MI Spy could not visit stores due to many stay-at-home orders. So he/she did the next best thing: reviewed MI store websites. In this part one of a two-part story, MI Spy virtually checked out Minneapolis.

Psst, ladies and gents: I’m writing this report from the MI Spy Cave, where I am in quarantine like many of you. Internet access is not great here, but I have my TV and my collection of spy flicks, including everything from Bourne to Bond and the full “Spy Kids” franchise. Plus, I can always play my beloved musical instruments. Music is something you can always turn to, even during pandemics, economic recessions and any other bad situations we may face.

Before the pandemic threw a wrench into everyone’s plans, I’d been scheduled for a mission to Minneapolis, and I was darned excited to visit; but that trip has been scratched for the time being. So, I asked The Chief if it would be OK to plan a virtual visit to the MI stores in Minneapolis instead, and I got the go-ahead. Believe me, people: I do want to visit these stores in person one day soon! But until then, here are some of my findings from the digital realm. What a long, strange trip it’s been lately, especially when it comes to shopping. Fortunately, we can still go online and flex our purchasing power. But for those of us who love to visit music stores and enjoy checking out the deals and the quirks at each store, the experience is… different. (What else can I say?)

So for this report, I perused the online presences of nine MI stores based in Minneapolis and analyzed them for a variety of things. In general, how interesting and inviting is each website, especially upon the initial look? How easy is it to navigate the site? How deep is the inventory? How is the website beneficial for both those who will go to the store in person and those looking at it from afar? How are the prices? Does the store seem to be a part of the greater community in the city or region?

Certainly, I couldn’t carry on casual conversations with store workers and customers, and I couldn’t nose around the displays, as usual. But this type of distance shopping has its interesting aspects. And while nothing is quite like walking into a musical instrument shop (even if you are undercover, like moi), checking out stores via the internet has its pleasures, too. So, this report is going to be much different this time, but these are the days we live in.

Encore Music Shop

The first thing you notice when you look at the homepage of the Encore Music Shop site is a photo of the actual store. It shows you a wall of electric guitars of various models and colors. Cases are to the left, and in front are rows of amps and keyboards.

“We buy, sell and trade used gear.” Amen to that! You can get a quote through Encore’s website if you’re interested in selling some gear. If you have a question or an offer, the Encore team wants you to send it to them ASAP. The “Get Quote” button is prominently placed front and center on the homepage. This store means business when it comes to buying and trading used gear.

Just underneath the “Get Quote” button and an image of the store is set a set of three glowing testimonials — positive reviews of the service and offerings at Encore. And just beneath that is a set of nine photographs, arranged in “Brady Bunch” style, of the electric and acoustic guitars, amps and drums sold at Encore. Click on a photograph, and you get to see lots more photos of the offerings, and even 360-degree views of the store’s interior. It’s not a huge store, but it’s stuffed to the gills with musical instruments and equipment.

What you don’t get from the website is important, however: What is actually offered at the store, and at what prices. This is definitely a drawback. It’s very hard to go through this website and order something from afar, or plan a purchase in advance.

It’s not a super-sophisticated website. I’m guessing it’s a more in-person-oriented store, with stock that must change frequently. If you do have your heart set on a particular type of guitar, or if you have a strict price range, call or email them and make contact in that manner. But aside from the eyepopping photographs on the website, you won’t get a lot of background information on the store’s inventory.

Eclipse Music

The website for Eclipse Music has a few inviting elements, such as the carousel of photographs showing oodles of effects pedals. But overall, there is not a lot to find on the homepage. The main thing you can do is click on a link that will take you to a catalogue of effects pedals for sale. The store offers effects from a variety of boutique brands. Each item has a price and description, and if you are in the market for effects, you will be drooling over the offerings here. It’s fun to browse through all of these various effects, but I would like it even more if I was able to hear samples of what the effects sounded like.

The photos of pedals and effects are certainly tantalizing. But one problem is that the text at the top left of the homepage is miniscule and rather hard to read. I had to really scrutinize it before I realized that it was the store hours and slogan. (It looks like the store name, logo, slogan and hours were put into an image file, and the space the image occupies on the homepage is so small that the text is almost impossible to read.) The rest of the fonts on the page are easier to read.

Claire Givens Violins

In a nutshell, Claire Givens Violins sells, makes and restores violins, violas, cellos and bows. If you want to see what an eye-catching, serious and comprehensive website can be, then go to this site. It has lots of attractive photos, the layout is easy to use, the prices and descriptions of instruments are clear, and there are even parts of the website that offer lessons in musical instrumentation and design.

