By Dan Vedda

We’ve closed the door on Christmas and stand poised to jump into a new year. I’m a little shy about predicting the year ahead. But, what I saw through the Christmas selling season gives me hope. Although sales figures met my conservative expectations, I’m more excited about a glimpse of trends that I think will help our community music store as we move forward.

First of all, we did not stock heavily, and it’s just as well. Had I bought “traditionally” for Christmas, I’d have been overstocked on many items. The profit from special orders would not have covered the cost of the goods left sitting on the floor at inventory time. Of course, I scrambled to get the items our customers asked for, placing as many as 15 orders in a week—even twice from the same supplier one day—to ensure that I got everything quickly and kept the staples on the hooks. Rather than selling from piles in the store, we performed our usual “concierge” service, finding and providing items for people without hassle so that they could get on with their busy lives. As a result, we turned stock instantly, and the profit from the special orders helped fill out missing SKUs, leaving us better in stock at the end of the season on everyday, bread-and-butter items.

The customers who ordered from us are part of the trend I’m enthused about. Across the spectrum of consumer reporting, there has been mention of “community economy” and other references to increased support for small local businesses that cater to their customers. Over the last six months, I’ve seen a real uptick in verbal feedback from our customers about this. “Thank you for being here,” “I’m so glad to have a store that I can come to that will have what I need” and similar comments are now interleaved with references to “buying local,” “supporting a small business” and “having a store I can trust.”

At the same time, there is a small shift in the Internet buying that I see. Although it’s certainly not a backlash, it does seem to be a sort of “settling in.” Those who primarily buy online have certainly been doing so, and they continue to increase. Yet, now, I’m seeing some of the disenchanted, timid or impatient Internet users come to us for certain things. From reeds and sticks—the steady consumables—to specific print or accessory orders, we’re seeing people when their needs are immediate, specialized or small.

Now, you’d think that lowball Internet pricing, “long-tail” obscure item availability from Amazon and others, and the ability to jump online and get it done quickly would trump anything our little store could offer. What I’m seeing, however, is a change in consumer mindset—that’s the interesting part.

Call it the intersection of a hectic life with information overload and an economy where you can’t afford to make a mistake. I have worked with customers overwhelmed by 1.2 million hits on their Google search, who only want to be sure that they’re getting the right thing. When it’s a parent who doesn’t play or a grandmother working from a Christmas list, they don’t want the hassle of returns, tied up money or disappointment. I talk to people every day who are freaked out about identity theft (about 30 percent of the credit cards I take say “ask for ID” on the back) and who are fearful of using any credit card on the Internet. I think they’re overreacting, but I’m happy to lay their fears to rest by taking care of things for them. I also have customers who just want to unhook—not to scour the Web for every stinking thing they need to live their life. They’re in every week for lessons. It’s easier just to grab a set of strings or a couple of reeds on the go. If our customers were primarily working musicians, it would be different. But, students and their families, hobbyists and teachers more often need our help.

Of course, I also know plenty of people who never put the smartphone down. Sometimes, that also works in our favor, as a quick price search on a MAP item shows a batch of prices in line with our own. The couple of “rogue” prices that show up significantly lower often cast suspicion on the lowballers: “Is it really new/legal stock? What will happen with my information?” These often typify their reaction. Price is still a factor; it’s just not the only factor.

That’s the part that I find encouraging. We spent the ’80s and early ’90s driven by products. The Next Big Thing, the must-have box, played by the guitar hero or other star. The ability to stock the hot item and have people flock to your door defined the mindset of many stores in those days. We’ve just gone through a decade and a half of disruptive technologies, economic turmoil and social shifts. Everything about the process of retailing, distribution and marketing has been challenged, while products have become inexpensive and commoditized. But, at last, it seems, we have an opportunity to focus on people rather than products or process. All that stuff is still there, of course. It’s just the customers are now at the center.

Everyone will tell you that service is the differentiator, and they are all right as far as that goes. But service takes different forms. Some retailers feel good customer service is only a matter of efficiency (rapid delivery and no mistakes) and don’t connect any further. Others “program” personal interaction and courtesy into the mix. (I once overheard a competitor tell a trainee, “Smile, so they think you like them.”) And some truly DO serve their customers.

I think the effective music retailers for this next phase are those who, having learned the lessons of the evolving marketplace, understand—and enjoy—their place in the minds and hearts of their customers, doing everything that they can to preserve and enlarge that place. That’s what I’m betting on as we launch into 2012.

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