Curating inventory — at least in concept — isn’t a futuristic retail trend. We’ve been doing it in some fashion as long as brick and mortar has existed — further, in fact, going at least back to the caravans on the old Silk Road. You don’t schlep anything but the most desirable and profitable inventory across the desert, after all.

Yet for the future of the brick-and-mortar landscape, a curated inventory isn’t just advisable, it’s a survival solution. “Curating” sounds a bit stuffy, I’ll grant you, but it simply means that the selection of products in your store should be carefully considered, in much the same way that you might select groceries and plan meals in your home. Some households are focused on nutrition above all, others on speed and simplicity of preparation. Some stock junk food and never clean the fridge. But we all know someone who sets a great table, is the sought-after grill master or manages to put great meals together within a limited budget. In similar fashion, then, curating our inventory is the way we present great products consistently for all needs and budgets. It allows a store to stand above the retailer that simply stocks the cheapest, the same-old same-old or even the most expensive products.

In a properly curated inventory, there needs to be a justification for every item — not just every SKU, but the quantity of each — in your store. That justification has to be more than “I think it’s good” or “I can double my money.” Neither of these ideas addresses the actual purpose, because they do not take into account the likelihood that a buyer (or hopefully, many buyers) will give you money for them.

That’s not to say that you should only carry products that are specific customer requests, or that you should carry every product that every customer requests. Curating an inventory means that every item must be analyzed, and its shelf space awarded because you’ve either 1. chosen to develop the demand for a product you believe in, or 2. believe that the product has enough market demand that your chosen demographic will not only buy the product, but buy it regularly and feel that you are a less-satisfactory shopping location without it. In short, you choose your battles while striving to serve your customer.

Note that either case is subject to change. Despite your best efforts, you may not develop a market for your favorite product and need to consider the battle lost. Your customers, despite their loyalty to certain items, may change their minds, drift away, or react to a manufacturing change in price or quality. That means your curated inventory must be dynamic, fluid and detached from your ego.

A curated inventory is dynamic in that every sale affects the data you use to determine the items and quantities that make it up. Whether you track sales by the seat of your pants or via a sophisticated point-of-sale system, today’s ideal inventory can be different because of a new hot product, an old-school teacher moving into your market or a seasonal trigger like back-to-school shopping.

Fluidity is your ability to adjust to the data and make the changes it suggests. If you do a monthly analysis, you catch broad trends. But being able to jump on the front end of a product release or to be in stock for the band festival next week requires you to be aware of your numbers and the influences in your market in real time.

At the core of a curated inventory, though, is the taste and discernment of the person(s) making the stocking decisions. If your store caters to a uniform clientele that listens to your recommendations readily without budget restrictions, it may be a snap. But few of us achieve Kardashian-level influence. So, it’s hard work to do it right, because you’re trying to distill the best products and values for a moving target of diverse users. For that reason, a product you think is the greatest thing since digital may not fly with your customers. It’s like being an interior decorator. You need to find a great solution that addresses the customer’s needs. It may not be what you would choose for your home. So, bring your knowledge and discernment, but not your ego.

If you get your curated choices right often enough, you will build a level of trust that can allow you to influence customer buying decisions to a greater degree — but only if you continue to get it right.

Manufacturers can be a great partner in this quest. The most proactive marketers are all too happy to help you tout their catalog, often offering free or discounted product, promotional art and a host of professionally created collateral. What they want, though, is a retailer that will truly use the materials to promote effectively. Admittedly, it’s harder to forge that connection today.

Retailers don’t want to build an audience for a product only to be cut out when the company starts selling directly. Manufacturers don’t want to waste their promotional budget on dealers that won’t — or can’t — promote the product effectively. In last month’s issue, we talked about vetting suppliers, and this is certainly a part of that vetting process.

Ultimately, you’re looking for that perfect blend between “discovery” products (like a great new pedal, woodwind mouthpiece or other innovation), “best value” items (it’s not about having 10 models of guitar stand: it’s about selecting the best-of-show), and staple items that many people ask for specifically (brand and gauge of guitar strings, reeds, method books). Every trip into your store should provide something needed, something interesting or something surprising. If you can manage all three, you’ve got magic.

Of course, the ideal curated inventory doesn’t just happen one day when you sit down with a few catalogs and order. Adding an item every week may even be difficult for the budget. But if you actively search, choose and stock a selection that meets the curated ideal, over time you’ll see the benefits in sales, in store traffic and ultimately in profitability. It won’t happen overnight, but keeping focus with a plan in mind will yield gratifying results.

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