New Orleans LA is one of the most spirited cities in the United States. One of the major reasons for that is its rich musical history. The city is the birthplace of jazz, and one can hear that and many other genres of music playing at nearly any time of day, in nearly every part of the city, and at musical festivals all year long. Traveling to New Orleans from New York NY for this assignment, I found it truly refreshing, while sitting in the back seat of a cab on the way to my hotel, to listen to jazz—not Top 40—playing on the radio.

When The Chief told me this past April that I would be secret shopping for an acoustic guitar at four music stores in The Big Easy, I was excited to see how the vibe of such a special city would color the retail shops and my experience within each. I was to pretend that I was looking for a gift; therefore, my cover story was that I was shopping for a younger nephew of mine, who was to receive his first acoustic guitar. My early-springtime quest took me on a journey to four stores, each of which was, in terms of atmosphere, distinct from the others.

Downtown Music
527 Dumaine St.
New Orleans LA 70116

Downtown Music is a shop that buys, sells, trades and repairs used and vintage instruments, in addition to selling new instruments, accessories and supplies. Although the tiny, colorful shop is located in the heart of the French Quarter—right near the tastebud-tempting, but also very touristy, Café Du Monde—it nevertheless embodies the unique character of New Orleans as a whole. That can be seen as you enter the store and see a big, brown leather couch, as well as a comfortable, two-person ottoman bench, where customers are invited to sit down and try out instruments, while chatting with the friendly staff. When I entered the shop, one of the staff members was testing out a guitar. I found the atmosphere both relaxing and inviting.

Taking a look around, I noticed an array of merchandise: many different types and colors of guitars lined the walls, accompanying a wide selection of amps. There were some especially unique instruments, such as washboards and a few “trashtronauts,” like a handmade cigar box guitar and a bourbon tin guitar. Along the walls, there was a lot of local art. After several minutes, the woman who had been testing the guitar approached me, asking if I needed any help. I gave her my spiel. With that, away we went!

First, she showed me an inexpensive Washburn acoustic (about $100), but her enthusiasm for the instrument was somewhat muted. But then, her eyes lit up, and she told me she had a nicer guitar downstairs. Returning a few minutes later, she explained that the second acoustic had a built-in tuner and it could be plugged in. The Breedlove guitar was a beauty, it included a gig bag and it was selling for about $250. She offered some history on the brand, ably proving her considerable knowledge. She demonstrated and explained contour sound by playing the guitar. She even showed me a book that my nephew could use to learn how to play. The woman highlighted that the guitar had a smaller body, suiting a smaller person. She also pointed out that the guitar was made of spruce. Finally, the woman explained that the guitar was on sale for a lower-than-normal price due to a shipment arriving soon.

My shopping experience in Downtown Music was aces because the salesperson fully understood—and demonstrated her knowledge of—the product she was selling. She also wisely chose the product to suit my needs and, to top it off, she made me feel as though I was getting a great deal. As a shopper, I absolutely would have considered buying that guitar and shopping in the store again. It offered a highly personalized customer service experience.

Webb’s Bywater Music
3217 Burgundy St.
New Orleans LA 70117

Webb’s Bywater Music is a laid-back shop that offers new and pre-owned musical instruments, equipment and accessories, as well as doing repairs. The shop is nestled in a much quieter part of town, which I used a bicycle to get to. The only business nearby is a restaurant. From the outside, the shop appeared closed, owing to its dark interior. However, once I opened the door, I found a very friendly salesperson and his dog inside. The shop is positively stuffed with instruments. Without a doubt, what Webb’s Bywater Music lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for with the amount of merchandise to look through. It was at least two, perhaps even three, times the size of Downtown Music.

The salesperson gave me time to walk around the store before asking me if I needed any help. I explained that I was looking for an acoustic guitar for my nephew. He explained that, in that particular shop, acoustics were not as common as electrics were. He recommended two acoustics: a Takamine for $390 and a 12-string for around the same price. He suggested that I check out Downtown Music for acoustic guitars, saying that the store is especially good for someone who’s starting out playing an acoustic.

Because Webb’s Bywater Music didn’t have what I was seeking, I left the shop shortly afterward, not having spent as much time as in the previous shop. Overall, I found the salesperson friendly and helpful, and I would return to the store to look for something other than an acoustic guitar. The overall selection was great, and I got the feeling that the remoteness of the place might yield a better deal.

