The smaller our stores are, the broader our inventory needs to be. This might seem counterintuitive, but “niche-ing” our stock allows us to serve the actual people who patronize us. That’s how we survive.

Those of us with small stores often control inventory with gut instinct. The biggest chains in the industry have sophisticated software to manage that task. The stores between those two extremes can be anywhere along the spectrum, but a stubborn fact remains: In some fashion, we need to control our inventory…now more than ever. We have to stock the items our customers need, when they want them, and woe to any retailer (large or small) that has too much—or, worse yet, dead—inventory.

The sheer scope of a community music store’s inventory—in particular, for a store that doesn’t specialize in one area, such as combo or band—astonishes people outside our industry. I was talking with an accountant a few weeks ago about our inventory needs. He speculated that it must be tough to keep track of all our SKUs without software controls. His jaw dropped when I told him we track almost 8,000 items. That’s the total of our “model stock,” including all print titles, accessories and repair supplies.

Your inventory counts are likely to be smaller if you don’t carry print, which accounts for the biggest chunk of our SKUs. Still, your SKU count is probably higher than outsiders would expect. Adding to the complexity, of course, is the fact that proper quantities, seasonal spikes and changing consumer tastes all must be monitored.

For example, our multiple violin teachers all recommend different strings, shoulder rests and even rosin. It’s the same pattern for reeds, guitar strings, drumsticks and all the usual consumables. Add in the recommendations of dozens of private teachers and band and orchestra directors, as well as the preferences of local players, and there are hundreds of SKUs already.

MI stores have had to track this sort of inventory for decades: before Big Data, before bar codes and before computers. A local store is too small for Big Data, anyway. Canned programs don’t understand the peak needs of marching season, new band directors changing everything or the impact of music from “Star Wars” unless a human is watching.

This is where our “gut algorithm” comes in. Whether you’re plugging in the data or shooting from the hip, the customer contact people provide insight. They hear about the new piano teacher in the neighborhood who only uses Alfred Masterworks, not Schirmer. They know the players and their setups. If you’re paying attention, the data is there.

Of course, stores have some influence on this. Salespeople can suggest a new product, offer an effective substitute, and educate players about the need for string changes and maintenance. However, sellers have to listen more than they speak in this instant-gratification world. If you have favorite strings, reeds or sticks, how easy would it be for me to change your mind and get you to buy something else?

Clinging to a niche might work for you. However, if you’re trying to serve the varied music makers in your community, you know that families that need piano music might also need reeds and a guitar setup. In fact, it’s highly likely that there are multiple music makers in the household, and it’s unlikely they all play the same instrument.

So, how does a small store manage the many SKUs needed to satisfy all its customers? Unfortunately, it involves a lot of grunt labor, even if you use some sort of software. In my store, I let these principles guide me:

Inventory management isn’t a weekly chore for the staff drone. It’s a job for everyone, every hour, every day. If the collected staff is instantly aware of customer requests and out-of-stocks, you can cut days off the replenishment cycle. That will mean fewer sales lost to Amazon and other competitors.

Someone on staff has to be the decision maker. A person has to be aware that sales are up for an item, or that a seasonal spike is imminent. Even if you use inventory software, there’s still a need for a human to interpret and to judge. AI hasn’t reached the local store level yet. You might have the luxury of separate people for each line, or you might have just one buyer—possibly you alone—who makes the decisions. Thinking eyes must interpret the data, though.

The right quantity outweighs the lowest price. Buying 24 for an extra 10 percent isn’t good use of your inventory dollars if you will sell six in 90 days. If you only need one or two to satisfy local needs, cultivate suppliers that will sell smaller quantities without gouging you. If you see an uptick in sales on that item, of course, you need to detect it and grab that extra 10…just not ’til then.

Assign on-hand counts. Sure, it’s primitive. However, making someone responsible for the reeds, piano methods and other fast-moving stock makes that counter aware of the ebb and flow, familiarizes newbies with hands-on product awareness, and provides an opportunity to organize and straighten. This translates to fewer sales lost through misfiling, employees who are more knowledgeable and a cleaner product presentation. It’s not just busywork.

Of course, we’ll still have out-of-stocks. Suppliers will be out, shipping will be slow and, in my store, not a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask for something we’ve never had before. But, if we manage the predictable parts of our inventory, then we can minimize the outages and capture those “long tail” sales.

I’m not trying to compete for the “lowest price on a box of strings” customers. At this point, I can’t. However, it’s possible to cultivate the steady-yet-modest needs of the many customers happy to visit a store that knows their preferences and that caters to them. In this context, “curated” inventory is also “caretaker” inventory. When properly managed, it can work.

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