Editor’s Note: Shortly before press time, Guitar Center confirmed to The Retailer that, by the end of the year, GC would have 87 stores with lessons. The lessons initiative started in 2012.

You’ve likely been hearing the news—including in the pages of this magazine—that our industry’s dominant chain has embarked on a company-wide rollout of a new service-oriented model that features lessons and repairs. Although some might consider any use of “Guitar Center” and “service” in a sentence to be an oxymoron, I think the chain’s reorientation has to be taken seriously.

This news might be particularly unsettling to stores in MI that have insulated themselves from the worst of our industry’s turmoil by standing tall for education and service. Do something well that the Internet does poorly, and here comes the juggernaut to steal it. Or so you might say…not having done a closer inspection.

Some of the stats furnished for the “proof of concept” partial rollout of the GC service model seem intimidatingly strong: 280,000 customer-owned-instrument repairs, 16,000 enrolled students taking 310,000 hours of lessons over the past year…and that’s with only a portion of GC’s 269 store locations participating at this point.

Well, you can say many different things with unqualified statistics. Nice big numbers don’t give us specifics about things like retention rates of students or types of repairs (warranty, customization, restring, etc.). I’ll leave the repair statistics for another time and, here, only address the lessons issue.

So, assuming that the 310,000 hours represent half-hour lessons over one year—I frankly think six months would be too short a time to judge the results—then 620,000 lessons divided by 52 weeks yields 11,923 weekly students steadily taking lessons. By that math, if 16,000 students enrolled, more than 25 percent didn’t stay. (If the hours-taught number represents more than one year, then the retention could be even worse.) That, of course, is if my assumptions are accurate. I don’t have all the figures…but I’m sure GC does. It’d be foolish to miss tracking retention by teacher, instrument, unit and city, because the chain retailer has the data at its fingertips. So, why not publish retention, which is an important indicator of a program’s strength? Maybe it isn’t a big-ass number like the ones that were furnished.

Again, I could be wrong. So, let’s take the figures without question and do a couple of real-world comparisons. My little, teeny store consistently has an enrollment of 350 to 375 students each week. That’s steady through sports seasons, summer and the school year. That means, conservatively, that we teach more than 15,000 lessons each year, even allowing for vacations and other absences.

Now, that doesn’t sound huge as compared to the Guitar Center number…until you take GC’s (benefit of the doubt) 16,000 students and divide them by, for the sake of example, 50 GC units in a pilot program. That’d be a reasonable sample, don’t you think? A 10- or 20-unit trial is possible, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem like enough of a sample to be the basis for altering a multi-billion-dollar company’s direction. So, the answer (if one were to assume 50 stores) is an average of 320 students. Smaller than my enrollment. (If more units were involved, the enrollment would be even smaller.)

Well, “sure,” you say. It’s just the beginning, after all. GC is just getting started, right? But you should also know that my store is surrounded by 15 lesson facilities in a six-mile radius. There are other stores—so-called “academies,” after-school programs and a School of Rock that are in the mix—and they’re all more than 100 students. So, conservatively, that’s about 1,700 students in our little pocket of town. Oh…and that also doesn’t include the (more than 100) piano teachers teaching out of their homes and the two west-side conservatory prep departments. We’re easily talking 5,000 students on the west half of our market. The east side is even denser. But let’s just say 10,000 students in private lessons in Cleveland OH alone.

That’s one metro area and, frankly, I’ve probably been too conservative as regards the enrollment. Your market might be different. But if—when—the two GC units in our market start teaching, they’ll face a lot of established competition—not a vacuum. To populate their program, they’ll have to either lift teachers from existing facilities or recruit newbies.

The problem with established teachers is…well…they like to do things their way. Getting a teacher with a following will boost enrollment. But, if Guitar Center wants to systematize the process and bring those teachers into line with company policy (as online evidence would indicate is GC’s habit), the retail chain will have to become a cat-herder. New teachers are much more malleable, but most teachers I know will tell you they’re better teachers now than they were when they started.

So, which problem do you choose? It doesn’t matter, I suppose. What matters is how focused you are on the solution. And, by “solution,” I mean serving your students by providing a well organized, effective educational environment for the wide variety of individuals who will enroll. If GC’s idea of a solution is funneling as many bodies through the system for as long as they’ll buy lesson materials and gear, then I’m not impressed. Stores have tried that for generations, albeit on a smaller scale. Even in primitive (pre-Internet) times, it was easy to see which stores cared about selling and which ones cared about education.

That brings up a final point: For years, I’ve said that adding lessons as a traffic or revenue builder is a doomed ploy unless you truly believe in, and commit to, education. In a corporate-wide refit, the lesson manager is crucial. He or she can’t get away with anything less than excellence. Otherwise, it won’t take long for teachers to drift off course, leave or create problems. Anyone who has done this knows the logistical nightmare of scheduling. Then there’s the issue of relationships. In the best teaching matchups, the student and teacher have a bond that catapults the process forward. Subs and replacements dilute this. Exiting teachers can take students with them; they are not chattel. This is hard stuff for even the most dedicated, focused organizations.

So, if Guitar Center is truly going to graft on a shiny education facility that has students’ best interests in mind, then it might succeed, because I see plenty of operations that aren’t staying organized, suffer from poor retention and have a lack of responsiveness. As always, if we don’t do our jobs, someone else can seize the opportunity.

But I, for one, am not going to wait and see. For GC to succeed, it will take inspired execution, unfailing empathy and fanatical attention to detail. We need to apply the same educational zeal within our own operations. Without that focus, we’ll fail without GC’s help in doing so. With it, we can succeed regardless of what the mega-chain does.

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