New Orleans Music Exchange
3342 Magazine St.
New Orleans LA 70115

New Orleans Music Exchange is an unassuming shop that’s located in an old house on Magazine St. Like the two before it, the store buys, sells, trades and rents a variety of instruments and audio equipment; however, it specializes in guitars, PAs and horns. The business has been in existence for more than 20 years. I was saddened to learn that the Owner of the store, Jimmy Glickman, had died just a few months before my mid-April visit. That meant that the store was a bit more disheveled than normal when I entered. On the first floor, there was an array of instruments; the atmosphere was a bit chaotic, with equipment seemingly everywhere. I proceeded to go upstairs, because I didn’t encounter any customer service on the first floor. I walked through a maze of rooms and eventually found a salesperson helping a customer. I patiently waited for him to be free.

Once he was available, the salesman asked me if I needed any help. His demeanor was confident, without being overbearing. I was his only customer and we were in a tiny room that was filled with instruments, and he instantly made me feel at ease. I told him what I was looking for; immediately, he showed me an Epiphone reissue—like the one Paul McCartney played—for $500. He said there was more inventory downstairs, and that he’d be happy to show me. That’s when I realized that I’d walked upstairs into the man’s private shop.

He explained that he worked for both New Orleans Music Exchange and himself, but, because the Owner had died, they were in the process of selling the business. He explained he could still help me and show me anything I wanted to see. So, we proceeded down to the first floor and he flipped the lights on, showing me different acoustics. He highlighted a medium-sized James Neligan for $350, saying that he recommended it for the sound created by the spruce construction. He played the guitar with joy and artfulness. It was a pleasure to see a highly experienced musician pick up and play guitars with such ease.

After a while, I thanked him and said I would think about it. What the store lacked in atmosphere, it certainly made up for with the man’s attentiveness, musicianship and skill.

Guitar Center New Orleans
1000 S. Clearview Pkwy. #1040
New Orleans LA 70123

Because Guitar Center is located close to the airport, I visited the mega-chain on my way out of New Orleans. The location doesn’t have as much character as any of the other shops did, because it’s in a shopping center that could be anywhere. There was nothing that made it a New Orleans Guitar Center. It offered a similar shopping experience to the ones that I’ve had before at Guitar Center locations in New York. The salespeople were occupied when I walked in, so I patiently waited by the acoustic guitars. When I saw that more people were approaching the already-busy salespeople, though, I did the same. While waiting, I looked around at the wealth of instruments Guitar Center had. The store had many times as much space as the stores to which I’d previously been. In fact, it might have been bigger than all three put together. The acoustic room caught my eye, but no one was inside it.

When a salesperson became available, I explained what I was looking for. He pointed and showed me several package deals GC had for me to consider. He explained that I could try any of the guitars I wanted. I saw a Yamaha Gigmaker Standard for $169.99, a Yamaha Gigmaker Deluxe for $199.99 and an Epiphone Player Pack, with amp, for $199.99. Although the deals seemed very suitable for a new player like my fictional nephew, the stuff was up high and somewhat inaccessible. The salesman had moved on to helping the next customer. I felt as though he’d left it up to me to come up with my own questions, as opposed to walking me through various options and pointing out what made them appealing. That’s what the previous several shops had done, and that’s what I was expecting.

I left Guitar Center disappointed, because I had such great customer service in the other stores. In a way, though, Guitar Center was a fond reminder of New York City’s vibe, back to which I was about to return.

The Sale

Although it was easy to rule out Guitar Center, I still had to decide which of the other shops would most likely earn the sale, were I really seeking an acoustic guitar for a nephew. Each salesperson in the three small shops made me feel at ease, which, as a person who frequents shops in New York, where I’m often either ignored or bombarded, I came to appreciate. I ruled out Webb’s because it did not have what I was seeking. I had a lot of sympathy for the people working in New Orleans Music Exchange, given the loss of the Owner, and I was acutely aware that the customer service might not have been up to the usual standard. The store’s selection was still good, though; and, under the circumstances, the customer service was, too.

However, the winner, and the shop that ultimately gets the sale, is Downtown Music. The shop had the cleanest look, the friendliest personality and the most interesting selection. I truly felt at home in that store, and I felt as though I could sit on that couch, try out any instrument or just talk about music, and I would never be forced to either make a decision or leave if I decided not to buy. The salesperson was extremely knowledgeable, and she demonstrated that she cared about me as a customer by listening carefully to what I said I was looking to buy. It had just the right balance of attentiveness and breathing room, which was especially appreciated in a small shop.

In short, Downtown Music was interesting, and it made me feel like I was learning about New Orleans while shopping. I would certainly shop in that store again, and perhaps even buy something.

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