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Guitar Store Blues

18 June 2010 2 Comments

I recently read an interesting article on the Etiquette of Browsing in guitar stores (by PT over at 5th Fret) and it began to coalesce some thoughts (you might also say fears) that have been wobbling about in my mind for a while.

I want to talk about guitar stores. Before I start, I want to make it clear that I am not talking about all guitar stores as, if I think about it, I’ve probably only been in about half of the guitar stores in the world. I am certainly talking about some guitar stores though and would be interested to see if I’m alone in my views.

In the Etiquette of Browsing article, PT outlines things from the (potential) customer’s point of view and from that of the guitar store salesperson/employee. While I’ve played and repaired guitars for years, I’ve never worked in a guitar store. I know some people that do/have but the opinions that follow are mine alone and are from a customer’s viewpoint.

So then, to the matter…

Since I was a waster, teenage guitar-geek, I’ve been visiting guitar stores and I’ve seen things change over that time. While I always felt a little self-conscious playing a guitar or amp in a store (probably a reflection on how much time I spend practicing), as the years passed, I’ve felt more and more like an imposition to the store employees.

Many of the guitar store-guys of my youth were surly, long-haired blokes with a healthy dislike of having to work for a living (not judging that) but, it seems to me that some guitary Rubicon has been crossed and many guitar salespeople now consider non-employees in their store to be an inconvenience.

Recent trips to a couple of guitar stores have left me in a bad mood. Small but important things – like a poor selection of strings, including plenty of empty hangers where strings had sold and not been reordered – were annoyingly evident. I’ve seen sales-guys trying their best to look invisible and seeming ticked off at me when I broke through their cloak of obscurity. I’ve been ignored as a huddle of sales guys chatted about the frightfully interesting thing that happened the previous evening. I’ve rang guitar stores with a sales query only to be promised on multiple occasions that ‘someone will phone me back’, which never happened. I’ve seen lots of similar things on many occasions and across a number of stores – more times and over a longer period than I can chalk up to bad luck or coincidence.

Why is this?

Have these guys accepted that they can’t compete in an internet age and given up?

While it’s definitely true that the ease and cost of buying a guitar from the internet makes for some serious competition, guitar stores have an advantage that many, many other businesses don’t. Pretty much everybody prefers to play a guitar or amp and hear it in real life before buying. This is a massive benefit for guitar stores if they play it right.

The last couple of guitars I bought were from the net. Would I have preferred to buy from a local guitar store? Of course I would. I’d bet that pretty much all guitarists and bassists would prefer to buy from a local store. Many of them still do, despite issues like poor service, poor stock, too-expensive prices and ill-informed and unhelpful staff.

Guitar stores, if you’ve given up the fight with the internet, at least give up gracefully and bow out. If you actually want to compete, however, you’ve got to do things differently. You can’t continue bobing along complacently or, worse still, actively discouraging custom.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

  • Many customers would like to buy stuff. Engage with them. There’s a happy, smiley place between looking over someone’s shoulder as they ramble through your store and scowling at them because they’ve interrupted your pocket-fluff cataloguing. Find this happy place.
  • Many customers might not want to buy something right at that moment? Engage with them too. Most of them are not trying to waste your time. They’re browsing, checking stuff out. Maybe tomorrow they’ll be back with a wad of cash so don’t make they feel like an inconvenience or they’ll definitely hit the net.
  • Everyone recognises that you can’t stock everything. Everyone recognises that you might not even want to order up strings for that 17-string backwards bazouki. That’s cool. What’s not cool is terse, unhelpful responses to genuine queries. Can you suggest an alternative? Can you suggest somewhere else the customer can try? Can you sound interested?
  • The thorny matter of cost #1. People understand that you can’t offer the same price as ultramegaguitarsrus.com. Many are happy to pay extra if they have some ‘added value’. Many are happy to pay a little extra just for some assistance. That’s why they’re in your store. Make sure you offer them something above and beyond what the net can offer. Importantly, make sure that added value is something real and not just a complacent perception you may have of your store and its service.
  • The thorny matter of cost #2. Added value notwithstanding, people are not happy to be ripped off. It’s really easy to see how much that guitar on your wall costs on the internet. If the differential is too much, expect walkers. People appreciate that bricks and mortar necessitates a premium. Don’t be greedy. I know what mark-up is on a number of items in local stores and I’d consider most of them to be edging or passing the ‘greedy’ point. This is shooting yourself in the foot. See sense or be internetted out of existence.

