Towards a future for musical equipment retail

Boarded Up ShopWith 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.

ShowroomingIn 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?

the world is our oysterUnlike 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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Guitar-plucker, piano-tinkler, sonic-mangler, Red Dog Music-owner, lion-tamer, and Weetabix-devourer. One (or more) of these is a lie.

33 Responses to “Towards a future for musical equipment retail”

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  1. David Maclean says:

    You're a legend Alex Marten. I'm proud to work at Red Dog music because you obviously care about what you do 🙂

  2. Neil Warden says:

    All very interesting…. I still prefer personal service and the ability to try before you buy. A lot of on spec' internet purchases have ended up on ebay a few months later. I still have fond recollections of the pre-internet shopping experience. I worked in Sound Control's first shop in Edinburgh both in South St Andrew St and St Mary's street just at the midi and DX7 boom… busy days. There is still room IMO for the real music store experience but it's the very small shops that will suffer.

  3. Neil D Ferguson says:

    As a guitarist of some 30 years, I will continue to support local music shops. I regularly visit your shop and have made many purchases there. Its great to hear the passion to keep these alive. I personally think making it a place to hang out socially is the key.

  4. David Tynan says:

    This makes me happy and proud to be working at Red Dog. The future is bright red. Woof!

  5. Ben Stones ✯ says:

    I'm sorry, but I find this post just a bit much. Last time I visited Red Dog was to purchase a Moog Little Phatty, I'd previously bought a Nord Stage from RDM in the time when Sound Control was closing in Glasgow and before GG Digital opened. As usual the member of staff didn't have a scooby about the instrument I was after, when I asked for a set of decent phones to demo the board I was given some pishy wee walkman style jobbies, the boards are at an almost impossible angle on the wall stands to play, and no-one seemed to have the knowledge to answer a few questions I had before making a purchase. I agree that there's a place for a bricks n' mortar operation (Edinburgh badly needs a pro-audio shop) but I find the RDM utterly depressing to visit (a bit like Sound Control Edinburgh circa 1995). With the exception of Roland Dave I've yet to get anywhere near the service of GuitarGuitar. I wish you guys would sharpen up the knowledge and be a bit less complacent because we do actually need you.

  6. You make a lot of excellent points and moreover, address issues that need to be addressed. Although the matter is a great deal more complex than you state (possibly because it's impossible to discuss many issues in a restricted space), I welcome someone at least encouraging debate. One issue that isn't examined, though, is that in this age of a second internet bubble, many companies are selling on-line at unviable margins just to get market share on the assumption that once they domninate, they can raise prices due to the lack of competition. This worked for Amazon (who lost $billions in the first ten years and are only now making profits) but it didn't work for Digital Village. What all too many customers don't realise, though, is that the prices they see on-line from many box shifters aren't viable based upon normal trade but are rather an attempt to drive the competition out of business. There are lots of other issues too, but well done for raising those you have. Eccentric

  7. Alex Marten says:

    Hi Ben – thanks for the input and I'm sorry you didn't have a good experience when you came in. As I said at the end of the article: "we haven't got there yet"! Having said that, we have made a lot of improvements over the last few years (when SC Glasgow closed, we had only just opened and were dealing with a lot of the fallout from SC going bust and the legacy of the inheriting a shop from another chain) and we have a pretty clear roadmap for the future, so please give us another chance! I agree GG are an example of a good specialist chain and are doing well because of that.

  8. Andrew Horne says:

    As a semi pro musician, I hear EXACTLY what you are saying. I can't travel to Edinburgh every time I want to buy something (As I live near London) but what I want is a company who understand how to DIVERSIFY and offer something unique, compelling and more importantly PERSONAL. Id happily give up a Saturday to work in a music shop to be able to feel more involved and to promote our industry to the next generation of kids who want to take music seriously. There are not many around that take the time and effort to make this happen. Alex, I think you can make that happen. Good luck to you and Red Dog team.

  9. Alex Marten says:

    Thanks Andrew – I appreciate your positive comments 🙂

  10. Alex Marten says:

    Oh for the days of DX7s! I suppose the reality is that some things require demoing and other things don't – the stuff that doesn't require demoing can just be sold on-line with little input, but the large majority of higher value stuff does need some kind of hands-on action. Interesting times!

  11. Alex Marten says:

    'Mon the Dug! 🙂

  12. Alex Marten says:

    Thanks for the comment, Neil. Agreed!

