The value of sharing groups inspires me, such as NASMD (National Association of School Music Dealers) and their annual conference where we share with our peers. My latest obsession is a podcast from NPR, How I Built This. Each episode is a short story told by innovators, entrepreneurs and idealists about their triumphs, failures and insights behind the movements, companies and brands they’ve built.

Cook: I had no previous experience in the music products industry, so I was terrified. Coming to NAMM U at The NAMM Show was awe-inspiring. The inspiration for me comes from NAMM, the magazines, the articles, the videos online, stopping people and asking them their story walking the NAMM Show floor. Inspiration comes from all of us at The NAMM Show, and we can go home with reinforcements for our stores and our communities. The stories that parents have shared with us about how music has impacted their children’s lives are also inspirational.

7. What’s one piece of advice you have for someone just starting out in the music industry?
Grisaffi: Be curious—about everything, how to solve problems, what makes you tick. You’ll be a lifelong learner.

Quinlan: Enjoy the journey. The destination is important, but you have to enjoy the ride—one rental at a time, one music book at a time, one step at a time.

Averwater: Every market makes room for hustle and determination.

Ash: Represent your store or company like it’s yours, and don’t lie for me because I won’t lie for you.

Cook: Make sure your foundation is solid and build your layers as well as you possibly can.

Cranley: You can call anyone in this industry, and they will help you. We’re all here to share.