A couple of articles back, I mentioned in passing that we signed on with another company as an affiliate for band instrument rentals. That small sentence triggered a flurry of calls and emails asking about the process, my satisfaction with it and whether I thought it would be worth doing for other stores. I will confess, I was startled at the level of interest in the topic — far more than I’ve had for any full column over the last couple of years — so I decided to address some of the questions I’ve been pelted with since the article hit print. Affiliation is a growing solution for smaller stores, but it is not one I entered lightly.
First, a caution: I absolutely do not recommend this for every store. If you’re not currently serving the school band and orchestra market, signing on as an affiliate can certainly bring in extra revenue. It will also bring in extra work: paper or digital documentation; large amounts of customer handholding; and (again, if you’re new to the band and orchestra side of things) a world of different expectations, standards and even terminology. Do not think of it as a seamless pass-through followed by a commission check.
If you have been serving the school market but have been on the periphery in your area — that is, you are not one of the major school retailers who send reps to schools and constantly interact with instrumental directors — this may be a way to reduce your fleet costs while still being a part of the market.
Let me walk you through the reasons I decided to go the affiliate route. Since the recession 10 years ago, we found it increasingly difficult to foot the bill for a rental fleet, particularly since we are not one of the dealers that field a team of reps to keep the directors happy. Our customers have always been the students and their families, since we’re hyper-local and teach hundreds of students every week. So, we cut back on the size of our rental pool for several years to the point where we did most of our rentals with orchestral strings, which have been easier to maintain and require far less replenishment (since people seldom buy half-size violins, for example).
Certainly, we walked away from some business, but I question how much profit that business would have generated, given the competition in our market and the costs of supporting a larger pool. Those who read this column regularly will also be aware that I have some deep reservations about the presumed “standard” way of conducting school business.
However, demand for rentals from our store never diminished, due to the strength of local programs and our large student enrollment. We were turning our own customers away, and in many cases, they were dealing with other players in the market and coming away dissatisfied. So, when I was approached by a couple of national chains that enlist affiliates (after rejecting overtures from a couple of regional concerns attempting to build an affiliate network), I was at least ready to listen to the pitch.
Bottom line, I opted to become an affiliate because I was able to serve my customers better. In my opinion, the business was already waiting for me, had I the means to provide instruments. I also knew that putting out the word that we could provide instruments again would bring in ancillary business for accessories, books and, of course, lessons, including lessons on non-B&O instruments like piano and guitar. In that sense, then, becoming an affiliate was a no-brainer: I could serve my customers, get additional business and save the cost of a rental pool. Just as important, I could also walk away at the end of a year if the situation did not work out as desired.
You will notice that I did not mention commission, the main reason some stores opt in as an affiliate. Yes, we get a commission on every rental, and there is a check every month that helps the cause. However, the amount, in my opinion, is just enough to cover my extra work documenting everything their way, handling the inevitable glitches that come with dealing with a national corporation, and making sure that my customers understand the difference between my store and the rental company.
That last part is crucial. When you become an affiliate, you are giving another company direct access to your customers from within your store. That company’s policies, customer service department, even the quality of their instruments and maintenance reflect on you. Many customers will see their experience as one with your store. Expect then to bite the bullet and cheerfully correct issues that are not your fault. Plan to do small repairs even if you are not compensated, because it will make your customer happy. And never forget that the rental company could pull the plug, enter the community themselves, or try to displace you and sell directly to your customers.
So being an affiliate is neither a panacea nor a spiral into oblivion. I made the decision based on serving my customers while taking into account our unique market situation and the competitive landscape. As disclaimers often state, “your results may vary.” I will say that going into my second year, I’ve had no problems that I didn’t expect. I will also say, though, that I know that the company I work with (and other companies serving the same niche) has a growing list of former affiliates, proof that the arrangement does not work for everyone.
Finally, what company did I affiliate with? I am not mentioning it, because I will neither endorse nor disparage any companies. As far as I’m concerned, they are not identical, yet they are much the same, and the needs and conditions of your store and market have more to do with your choice.
If you have a story about your experience as an affiliate, feel free to share it on the Veddatorial Facebook page, and as always, post an inquiry if there’s another topic you’d like to see covered here. (Please post to the page rather than in a private message so others can see the discussion.)