I make it a practice to Google dealers who contact me, as well as to visit their websites and their Facebook pages to see what their stores are like. A surprising number of stores maintain no Internet presence at all, or have terribly outdated websites. Many of the Facebook pages I visit are sparse and are scarcely updated, and feature a few unflattering photos of stores desperately in need of updating. The same retailers who contact me to commiserate about competing with big-box stores and Internet retailers are often not putting their best foot forward.

Assuming that all of us feature desirable products in our stores, the other major factor in drawing consumers is the customer experience. The customer experience is determined by two factors: (1) atmosphere (décor, merchandising, cleanliness and signage) and (2) customer relations. The decisions we make regarding these greatly affect their experiences with us. In an industry where we spend a great deal of our time fighting to appropriate customers from the clutches of big-chain competitors (that have us greatly outgunned financially), we should spend more time trying to keep the ones we have by providing them with a better experience. In this column, I’ll focus solely on atmosphere, as I believe it’s often overlooked by small independent music retail stores, many of which have a quality staff stuck in an underwhelming environment.

Each day, before opening, my staff walks through our entire store looking for anything messy, out of place or in need of cleaning. The floor is vacuumed, the trash is taken out and the merchandise is checked over to make sure it’s presentable. This can mean replacing worn tags on instruments, reorganizing a display, filling inventory holes or reorganizing departments. We’ve found that by simply shuffling guitars once a week—instead of leaving them in the same places—customers are more likely to spend time perusing the inventory, because merchandise isn’t where it was the last time the customer was in. This process also draws attention to guitars that need polishing or fresh strings, or that require attention as a result of wear or damage from customer handling.

Afterward, we post photos of our spruced-up, reshuffled merchandise on Facebook. Seeing a refreshed inventory often draws attention to items customers might not have previously noticed. Consequently, they come back to see what’s in stock surprisingly frequently. Even when we’re highlighting a specific product, a Facebook user will often inquire about something he or she sees in the background.

One error I notice routinely on many stores’ Facebook pages is that each photo features the same setup: a guitar leaned against an amp in front of a wall of guitars. Boring. Worse yet, the instruments displayed in the background never move, giving the appearance of aging inventory. At our store, we always try to include our staff members in some of our Facebook photos: partially to familiarize our customers with them, but also to show we’re happy people who like what we do. Customers see our staff smiling and excited about new products, having fun and being creative; we follow through on that when they’re in our store by encouraging patrons to try new products.

All of this is to say it is worth your time to look around your store not as someone who walks in every day and who is so used to the eyesores as to no longer notice them but, rather, as a customer would see it. Encourage your staff to do so, as well. Is it clean and organized? Are shelves and products dusted? Are products waiting hopelessly on your shelves, sitting unsold because they appear to have been packaged in 1973? Have you updated your décor recently, changed paint colors or replaced aging fixtures? Are there brown cardboard boxes littering your showroom? Many of these turn-offs are easily cured. I know how easy it is to walk by things because you’re used to seeing them. That, however, isn’t how you encourage customers to return.

This process of continual improvement and constant updating to create atmosphere must also apply to your website. Websites should be clean and easy to navigate, feature useful information and be updated regularly. I work a little on our store website each day, as does Noah Shreve from our sales department. Noah and I are both self-taught, with no formal training in web design or copywriting. The truth is, you do not have to be an expert to care about your store’s website; you do, however, have to focus on maintaining it just as you do your brick-and-mortar space. Just as with the physical appearance of so many stores, websites too often look like they’re 1990s-era Geocities pages, many with copyright dates that are several years old. There is simply no excuse for this in today’s world, in which easy, build-your-own-website companies such as Wix, Squarespace and WordPress feature impressive templates for informational and e-commerce websites. You do not have to be an expert to use these tools; they’re easy, and they offer ample support via phone or chat. The search-engine tools included also work well, and they’re almost always mobile-friendly web solutions.

Now, to be fair, initiatives such as these should start from the top down: managers, department heads and store owners should be the prime movers. Brad Shreve, the Owner of our store, often initiates these changes himself, setting an example for our staff and, therefore, ingraining the need for a continual focus on our store culture so that it is maintained even when he personally isn’t present in the store. We have discussed on many occasions that, although we can’t have as many SKUs as big-box stores, nor can we operate at a loss every year like the private-equity-owned chains, we can try every day to be the best store we can be.

In order to provide our customers with a better experience, we must continually strive to find areas, both small and large, in which we can improve. And, we must continually strive to remain unsatisfied with “the same old” our customers have grown so used to—and bored with—seeing. Complacency has no place in modern retail, which grows more competitive every day. Beacock Music, Springfield Music, Crossroads Guitar Shop and Dealer of the Year winner The Candyman Strings and Things…these stores have implemented these process improvements with great success.

What are some of the stores you admire? What can we all learn from them? E-mail me at gabriel@larrysmusiccenter.com.

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