MI Spy has noticed over the years that websites for stores that specialize in classical string instruments tend to be more serious than many of the sites that cater to the “woo yeah, rock ‘n roll” type of purchases. They are going for the classical music crowd, so it’s not surprising that they have a more sophisticated look. But this site is not stuffy; it is inviting and professional.

The homepage shows a rotating series of photographs of the store and the staff at work making and maintaining instruments. Underneath that are links for the store’s inventory and service offerings, plus information about its restoration service, Andrew Dipper Restorations. You can also click the “Tour Givens Violins” link, which takes you to a rather well-produced YouTube video of the store owner, Claire Givens, as she leads you on a walkthrough of the store, including its classrooms and instrument shops.

The website has a series of blog posts as well, which make for informative and lively reading. The staff members are presented with their headshots and brief bios. There is even a page called “Anatomy of a Violin,” which is a good introduction to the instrument.

If you are a novice or a professional, and interested in this specific set of musical instruments, this is a very good, informative website for what appears to be a very approachable business.

El Diablo Amps and Guitars

If you’re into guitars and guitar gear, this website grabs your attention immediately. A prominently placed series of rotating images offers info about the store, and many of the images feature guitars and guitar-based imagery.

When your MI Spy visited the site, one of the images in the slider depicted an adorable little wood-carved devil mascot wearing a medical mask along with the following message: “Due to COVID-19, our showroom is closed for the time being, though we will continue to fulfill online orders and gear-repair drop-offs. Stay safe, and keep your spirits up!”

Below the slider, you’ll see five “Featured Products,” and below that, five “New Products.” The photographs of the products are solid and well cropped, and there is strong consistency between images. If you hover your cursor over the images, you’ll get a “Quick View” option that will open a popup with the product’s price and a brief description. You can also click the image or the product name to be taken to a page with even more images of the product and more detailed information.

The store sells an interesting selection of new boutique guitars from small brands, ranging from $1,000 and into the $3,000 range. Even the preowned guitars they offer are pricey, from several hundred dollars to just under $7,000. This store is definitely for serious buyers. El Diablo also sells pedals and accessories, some new and many others used. It also offers lessons and hosts occasional events.

This is a well-crafted website. It is easy to navigate, and there is lots of information and a good presentation overall (except for a few broken links that took me to blank pages). But be aware that El Diablo is not a bargain shop; some serious dinero is required!

Homestead Pickin’ Parlor

Some musical instrument store websites are flashy, some are a bit drab, and some are in that great in-between. Your MI Spy thinks that Homestead Pickin’ Parlor is in that third category, with its laid-back, kind of understated homepage done in light, natural colors. The store’s logo shows a hand decked out with a variety of fingerpicks making the “OK” sign, and a photo depicting guitars and banjos hanging on wall is placed front and center on the homepage. That’s a great way to welcome string instrument enthusiasts to the page.

Homestead has been serving the folk music and bluegrass communities since 1979, with instrument sales, lessons, jams and other events. It sells a variety of new and used instruments. For instance, its banjos range in price from just under $500 to over $4,000. Click on the photo of each instrument, and you’ll be sent to a page that lists the MSRP and product specs (and as the site says, if you phone the store, you’ll get the “HPPARP,” or the “Homestead Pickin’ Parlor Actual Retail Price,” which I guess means they’re open to haggling). The store’s acoustic guitar selection is not huge, but it stocks some beautiful models. It also sells mandolins, ukuleles and other instruments.

Homestead also sells a variety of accessories, but if you click on the photos of guitar straps, strings or other items, you don’t get specifics — just an enlargement of the photos, not prices and brands. The store should make this section of the website more informative.

One thing that is particularly interesting about the website and Homestead in general is the number of music lessons and instructors it has. It goes way beyond the typical guitar, violin and bass lessons: It also offers lessons in accordion, banjo, dulcimer, autoharp, pedal steel, harmonica, voice resophonic guitar and even music theory. Several instructors work with Homestead, and you can read their credentials by clicking on their names. In addition, Homestead has jams and workshops that you can explore on the website (and eventually in person).

Overall, the website is easy to get around, and works well, but would be bolstered by more information in the accessories and books sections.

Editor’s Note: Check back in the July issue as MI Spy reviews four more Minneapolis MI store websites and determines a winner among all nine stores.

For more reports from the MI Spy, click here.

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