I didn’t make it to the NAMM show in Anaheim this year. Cost and store coverage prevented me from going, and I really missed it. Sure, heading out of the northeast Ohio refrigerator for sunny California in January has its appeal, but that’s not why I wish I had been able to go.

Of course, I’d like to have gotten my hands on new products, tire-kicked the stuff I can’t even dream of carrying in my store and learned more about the lines and products I do carry. But that’s not what I missed, either.

Grabbing some deals would have been cool: scoring freight allowances, locking in discounts and stuffing my suitcase with tchotchkes and swag has its appeal. But deals can still be had, and I can only wear so many lanyards.

It would have been nice to attend some of the seminars, check out a few artist showcases or grab a selfie with a prominent endorser so I can pretend I know them on Instagram. But that’s not what compels me about the NAMM show.

No…most of that stuff—fun, convenient and beneficial as it is—is either disposable or could be replicated eventually. Catalogs, online videos and a free T-shirt in an order can close some of the gap. But there is one irreplaceable benefit to a trade show for which I have yet to find a substitute: face time.

Our industry, as I always point out, is the equivalent of a small town. It’s a lot like Mayberry with tattoos. Only in such a small commercial ecosystem could a little feller like me meet, and have a real conversation with, the CEO of one of the biggest companies in the industry. I can actually go into some booths and VPs of national sales know me by name…often because they were my rep years ago as they climbed the corporate ladder. (For the record, I’m not walking around being recognized as a columnist for The Retailer—I’m remembered as a customer.)

It’s this down-home, known-you-for-years experience that gets me jazzed about the show. I really believe that this face time provides so many tangible and intangible benefits for my business that I think every show I miss stalls my forward progress. It’s also the reason that I spend as much time on the phone with suppliers as I can. Yes, it can take time away from “other things” I need to do in a day. But there’s no substitute, and I remain leery of any “efficiency” that tries to replace true face time.

“But Dan,” some of you will say, “I just order online or by fax. I have software that tells me what to order, shows me the best margin suppliers and lets me know what products sell best. Talking to a sales rep is just a waste of time.” Really? Folks, I have an abiding mistrust of The Machine. The Machine don’t know you. There is no relationship with The Machine…just logic and algorithms. The Machine does not tell you what to watch out for. The Machine says, “Buy 12 to get the discount,” or “$2,000 order gets free freight.”

The Human on the other end of the line, however, does know you. He or she appreciates your business, knows when you’re struggling and, often, has discretion to help. The Human says, “I’ll give you end column with 11 units,” or “$1,930? Close enough—free freight.” The Human might say, “Hey, check out this new book. I’ll throw one in on this order; let me know what you think.” Over the years, I’ve gotten deals, extras, consideration, time to pay and other benefits, and I believe that most of them would never have materialized without my relationships with the people in that company. The Machine certainly wouldn’t have done it.

Sure, it’s important to know your margins and crunch the numbers on your spreadsheet. But only by talking to people will you know if there are better possibilities than The Machine presents. Yes, there are products on which some suppliers have a better price. But I’ve already found that talking to someone gets me a matching price, or that loyally buying from one source gives me access to advantages that far exceed the $1.29-per-unit wholesale price difference on that product.

We’re humans. We respond to each other. Putting a face to the voice on the line or sharing a meal or a drink strengthens the bond, along with fostering the understanding we all want. We want a supplier to understand our business, our market and our needs. Sales reps want us to buy, of course: not only to get a commission, but also to justify their very existence. Small retailers need reps, and the reps need small retailers. The chains, Amazon.com and the other giants aren’t going to place an order with an inside guy. WE are. If we don’t, they’ll fade away the way most road reps did. The way bank tellers, cashiers and all the other human contacts have in our laughably “efficient” smartphone world. I, for one, miss that interaction. I realize that a generation face-planted onto cell phones might not. But it raises the question: do they not need the contact, or do they not know what they’re missing?

I admit it…. I’m looking forward to seeing my industry friends at NAMM this summer. Not just for a nostalgic trip down old-school lane, but also to do business the way we still can in this industry: with people who know me, know my store and want me to prosper so they, too, can prosper. It isn’t about being independent; it’s about being human and fostering the act of humans making music.

Because, somewhere down the line, we’ll wave our smart device at the unblinking eye of The Machine only to hear it say, “I’m sorry, Dave…. I can’t do that.”
And I want an alternative.

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