In my last article, we talked about the future of brick-and-mortar retail (there is one) and the crucial importance of attracting people to your store. In conversation online and on the phone with people throughout the industry, I hear from many who have been unsuccessful so far, or who are unsure about how they can drive the process. Here are a few thoughts and some things that seem to be helping my situation.

First of all, keep in mind that this isn’t a switch you can flip, but a way of life. Tossing off a promotion and saying it didn’t work is like chomping on some broccoli and saying, “I ate healthy, but I don’t feel any better.” I firmly believe that you can increase store traffic only through a sustained, consistent and multi-faceted approach to this task. I also feel that “promotion” in the sense of sales or product-centric tactics don’t work unless day-to-day branding is already in place. Online entities provide plenty of doorbuster sales. What we need to do is find something that customers want to physically experience. It has to be tactile, immediate, convenient and distinctive.

So, forget doorbusters. The main people who will come in for them are the retail hyenas that smell a deal, grab what they want and skulk off to the next meal. We’ve long (and mistakenly) catered to the deal chasers because they immediately respond to the dog whistle of savings. But there is no loyalty in them; without a deal to score, they disappear.

Let’s focus, then, on the customers who can support us in the “new normal” of brick and mortar. This type of customer is grateful for help, values convenience and is willing to spend a little extra for it, and this customer loves music-making and the trappings and vibe that surround it. This customer has always come into our stores, but in the pre-internet days, we had enough assorted traffic that we often didn’t take positive notice of them. I distinctly remember industry owners, staff= and sales reps talking about them as “time wasters,” because they took too much time to buy and needed handholding after the sale.

Thankfully, this customer is still out there, looking for help. How do we bring them in? I think the store that can successfully do this does a good job with four things: education, display, activities and community involvement.

Notice that none of these are instrument-specific, nor do they deal with the products we sell per se. Those products are always present, of course, like desserts on a buffet. People will step up to the buffet, but you have to invite them in first. Of course, there is also overlap in these categories, but the idea is that what you’re doing to bring people in should fit into at least one of them.

Education has been talked about endlessly, but most people just think in terms of lessons. However, we also have to tell the story of our passion and our products. I often feel that much of what I do resembles the job of a docent at a museum, who educates the public with history, anecdotes and trivia about the item(s) being viewed. Part of the vibe we have created centers on a number of vintage instruments and other oddities we’ve acquired over time. We have an assortment of “conversation-piece” instruments on display, from a C melody saxophone to 1/16 violins, to funky old ukes to vintage sheet music. People love to hear the backstory each has, and it’s not unusual to have someone bring in a friend to see some of the vibed-out old stuff we display. None of it is “valuable” in the conventional sense, so we can allow hands-on opportunities. It’s easy to find people who will geek out with me about old stuff or are keen to learn the “secrets” of their instruments.

Display includes decorative touches like the vintage instruments, but it also pertains to the clean, organized, attractive setting in which we showcase our goods. Any book or article on effective retail display can give you plenty of pointers; I just want to stress that it’s a crucial part of making your store “shoppable.” The nicer the place looks, the more likely it is that customers will come back — and the longer people will hang around.

Activities vary widely, and concerts or other live performance events are great. But there’s an extra power when it’s an active rather than passive event. Jam sessions, uke and drum circles, and other group gatherings are great. Your market may provide more specific areas of interest. We’ve hosted Irish sessions, and we have a monthly jazz afternoon jam attended by students, hobbyists and local pros. Bluegrass meetups or open-mic nights may be more your thing, but it is very likely that there is a group performance opportunity that would draw people in.

Community involvement is far more than taking out an ad in the band-booster program. That’s really just advertising. Certainly, you want to be out in the community, attending school performances or gigs, and generally supporting your customers. But I’m also talking about hands-on, shoulder-to-shoulder work in the community. We do drives for the local foodbank, for example. There are a thousand ways you can get involved in a manner that suits your store’s style and viewpoint. The visibility you achieve in this way is far more effective than any advertising in terms of producing loyalty to your brand and word of mouth for your store, because it resonates so deeply with the people who care about the causes and projects you choose to support.

I believe that there are many customers who will respond to this approach. Just like a favorite restaurant, they will patronize their favorite music store regularly, elevate its profile in the community and do so long term.

If you have a comment, feel free to share it on, and as always, post an inquiry if there’s another topic you’d like to see covered here. (Please post to the page rather than PM, so others can see the dialogue.)

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