What is the biggest concern for independent retailers today? We dig right into that question with this year’s Independent Retailer Roundtable, featuring Jim DeStafney, owner of Pensacola, Fla.-based Blues Angel Music; Bryan Loy, owner of Franklin, N.C.-based Paradise Music; Allen McBroom, partner at Starkville, Miss.-based Backstage Music; and Gordy Wilcher, owner of Owensboro, Ky.-based Owensboro Music Center, all of whom belong to the iMSO information sharing retail group. Each sat down to talk to us in rocking chairs at Nashville’s Music City Center during Summer NAMM in July.

Our Retailer Roundtable had so much good information to provide about this question that it spanned a majority of the interview. We also get into the value of the Summer NAMM show and more.

The Music & Sound Retailer: What are the biggest challenges you’re facing right now as MI retailers?
DeStafney: I think everyone’s concern is the intrusion of the internet on what seems like an exponential basis. Every day you read a newspaper or turn on the TV, it’s “This retail store is going under.” You can talk about [the threat] of new stores coming into our geographical area. Well, we have new stores coming into our geographical area online every day. Very frequently, I see my customers on Facebook open up a box from an online retailer and then they bring it into your store and say, “What do you think of my new guitar?” The youngest generation are much more likely to buy online. The challenge of getting customers into your stores to buy products is increasing.

McBroom: For me, it’s the paradigm of capturing a market that’s completely a new thing. It’s not that it’s changed. It’s not that it’s shifted. It’s a whole new animal. In the past, if you were in a certain-sized town, it could only hold X number of music stores. You knew about how many stores you’d have to compete with, and about how big they’d be. Nobody’s going to open up a Guitar Center-level store in a 20,000-person town.

Today, my competition is not the brick-and-mortar stores within driving distance like it was 20 years ago. Today, a store can actually go out and purchase market share by getting together a team of whiz kids, assembling fantastic software and building a great website. My concern is, where is the next internet goliath going to pop up? As shipping becomes more streamlined and accurate, it could be a single store in Nebraska in a town of 500, for example, and some whiz kid starts a new website and has the intestinal fortitude to convince manufacturers to drop ship for him. He has no stock or inventory. He is just selling it and never handles the product. This is where I believe we will go to someday. All [the whiz kid] needs to do is get the manufacturers to go along with it.

I have to buy on speculation. I have hope people will be as interested in a product as I am. This guy doesn’t have these concerns. If it doesn’t sell a product, he’s lost nothing. I think that’s going to be the next iteration of the internet platform.

Wilcher: Both Jim and Allen have hit on points that really concern me as well. To expand on Jim’s comment, I’ve seen our students come in with bags from other music retailers. I ask the parents about it in a positive way, and they say, “I didn’t know you sell guitars.” I’ve been here 43 years and have 200 guitars hanging in my store. It’s pretty hard not to see we sell guitars. But on the flip side, we have built up an unbelievable repair business, especially after Christmas, when people buy instruments online and have no idea how to set them up. We had a lady call [recently] and ask about buying a banjo. “What’s your cheapest banjo?” “About $200.” “Oh, I can buy one for $100 on Amazon.” I said, “OK.” So she comes into the store after buying it on Amazon and asks us how she can make it play. My repair guy said, “We can do it for you.” She said, “How much?” “He said, “$100.” He remembered the woman. He said, “You would have had that free if you went through us.” Allen’s right regarding the web. There’s no loyalty, even with long-time customers, and millennials want everything now. Showrooming is another concern. People come in and play every guitar you have for two hours. They come back and you ask what happened and they say, “Oh, I bought one online.”

One big thing I’d like to see changed are 24-hour news channels. I don’t care what side of the fence you’re on [politically]. People are coming in and saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” We had the slowest holiday season [last year] we’ve had in 25 years.

DeStafney: The three days I spent in Nashville are three of the most relaxing days I’ve had, because I have not turned on a TV; I haven’t looked at the news on my phone. It’s a big stress factor.

Wilcher: I have an employee who was saying at the show, “Look at what Donald Trump has done.” I told her to put her phone away. She said “[political coverage] is just so negative.” I said, “It’s because everyone talks about it so negatively.” Like Jim, I turn the TV off.

Loy: I haven’t watched the news in 15 years. Political unrest, the hatred that’s being spewed out now. It doesn’t matter what your political viewpoints are. It’s that people are almost ready to attack anyone in this country who doesn’t agree with their viewpoints. That creates a sense of negativity. Many of us read an article about the electric guitar being dead (“Why My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Washington Post, June 22). I’ve heard this for 30 years. We’ve got competition from the internet. Before that, it was catalogs that were killing us. Before that, it was the guy down the road who had a bigger store than us. There’s always been competition in retail. It’s worse now. The media has created “fake news” because it makes them money. They whip people in a frenzy, and money locks down.

McBroom: Sensationalism has always been a hotter product to sell than mundane reality. I hesitate to call it fake news. Instead, I prefer engineered reality. A news network shapes a lump of clay its readership finds attractive. That’s one of the challenges we have as retailers. When you cross the threshold of a music store, you need to enter a cultural oasis. Why do we play music in the first place? Because it brings us joy. That’s how we all got started. We thought we were going to be the next Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen. In our minds, when we picked up the guitar, that’s who we were. Now, everywhere you go, this negativity is being shoved down your throat. It doesn’t matter if you are watching Fox News or MSNBC. It’s a negative message. When you walk into a music store, it should be sunshine on a cloudy day. We should be separate from the maelstrom that exists outside our thresholds. That’s something the internet cannot give you. The internet can sell you the cheapest thing for the cheapest price. Or, they can sell you expensive things for the cheapest price. But it can’t hand you a cup of coffee, it can’t call you by name and it can’t ask “Dude, how’s your wife?” What we have to defend ourselves with is our humanity.

DeStafney: The two keynote speakers at the [Summer] NAMM sessions were precisely focused on that. The store has to provide an experience, not a warehouse for goods. If it’s just about pricing, we can’t compete. We can create this wonderful place to go to where you can experience joy, try out instruments and interact with people with like desires. That’s going to determine the successful store of the future.

Loy: It doesn’t need to be about beautiful, leather couches. It’s the attitude of the people who work there.

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