Internet retail now accounts for more than eight percent of all retail spending by consumers. Big-box retail and malls are suffering, and the pain is showing in the constant press coverage with screaming headlines about “the death of retail.” Recently, however, I read an interesting article about the growing opportunity for small, independent retailers that don’t sell commodities to grow their business by using their strengths—and the weaknesses of big-box retail—to serve their customer base. The article got me thinking. Why have so many MI retail customers turned to online shopping? What are the secrets of the music businesses that continue to grow and thrive in a challenging retail landscape?

Although plenty has been written about the history of Sweetwater, and we’ve seen nice press coverage when Sweetwater’s Founder and President, Chuck Surack, makes a donation or gets an award, I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand how a single-location retail store has become, according to industry sources, the number-two MI retailer in America. This is a company that, in Surack’s words, decided it “would not participate in the recession.” And, spoiler alert: It didn’t. Sweetwater’s sales grew from $136 million in 2009 to more than $500 million in 2016. And Sweetwater has never been known for the giant price-cutting tactics of Guitar Center, either. So, how does it attract new customers and keep existing ones coming back? At the beginning of April, I went to Ft. Wayne, Ind., to learn what makes Sweetwater different and what small, independent MI retailers can learn from the company.

A Bit Of History

First, some background. After a few years of home recording with a cheap interface, I realized I was severely limited by its low quality and low input count. So, I did some research online, talked to friends and tried to find a way to get a better interface through Larry’s Music Center, where I work. At the time, it was very difficult for small, independent stores to get those lines; by contrast, now, many are readily accessible through KMC, Hal Leonard and others. Because I couldn’t get one where I worked, had a bunch of questions and knew I didn’t want to buy from Guitar Center, I called Sweetwater.

I spoke to a Sales Engineer named Matt Masek. Although he was a little surprised to find me calling from another store, he let me explain my situation and that I was looking for recommendations. I got sound advice, along with a deal on a demo unit of a MOTU 8pre. That unit is still working as an expansion unit in my home studio to this day. And, although I never bought anything additional, I still hear from Matt. He’ll check in just to see what’s new, what kind of stuff I’m using and what I might need in the future. Every time I talk to him, he always seems to remember everything about me. It’s great, but it was also curious. After all, I can’t keep that much information in my head. As it turns out, Matt doesn’t have to.

Technology To Build Relationships

Sweetwater’s sales engineers field a variety of calls from customers that range from cruise lines to individuals. All those accounts are a lot to manage! So, they use custom Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, e-mail and note-taking applications, along with Sweetwater’s sales system, to keep track of important customer information. While I was visiting the campus, I met Matt, and he showed me his workspace and the software that sales engineers use to track sales and customer details and to share information internally. Some of the software is custom made and some is appropriated stock software; taken together, however, it’s a powerful information tool.

Back when I called in to ask advice about interfaces, I became a customer in Sweetwater’s CRM database. Ever since, that’s allowed the sales engineers to track what I’ve bought and what I’m thinking about buying…even what’s going on in my life that’s learned during conversation. Having all that information at their fingertips—organized and ready for recall—allows the sales engineers to build personal and lasting relationships with customers. That helps overcome the barrier that most customers perceive between themselves and a person answering the phone.

Investment In Media

Let me state it simply: Original content drives traffic. Seventy percent of consumers are more likely to buy a product if they’ve watched a video about it. Sweetwater’s Web site and social media accounts are rich with information-focused content. Those vehicles have a specific voice and goal: namely, a resource to educate consumers. Sweetwater’s content is very professional…

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