All things considered, I’m pleased with our 2015 Christmas season. We had a reasonable increase, met many new customers and, as the year begins, we’ve seen a nice jump in student enrollment.

We worked hard for that increase, though, and it came from add-ons, impulse purchases and services—not from drop-in-your-lap, big-ticket items. Step-up instruments for band and orchestra, as well as combo purchases, were in the mix, but they were on par with the previous year.

No, we scored our increase by suggesting the right items (at the right price), merchandising effectively (including regularly changing point-of-sale and feature displays) and jumping through hoops to locate products and bring them in by deadline. The first two tactics were internally driven and they’re part of our store culture. The third depended on our partnerships with suppliers. They were often less “cultured,” so to speak.

I could do a series of columns on suggestion selling and merchandising, although you could easily find plenty of effective information on those topics if you looked. However, I continue to be frustrated by, and fearful for, the supply side of our industry. Brick-and-mortar retailers have had to dramatically adapt to changing consumer habits and the realities of the Internet. The most successful stores have re-invented themselves as destination shopping experiences, community hubs or bastions of niche expertise. On the supply side, there are few glowing examples of 21st century companies. Many continue to do business as they did when Hootie & the Blowfish topped the charts. Under-filled, mis-filled and slow-to-be-filled orders saddle retail stores with the blame for Not Being Amazon.

Luckily, I’ve noticed a shift (in our market, at least) in consumer attitudes. We’ve always had a percentage of folks who want to “buy local,” and they slowly increase and become more vocal each year. But, this season, I noticed a surge—not just an uptick—in people who needed our help. They decided this for many reasons. Perhaps they were overwhelmed by the task of sorting through all the choices, sources and prices online. I had some people come to me who simply said, “You know what’s good. Get it for me.” This is Concierge Retail at its best. We were trusted to help select, procure, store and, sometimes, even wrap the items they needed under the tree. Ten days past the holiday, we still haven’t had a single return or exchange, which, sometimes, is the bane of post-holiday business.

Perhaps they needed us because they (or their gift recipient) were new to music, or to the instrument or equipment requested. (We see a lot of people branching out into new projects this time of year, after all.) I talked to many guitar dads completely adrift when it came to clarinet accessories or easy piano music, even though they’re ready to discuss vintage Fender gear all afternoon.

It’s also possible they once were burned on eBay or Craigslist, or by one of the myriad “too-good-to-be-true” interweb scam sites that sell questionable or counterfeit products. But, for all those reasons, entrusting the purchase to a store they have a relationship with was a viable option.

One advantage we have, of course, IS our relationships. With more than 375 students in each week, plus many local piano teachers and their students in for music, we see many customers regularly. We know them, their families and, often, their neighbors.

This doesn’t happen easily on a Web site. CGI fans talk about the discomfort of the “uncanny valley,” where a computer-generated person is too real to seem a cartoon, yet not quite convincing enough to be real. It exists in retail, as well: Buyers still react to real people better than they do to computer-generated “salespeople” dropping autosuggestions.

Customers are becoming numb to those suggestions, particularly when a single purchase generates dozens of add-on products, sale e-mails and “Still interested?” banner ads on the Web. The “other people also bought” algorithm is patently a selling tool. And, frankly, a message that says “Tommy was looking at this guitar yesterday” is downright creepy coming from some AI bot. Yet, a store that is regularly involved in helping its customers make music comes across as helpful, even mentoring, when it can suggest a product based on that knowledge. A real person who zeroes in on the best choice is gold. Increasingly, I’m hearing chatter from outside the industry about the viability of “curated inventory” retail stores as a growth area. (This is something I suggested in 2004 for music retail, folks.)

There’s one other factor in our Christmas increase that I find particularly interesting, though. It reminds me how small our industry is, and how tenuous our grip on the supply chain can be. A startling number of customers asked me to procure product because they went online and they either couldn’t find the item they needed or got a backorder notice after having placed an order.

I don’t care how good Amazon is. I don’t care if Amazon can read my mind. Our manufacturers can only supply goods based on their internal systems. Slow up the cash flow, demand more than anticipated or kink up the pipeline at the import end and that’ll starve the engine of gas. Amazon can recover. Not only does it have millions of additional products to sell, but it also makes an increasing amount of its revenue from Cloud Services, Prime subscriptions and proprietary tech like Fire TV. It doesn’t need us if we can’t fulfill. It’ll suck the blood out of some other source just as easily.

But the music products industry has a disproportionate number of small, five-car-garage-sized supply companies with limited products and resources. Merger and acquisition strategies can only do so much. We will lose companies, see them absorbed and move on, just as we’ve done in retail. However, those that remain should start thinking about the concierge, destination and niche retailers that have survived. Amazon will grow beyond our industry’s ability to serve to Bezos’ satisfaction. Big-box retailing is played out. Yet, thousands of people truly want to make music, if only we could remove the barriers.

Perhaps it’s time we think about building a sustainable industry that serves those passionate, potentially life-long customers, rather than running a product bordello on a razor’s-edge margin.

Just a thought, gang. It’s what I’m planning to work on.

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