By Dan Vedda

Over the last couple of months, we’ve been talking about transforming our industry’s retail approach a la Walt Disney (creating a thorough and engaging experience that addresses the full range of consumers) and finding a new demographic (customers who don’t fit the traditional pigeonholes of school music, pros and teens). This month, I’m thinking about the “global” community music store.

Through most of the 20th century, we heard the metaphor of America as a “melting pot.” The many ethnic groups that came to America since its founding supposedly blended into a homogeneous whole that assimilated each new wave of immigrants, decade by decade. Although utopian and self-serving (the metaphor worked best for Caucasians and overlooked the separations of race), it did cover many of our families. People like my grandparents worked to lose their accents, anglicized their names (in my case, Vincenzo and Concetta became James and Margaret) and took on the veneer of average Americans.

The metaphor is undergoing a facelift, and “mosaic” is the most common term used so far. It certainly represents my customers: a virtual United Nations of ethnicities. In our white-collar suburban Cleveland market, we see scores of people from countries I only read about as a kid. “Asian” is a bland way to describe the diverse mixture of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Laotian and other nationalities (including Russian) we see. Middle Eastern families from every country in that region have patronized our store. Our customers are also Europeans: Polish, French, Spanish, German and Italian. We see folks from Brazil and Venezuela, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and from South Africa and the rest of that continent.

Although stores in other markets might see far less variety, most stores—at least, those welcoming to customers from other cultures—probably see more diversity than they did 10 or 15 years ago. U.S. Census data from 2010 versus 2000 bears this out. Several states (including Texas and California, home to large numbers of music stores and music consumers) now have “majority minority” populations where, collectively, more than 50 percent of the people are members of a minority.

I bring this up because this diversity in our market requires us to educate ourselves to better attract, serve and retain the growing number of customers who aren’t headed for the melting pot. These groups maintain their ethnicity and often still socialize with their peers from the homeland, but they are intermingled with every other group in the suburbs rather than clumping into mono-ethnic enclaves.

International marketing classes usually trot out ill-fated missteps to illustrate cultural disconnects. One classic example was the Chevy Nova, a market failure in Mexico because, in Spanish, “No va” means “doesn’t go.” On a micro level, we have to be aware of some of these pitfalls to better deal with our growingly multicultural clientele.

These differences can be as obvious as the holidays our customers celebrate or as subtle as variations in views about credit, price negotiation or warranty coverage. Body language, modes of address, attitudes toward children (particularly gender attitudes) and, of course, the importance and position of music in their lives can all vary. We can’t assume that our background parallels theirs, although there might be surprising overlaps.

One of the first steps—and a difficult one for many people—is understanding unfamiliar accents, particularly when heard over the phone. Take any accent, blend in regional variants, education, vocabulary, possible poor diction and speed, and it could be a big challenge for you or your staff. Although having a native speaker on staff can be a great help, particularly if you have a large population of one ethnicity, it wouldn’t help much in a market like ours.

We all know the phone is a first-impression tool that can bring people in or drive them away. As important as it is, it’s exponentially more important when you have a customer for whom English is a challenge. All callers need help. It’s why they call. But when someone answers and can’t communicate with a customer, the customer is frustrated in his or her quest. The customer can also get—accurately or not—the impression that the store can’t or won’t deal with foreign customers. Some are intimidated by their language limitations and could back away out of embarrassment. (We just started an adult student who was fearful she wouldn’t understand the teacher well enough to learn—and that the teacher would be frustrated with her.) If they don’t feel welcome, you lose not just the sale but also a potential long-term customer—and, in some cultures, that’s a very involved customer.

The only way to better understand people with language challenges is to plunge in and talk to them, because practice and ear training are all important. We’re musicians: This should be less of a burden to us than to anyone, after all. But training our staff and ourselves requires patience. Many English-speakers I’ve encountered are ready to give up after two sentences. If you see a lot of international customers, then your most skilled and patient person should be answering the phone.

The good news is that, long before Angie’s List, there was the backyard fence, where people exchanged information and made recommendations. In ethnic communities, that network is alive and active, and you stand to benefit from your willingness to meet people halfway.

Over the years, many in our industry tried to ignore changes in the market. Very successful dealers dismissed the influence of rock ‘n’ roll, synthesizers, DJs, hip-hop and rap, the Internet and much else new. Yet these things still happened, and those who paid attention and got involved reaped the benefits. For some stores, ethnic customers are yet another new thing, and the benefits should be obvious…particularly so when we’re all grasping for every dollar we can get into the store. Plus, they’re customers, plain and simple. It’s up to us to welcome them, understand them and serve their needs.

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