  13. Martin Buchan says:

    I suspect because of your history with Turnkey, you understand the complexities of this issue better than most Alex. In today's market a retail store will only survive if it also has a good quality online presence as well.

    However you have to have two very differing strategies in order to excel at both. Many see the online world as faceless and uncaring, but the companies that do it well, understand that their offering online must "connect" with the customer in the same way that you would seeing someone face to face in your local music store.

    A great deal of the success of online music stores in not always about price as many people think, first and foremost it's about stock! You can't sell what you don't have! It's easy for anyone to put a website together and offer cheap prices, but you have to be able to deliver, and quickly if you are going to succeed online.

    This is where the distributors and manufacturers come in. It's impossible for stores to stock everything, unless you have a shop the size of Murrayfield! So what are the distributors and manufacturers going to do in order to help retailers like Red Dog sell and deliver their products? How can they help Red Dog and other similar retailers compete with the foreign invaders?

    There are a very limited amount of music retailers in the UK that straddle online and offline business well, but without doubt Red Dog is up there with the best of them. Alex is also to be commended for producing such insightful posts that encourage exchange of ideas and meaningful dialogue.

    With recent events concerning DV and Music Store, the MI market in the UK is at a crossroads. Where we go next relies on some solid business decisions being made and some very needed cooperation from distributors and manufacturers.

    Well done Red Dog!

  14. Hi David, The future is bright red as with your support, the Focusrite Scarlett range is now the UK's best-selling. Your new in-store point-of-sale will be with you very soon!!

  15. Phil Skins says:

    I think we all need to take a step back and consider what is really happening here. It is such a shame that 2 very different models can become so closely compared when they have so little in common. Internet shopping is the face of modern retail, and with the wealth of information available, the end-user is very capable of reaching their own decisions on what works best for them. The United Kingdom Music Technology Industry is tiny compared to the giants of Amazon etc, and you have to wonder how it has got to this. Maybe I was lucky to be a Pro Audio Consultant during the glory days when one of the record labels would send down the artist to get kitted out to a specific budget. It would sound crazy to most new signings that back in 1999, the average kit advance was around £20K. Within 5 years this was down to £5K if you were lucky. Amy Whinehouse was allowed a Mac G4, a Pro Tools Mbox, speakers and controller keyboard! and she had already released the Frank Album and been on Tour with it. I think what I am trying to say is that anyone can google shop the next big purchase for their studio setup, and use all there usuall internet prowess to save a few pence. Support your local dealer, get connecting!

  16. Pete Webster says:

    Is the dude with the leopard hair still there, funny guy.

  17. Stuart Harrison says:

    An excellent insight into the current state of affairs for many retailers. As a consumer I have bought both from my local store and from the internet. I always give my local store the first choice of supplying any new instrument before I look elsewhere. For pre owned items the internet is invaluable.

    Local stores are and must remain the mainstay of the industry. They do however have to be places where the customer feels comfortable, invited and valued by the staff therein. Do not touch, for display only etc signs are the immediate barriers to this approach. A come in, have a chat, what is it you need? etc attitude is necessary as opposed to the Come in, don't touch, over a grand to spend step this way ca-ching! attitude. The in coming customer may be brand knew to music and may have suffered from the fear of being ridiculled by some hendrix, clapton, slash (to use guiatrists analogy) know it all who would rather site texting or facebooking all day. Luckily my local store is in the first catergory and thank god they are!

    Regarding the intenet I feel shops need no must have a web presence ideally with shopping capacity so customers can see what they are buying. I religiously check the used market for certain items and would am sure there are many pre loved gems out there sitting in local shops that I will never pass and will never see. I like your idea of 3D shopping. Fender may have started the ball rolling by the 360 degree elements of showcasing some of the models in there recent site redesign a pity they have not done it with all models. Ideally pictures of the actual items for sale would be beneficial but I know some shops have to look a cost and prepackaged sites with stock photos are the ones available.

    Get the balance between the inshop and internet experience right and I am sure a two steps to a successful buisiness would be achieved.

  18. Ben Stones ✯ says:

    Hi Alex, I know at heart you guys are doing the best you can, but if there's one thing I'd like to see is a no-quibble return policy. I'm a full time professional, and i need to know when I buy gear that it works on stage as well as in a demo situation, and I'm always happy to pay upfront against damage etc.. but I can't make an assessment of a new item in a shop, it needs to go in situ. Apart from that someone other that a Roland specialist who is as sharp as tacks when it comes to pro-audio – You always have some lovely keyboards in, but a good seated position and really decent cans would go a long way to encourage a sale… But anyway, I genuinely hope you keep growing and succeeding.

