Independent music store owners, from time to time, might find themselves musing over The Great Question that faces them in this age of instant information and Internet competition. The Great Question, of course, is this: “How can I compete against the Net Goliaths?”
Before we tackle that question—and we will—I’ll tell you a story. One of the things I enjoy most in life is sitting on my patio, in the cool of the evening, surrounded by the glow of old Dietz kerosene lanterns. A couple of years ago, I spent the better part of two Saturday afternoons looking for the correct lantern wicks for my old lamps. Every hardware store I visited gave me some version of the same answer: I’m looking for dinosaur eggs long after the dinosaurs went extinct. Nobody, and I mean nobody, stocks a proper lantern wick these days. After exhausting all my local options, and after wearing Google thin, I found W.T. Kirkman Lanterns. The company’s Web site, lanternnet.com, isn’t a flashy, slick site, as is currently common. Instead, it looks sort of home designed. However, it’s filled with more information on lantern maintenance, wick selection and globe identification than I imagined might exist. It was quickly obvious that I had found lantern Mecca. Thanks to this company and its expertise, all my lanterns at home are now well maintained and a joy to use.
The reasons that W.T. Kirkman Lanterns is my go-to information source and parts supply are pretty simple. Here’s the number-one reason: It is an expert when it comes to lanterns. Reasons two, three and four are as follows: It stocks high-quality parts, it has high fill rates on my orders and its parts are always exactly as described. Notice that “low price” isn’t one of the reasons I buy from the company. It is simply the expert source. It is the authority. These guys are the pros.
If you were a knowledgeable vintage guitar buyer, would you pay a bit extra to buy a vintage guitar, sight unseen, from George Gruhn, as opposed to another dealer? Probably so…because George is the authority. He literally wrote the book on vintage guitar identification.
Knowledge and expert status have value, and it’s that value that brings us back to The Great Question: “How can we compete with the Net Goliaths?” They have high-dollar stores, flashy Web sites, tons of advertising and lots of revenue, and they’ve become juggernauts too large to fight. Unfortunately, all of that can be true…if all you’re doing is playing their game. If you’re trying to take on the Net Goliaths (NGs) by under-pricing them on popular strings or popular capos, then you’re playing their game and you’ll lose. So, how do we answer The Great Question in a way that is favorable to us? I’d suggest the answer is this: Don’t play their game. Play your game!
If you’re not sure what your game is, then let me ask you this: Do you specialize in anything? Are you an expert in some product area of this industry…some aspect of the music business that’s not on the NGs’ radar? If the answer is “yes,” then there’s your game. If the answer is “no,” then look for an area in which you can become the expert. There’s a cornucopia of products the NGs don’t—and won’t—handle, because they tend to stock and sell only the most popular meat-and-potatoes items. Every product area, no matter how small and no matter how niche it seems, is ripe for being your game.
Here is another example of someone who is playing his own game: Every now and then, we’ll need an Ibanez guitar part. Since we aren’t Ibanez dealers, and we don’t have an Ibanez expert on staff, we go to the Web site ibanezrules.com. It’s another non-flashy, non-slick Web site. When I mentioned to Rich, the Owner of ibanezrules.com, that his site looks like it was done 15 years ago on a text editor, he laughed and said, “That’s because it was!” The site is loaded with obscure, hard-to-find Ibanez parts, and Rich is the authority on all things Ibanez. He consistently sends us the right parts, and he has great customer service. Rich is playing his game, not someone else’s. Rich and I discussed the ins and outs of playing one’s own game, and he made a great point that bears repeating: Becoming the expert takes a lot of time, and it’s a lot of work. As we talked, he was boxing a used Ibanez guitar for shipping, his phone was ringing in the background and it was apparent he was not suffering from a lack of business.
If you are the authority in a niche area—no matter how outdated or obsolete that product area might seem (see: lantern wicks)—you can be a one-man shop in the middle of the wilderness. And, with the combined power of a rudimentary Web site, the U.S. Postal Service and a phone, you can fill your cash drawer by being an expert. If you find the right niche to serve, you can probably fill up the drawer without adding more employees or extra space.
Every store probably has something it does or handles that most stores do not. Maybe your store deals a good bit with accordions, pedal steels, dulcimers, vintage mouthpieces or trumpet mutes. All those product niches have the potential to be your game. (Forget trying to be the Ibanez guy. That crown already belongs to Rich.) Don’t dismiss the idea too quickly. What category brings people to you when a problem comes up? When people come to your store and say, “This happened, and I knew you’d have the solution,” what is the “this” to which they are referring? Is it the box of vintage drum lugs you’ve been accumulating since 1975? Is it the wide array of ligatures you’ve collected? Is it the 300 violin chinrests you have in your back room? If you have a large assortment of anything, it might be that that is your specialty. Chances are, if you have a lot of something, you already know more about that something than the average bear does.
Being the expert…being the authority…will require hard work and lots of time. However, by harnessing the power of the Internet to promote your store and you as the experts, you can play your game, rather than their game.