With the recent demise of White Rabbit Records, there has been much soul-searching within the MI (musical instrument) industry and on forums about the future of musical equipment retail. The White Rabbit Records website and stock was purchased in a pre-pack administration deal by German company Music Store Cologne to the consternation of many in the industry, particularly as they immediately closed all but one of their shops, leaving many dedicated and talented staff without jobs, many UK suppliers out-of-pocket, and many customers wondering where they’re going to buy their gear from now on.
I do not intend to comment on this scenario, other than to commiserate with those who have been left jobless; I was in the same place almost exactly 5 years ago when Sound Control went bust and I was made redundant with no notice. I know that it’s a pretty scary position to be in. The good folk at Sound Control Edinburgh and I managed to turn it into something positive with a management buyout of the Edinburgh store and creation of the Red Dog Music store and website, but many weren’t so lucky.
What I’d like to discuss in this post, though, is not the past but the future…
The status quo
There seem to be two very different models of MI retailer in our industry: the predominantly store-based, independent, personal service-oriented shops, and the predominantly on-line, relatively faceless, price-oriented box-shifting e-commerce retailers. Although on forums and blogs, customers profess a preference for the former, it would seem from the failure of many store-based businesses over the last few years, the majority will ultimately buy from the latter.
In many cases this is understandable, and anyone would do the same. I’ve definitely been guilty of “showrooming” myself (the practise of browsing a bricks and mortar store but checking on-line for a lower price). Who wouldn’t? The long-term issue, though (and something that has been brought painfully home by White Rabbit closing their stores) is that, without bricks and mortar shops, there won’t be anywhere to do that showrooming! There won’t be anywhere to get the feel of a guitar, have a proper listen to a pair of monitors, or play a piano.
The MI industry is very different to other industries in that respect; our products are tactile, visceral things that cannot (generally) be adequately demonstrated on a website. To address this conundrum, it’s best to go back to basics…
The fundamental job of a retailer is to offer a service. We as retailers don’t (generally) manufacture the products we sell, we just help people buy them. We earn the profit that we make – the difference between our buying price and our selling price – by what we do. If we do very little, by rights we should earn very little. If we do a lot, we should earn a lot. This is true whether the retailer operates on-line or through physical stores. For example, Amazon may not have high street outlets, but they offer a great service in many ways: customer reviews, automated product recommendations based on your purchase history, efficient logistics, a huge range of products, advanced product search, multiple product images, easy payment etc. The service they offer is valuable, and they deserve to be remunerated in some way for it (as do HMRC).
The sort of service a bricks and mortar store offers, however, is very different: it is about personalised product recommendations from a living, breathing human being who has assessed your individual requirements, the ability to physically compare multiple products from multiple manufacturers all in one place, the ability to listen to, touch and smell the product, a sense of community, the opportunity to meet like-minded musicians etc.
The question is: how can these two models be reconciled?
This is not a straightforward question.
As a predominantly bricks and mortar retailer, our future literally depends on it. Can we afford to offer the service we offer in a world where we can be undercut by competing retailers with a far lower cost base?
Unlike some in our industry, we consider the internet to be as much an opportunity as a threat. Pre-internet, we would only have been able to sell to customers in Edinburgh and the surrounding areas. Post-internet, the world is literally our oyster (well, not literally, but you get the idea).
However, the internet should not mean listing a load of products and having a shopping cart – that’s not adding much value to the customer’s experience, and ultimately shouldn’t be rewarded with profits. E-commerce websites should make the most of the computing power at their disposal to do cool stuff.
The Future of E-Commerce
First, let’s think about what the internet could be. Here are a few ideas:
- 3-Dimensional: Imagine how cool it would be if websites were 3D. Not just 3D-looking, but actually 3D, so the guitar pops out of the screen. Has anyone ever done that? If not, they should.
- Personalised: By which I don’t mean that it says “Hello Randolph” at the top of the page. I mean personalised in the way that a shop is personalised. Click “engage” and you are connected Facetime-style to a real-life person in a real-life shop somewhere (or in a real-life industrial estate somewhere). They can flip the camera and show you product features up close and personal. Interested in that digital port on the back? They can point the camera at it and explain it in real-time. For you.