  19. Graham A Cairns says:

    A great article.. as someone who's spent hours and thousands of £s in the former Sound Control and now Red Dog I believe you are close to defining a vision of a future Red Dog. I'm prepared to pay a few spondulas more in my local shop because you are absolutely right about music being a tactile's got to be the right environment, comfortable, areas which are easy on the ears when you're trying to hear an acoustic instrument, versus blasting out the latest tech sounds. A loo would be good too! But what's the most important is the friendly, knowledgeable staff, who are committed to music, and can actually listen to the customer and provide help and advice. You cant buy this on a website, and a lot of musical instrument purchases are done on trust, like buying a car.. You can research it all you want, but you've got to test drive (or test play) the thing, get a feel for it, and then decide. As for the community ideas, these sound great, perhaps you should buy the pub next door and branch out into live music stage come shop…

  20. Joseph Henry says:

    High street music retail is fighting a loosing battle. The truth is that there are only really a few things that require to be tried before you buy. Most music retailers stock the same old same old that they can make margin on and that restricts consumer choice. The model is old and that's why so many stores have failed. Its the same as the argument against Tesco and ASDA – killing off high street retail. The truth is that retailers need to make their businesses an experience rather than a race to the bottom for margin. But while most retailers lack the imagination to do this – there is actually a great opportunity to create 'experience centres'. Comfortable, relevant, day out centres where you can try things you might be interested in – an guess what – no stock – buy the dam thing online – because you're going to do that anyway. Lower cost, lower margin for consumers – and exposure to different products. Diversity is the new margin! There is nothing worse than trying an out of the box, badly set up guitar with a stiff amp in a high street music store – the poor owner up to hie eyes in stock and just willing you to buy the dam thing. Its a very, very very poor experience – and its expensive – ergo failing. The business model is no longer effective. Alex – if you are interested in looking at this in some more detail – I am happy to discuss – been involved in many many business transformation and 'clicks' & mortar projects.

  21. Joseph Henry says:

    I can understand what Ben is saying here. And at the same time I have seen RDM really try to reach out as well in passing the store. I think that the issue is to have a effortless air about the place. Make it about demo and try – rather than buy. Expertise and relaxed, informed interaction is key. A place you have a cup of tea in and spend as long as you like trying stuff. Just a matter of creating a business model that works around that experience.

  22. Alex Marten says:

    Hi Joseph – I think we're actually thinking along similar lines here. Offline is about experience / online is about range. I do however think that a fair amount of products (well, instruments at least) over £500 do need to be tried out. I also think that a musical instrument "experiene centre" without a fair amount of musical instruments might be a bit odd!

  23. Joseph Henry says:

    Hi Alex. I agree. Perhaps wasn't clear in my comments. Yes – a demo centre with all you can try in terms of instruments and equipment – provided as demo stock by the manufacturer of course. Certainly instruments with an acoustic element will need to be tried. Although I would suggest that a well set up example of a well made instrument would be an exemplar of what can be achieved with a particular instrument. You might then buy online but have a good set up – with you involved in it – by a guitar tech at the centre. Many people argue that you need to find 'the' instrument – but for me – instruments of a certain quality are fairly consistent across examples – what makes a real difference is the set up rather than unit to unit quality. That's a value added service. However, an electronic device – even an amp – is an amp is an amp. What you really want to understand is do I want a Princeton or a Deluxe Reverb? Again – the selection of which best suits your needs is a value added service. Personally – I think that this would see people by higher value, better quality before going on an upgrade chain and making risk concious decisions.

  24. Joseph Henry says:

    By the way Alex – I should say, if I may – I think it is very forward thinking and admirable of you to have this discussion in a pubic forum. My hat is off to you. There are many businesses that would shy away from this issue that you are addressing head on.

  25. Govind Kharbanda says:

    Brilliant article Alex. And I remember Sound Control in the 90s – think I bought a MIDI controller there! But at Trinity we say, the future's bright, the future's mauve… Anyhow see you guys when we're up for the Fringe!

  26. shopginger says:

    You are doing very well in musical equipment sales. We also provide musical instrument like you.


  1. […] our little world of musical equipment retail. I’ve outlined the challenges for music shops in a previous post, but today I want to let you know what we at Red Dog Music plan to do next, and […]

  2. […] opening of our London pro-audio and instrument showroom, and really think it will go some way to bridging the worlds of the high-street and online experiences, and hope you feel the […]


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