I’m no Donald Trump but I understand that customers are pretty important to a business. If you, your staff or your polices are annoying customers, you can expect to see that in your bottom line. The internet has changed how business is done and you need to adapt or die in a bloody, faeces-stained, sorry mess in the ruins of your bankrupt store (too much?). Take a look at the record industry and how they’re struggling to adapt and just pissing off potential and actual customers by chasing the idyll of a wonderful time before cassette tapes were invented.

Don’t let that be you, guitar store owners.

I realise this is a bit of a rant but it’s from a good place. I don’t want to see my local stores disappear. I’m relatively sure my thoughts are objective and not just some ‘it was different in my day’ whinge. I’d love to hear the views of you guys. How are things at your local store?  Please feel free to agree or enthusiastically disagree in the comments below.

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Written by: Gerry Hayes
This article is listed under: Featured, Opinion


  • Istvanski said:

    Ah yes! It’s always the few that spoil it for the rest.
    Denmark Street in London used to be notorious for employing young, snotty, self-important sales assistants who were only there “…until their band starts getting the recognition we deserve…”. You wouldn’t think that’s how it was though, pre-Internet but still with lots of competition from other guitar shops nearby.
    My experience left a sour taste in the mouth round about that same time. I’d often do some window shopping there and one day I spotted and fell in love with a beautiful Hamer Diablo hanging in the shop window. The price was displayed beside it so in the following weeks, I scraped the cash together, returned to the shop with the purpose of trying the guitar with a view to buying it. My intentions were sincere.
    I went in and saw three young long haired chaps chatting about the previous night’s gig they had attended, conveniently forgetting how busy the place had become with the recent influx of potential customers. I waited patiently at the counter for them to graciously give me the time of day. Eventually, one of them turned their nose towards me.
    “Hello, mate. I’d like to try out that Hamer that you’ve got hanging in the window?”
    “Ffffehhh” he said in a Kevin the teenager way, “Look, are you seriously into thinking about buying it ‘cos I don’t want to be faffing about if you’re not serious, like…”
    I was gobsmacked. What an attitude.
    “I want to try it as I want to buy one. If there’s something about it that I don’t like I won’t buy it but if I do I will”
    So I’m playing the Hamer and it’s a great machine. Easy to play; great sound so I’m having it.
    “I’ll be buying this” I said to Snotty as his face lit up with surprise.
    “Um…okay…I…um…I’ll have to find the case for it, hang on…”
    Off he goes, totally flumoxed at actually having to deal with a sale. He returns ten minutes later and he explains that he couldn’t find the original case. The one he presents me with is scratched to buggery. I just look at him.
    “I suppose I can chuck in a couple of packets of strings to compensate not having the right case”.
    Without saying a word, I took out my cash – all £600 of it and layed it in front of him as if I was asking him to select one card from a whole deck.
    “It seems to me you’re not aware of the term ‘bad service'” I said, just loud enough so that the other customers in the shop could hear. “Your sales attitude really stinks”.
    With that, I gathered my cash back into my wallet, walked across the road and bought the same guitar WITH the right case from Mr Snotty’s business rival.

    Many people used to write letters to guitar magazines complaining about the bad service in the Denmark St guitar catchment area. I just hit them in the pocket.

  • Gerry Hayes (Article Author) said:

    It’s a curious attitude, isn’t it? If I go into a clothes shop, I don’t tend to have sales staff scowling and scoffing at me. That’s probably why I’m the well-dressed fellow I am.

    I think you made the right decision to vote with your feet, Ister, and it’s nice to be able to use those feet to walk down the street to another guitar store. More and more people are voting with their keyboard-fingers these days though, and I’d rather see guitar stores sort themselves out than disappear altogether.