Guitar Store Blues
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.