- Interactive: In a “real” shop, you can get a load of stomp boxes, plug them into each other, and discover your ultimate guitar tone. Why not make this work online? Select a load of effects and, rather than adding them to your cart, “add to pedal board”. Select a range of pre-recorded licks to play through the resulting signal chain or plug your guitar directly into the screen (or something of the sort).
- Intelligent: There is no reason why a virtual assistant couldn’t ask you a range of intelligent questions – “how many instruments will you be recording?”, “do you have a USB port on your laptop?”, “do you like death metal?” etc. – and recommend a range of products that fit your profile. Rather than listing the products in the standard way, the products could be listed in a way that highlights the benefits to you – “8 pre-amps so you can record the whole band at the same time”, “USB port for compatibility with your laptop”, “scary pictures of skulls so you can impress your metal mates” etc. (as long as it doesn’t turn into clippy.)
- Immediate: Have you ever thought about how ridiculous it is to order boxed software on-line? Shipping an oversized cardboard box half way across the country, only to open it, stick a CD into your computer and effectively download software off the CD. Erm, which millennium are we living in?? Currently you can download software from manufacturer’s websites, but there are very few retailers who offer direct downloads. Why bother? Because it’s useful to compare products (whether hardware or software) side-by-side, spec-to-spec.
These are just a few ideas. I have others, but if I told you, I’d have to kill you, and I don’t want to kill you, so I’d better not. There are a million more ways to make musician’s e-commerce stores awesome. Let’s work out what they are!
The future of bricks-and-mortar stores
This is slightly trickier. Traditional shops have been around since Moses was being abandoned by his parents. What could possibly change about them?
Well, several things, actually:
- Events: There aren’t enough things happening in music shops. Yes, there are the odd clinics or artist appearances, but events should be built into the very core of a shop’s being. However multidimensional websites become, you can’t stand around a website drinking beer, chatting to or jamming with like-minded musos. Shops should be a place where you meet people, where you hear music, where you get hands-on with the gear.
- Everything demo-ready: If you ever ask to try something out in my shop and are told you can’t, feel free to turn up at my house in the middle of the night and berate me with the sound of detuned ukuleles. You should be able to try out everything. If you can’t, you may as well be at home, shopping on-line.
- Community: Music shops should be the heart of the musical community. They should be comfortable places to hang out in and the shop owners and staff should make a concerted effort to be fully involved in the local community, supporting local events, encouraging music-making of all sorts, engaging with colleges and schools, and much more. Websites can’t do this.
- Joy: This may sound a bit vague, but even the darkest music evokes a kind of joyful thrill. Everyone working for the business should be passionate about music, friendly, interested in their customers, and happy in their job. We set our stall out as “The Friendly Music Store” because this is what we want the store to be. Friendly to customers, friendly to colleagues, friendly to suppliers, friendly to competitors. I don’t want to work in a place that isn’t friendly. Crucially, even the most sophisticated multi-terabyte website can’t communicate joy, friendliness and humanity as effectively as a happy, smiling person can.
- The same prices as web-only retailers: However good a service you provide, you cannot expect people to pay more than they have to. Bricks-and-mortar shops should not try to charge higher prices than their on-line competitors. They should find a way to make enough profit while matching internet prices by encouraging their suppliers to support the existence of the store. If the products require a store to be able to buy them, the manufacturers must work in such a way as to allow stores to exist. Goodbye showrooming.
Shops are about people, now more than ever before, and this is what they must focus on.
So, what is the future?
I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that just listing a load of products on an off-the-shelf website and sticking it on-line, or hanging a few guitars on the wall and flinging your doors open isn’t enough. Fundamentally, each format (online and bricks-and-mortar) should make the most of the technology on which it is founded (and yes, bricks-and-mortar is a technology). We need to use the tools at our disposal to earn our keep by providing a service that adds value to our customers. If we can’t add value, we should become bankers or something.
This is what we will try to achieve with Red Dog Music, whether online or off. We haven’t got there yet, but we know where we’re going, and we intend to enjoy the journey.
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