“A bend in the road is not the end of the road…unless you fail to make the turn.”

In my dual role as both a retailer and a pundit, everything I believe about music retail has to pass two tests. My opinion must reflect my experience as a store owner in the trenches every day, and it has to stand up to the litmus test of my observations both within the broader industry and in the economy at large. When I write a “Veddatorial,” I try not to grind my retail ax without thinking about the issue from a supplier, consumer or even non-MI point of view. Applying both tests has killed almost as many columns as I’ve actually finished.

So, I’m particularly skeptical when I hear people talk in absolutes: whether positive or negative. The “prevailing wisdom” often does not prevail, and “new school” can often flunk out.

Disruptive concepts like Uber and AirBnB are good ideas…that are meeting with extreme opposition and the possibility of crippling legislation. Optimistic hipsters stress the inevitability of their vision. Entrenched interests and changing social contexts could make these companies twinkling lights on the Christmas Tree of Failure. Time will tell.
I believe change is inevitable, but the form the change will take—in any situation—is up for grabs. The wild card that most people leave out of their projections, whether optimistic or pessimistic, is the Human Factor. Will the non-hipster public embrace or ignore The Next Big Thing? That’s where the numbers are: those that measure not just financial success, but also penetration of concept. Despite Amazon’s ubiquity and power, the Fire phone tanked. We can believe cable is dead…but what business model will dance on its grave? Ultimately, consumers will vote with their wallets. We can convince them they need something they never knew they needed (data plans, lattes and pretty much everything on QVC, for example), but they choose which provider will service that need—and they decide when they no longer need it, and what (if anything) will replace it.

In our industry, The Dominance of Synthesizers was a 1980s truth. Except…acoustic drums and guitars did NOT go away. Rap, hip-hop and DJs were NOT the fad many predicted they would be. Now, the big boxes and online monoliths, once deemed unstoppable and “the way all things will be,” are being referred to as “aged models.” It’s time for the mix to change.

In a TechCrunch article, “Why Online Retailers Continue To Open Brick-And-Mortar Stores,” written by Mike Kercheval (a man with a vested interest in his conclusion as President and CEO of the International Council of Shopping Centers) and posted on October 31, the author cites the growing trend of online retailers (Amazon, Birchbox and BaubleBar are specifically cited) to expand their brand into what are termed “Multisensory Consumer Experiences.” Whatever, dude. They’re opening stores. What a concept!

Of course, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target and many brick-and-click retailers have been working all channels for some time now. But there’s some evidence that consumers respond to the convenience of store pickup (or store returns) and, in surprisingly human fashion, still often prefer to dwell in the physical world, interacting with members of their own species. The statistics cited might seem a little hard to believe. For example: “Seventy-eight percent of consumers prefer to shop in-store, and they spend six times more in-store than online.” Or, for another example: “In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 94 percent of retail sales were conducted in brick-and-mortar stores, whereas just six percent occurred online.” But, frankly, even if they’re 20 percent off, the case is still strong for physical stores’ viability. Wait…wasn’t brick-and-mortar supposed to fade into oblivion?

My takeaway is this: any time you hear the phrase, “Someday, all _____ will be this way,” look for the way beyond that. It might be a blend of old and new ways (see above), or a more refined way, but that absolute is NOT a stopping point. It’s never going to be as simple as jumping on the proverbial bandwagon, because the bandwagon keeps moving, and the road curves and bends without end.

That’s also why I get uncomfortable when someone on the front lines of retail denies the road is curving. We should have a better fix on the consumer than the manufacturer. Despite online sales, I still have a stream of people coming through my door every day. It’s their wants and needs that I focus on. From a different brand of reeds the band director is recommending to a spike in interest in the banjo to an influx of preschool violinists, our data stream is richer than anything that’s being generated by clicks and online cookies. No algorithms needed: we can ask follow-up questions and monitor results well enough to steer through the twists and turns of the road ahead.

Even if you aren’t at the counter every day, someone from your store is. They’re talking to people (I hope). And, if you have a staff that’s empathetic to the needs of your customers, they’re getting a lot of information. Certainly, you know how much they like the new guitar you just hung on the wall. Don’t stop there. Ask them about everything…from their opinion of the colors available on that model to what they’re doing with their music. They won’t feel like they’re taking a survey; they’ll feel like you value their opinion. But they ARE filling in the blanks of your market research, and that’ll give you directions for how to steer. This is the info the big guys lust after. They spend a lot of money and energy to get it, but it’s yours for the asking.

We can make better use of that data, too. I bought a computer accessory online last week and, ever since, I’ve been inundated with margin ads for the same item from the same supplier. Dudes…I just bought it, remember? At least when we sell a guitar, we focus on add-ons rather than trying to sell the customer another guitar.

This Christmas, we will (theoretically) see a big batch of customers: each of them is a treasure chest of information. By asking the right questions—and listening to the answers—we can get the information we need to navigate the bends in the road. Or, we can end up in a culvert.

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