The coronavirus pandemic will cause many changes that MI retailers need to be prepared for. This month’s Veddatorial explains what those changes may entail.

When I wrote my last column, it was the second of March. Shelter-in-place orders had not yet been issued, March Madness was still on, as was the NBA season, baseball home openers and the Tokyo Olympics. It was still impossible to conceive that churches would cancel Easter services. You know the litany; you’ve watched it play out like all of us, and likely now you’re sitting around wondering if and how your business will survive.

Sure, well-capitalized businesses, those with access to credit or recipients of government aid will have an easier time of it. But even those of us that come out of the pandemic tunnel intact will be faced with tremendous challenges — and perhaps opportunities.

Despite the fact that I didn’t foresee the scope of the social disruption coming in March, I stand by my conclusions about the aftermath. Thinking specifically about our industry, there’s a lot to process. Certainly, people’s perception of things like store cleanliness will be far more critical. And like customer service, the customer’s experience will weigh far more than any claims about how clean your establishment is. Expect questions about your cleaning regimen as part of the lesson signup process, for example.

There are other changes we’ll see, of course. Adjustments on the supply side regarding sourcing and inventory levels will all be re-examined. Many retailers who had been brick and mortar only in the past will look at some sort of online selling presence, even if it’s affiliate-based. After all, if the governor closes your store on you, online is a lifeline.

Here’s where I see a lot of opportunities, though: We’ve already seen that a sudden surge in online purchasing wreaks havoc. That fiendishly efficient Amazon machine is actually a precariously balanced stack of blocks. Increase the demand dramatically, and unpredictably change the product blend so carefully spun into algorithms of desire, and all that “free two-day shipping” stuff goes by the wayside, mistakes multiply and workers rebel. I suddenly got calls from people grateful that I could sell them reeds or strings, because even with schools closed, the kids had to post playing tests online now … and Amazon couldn’t get the goods to them until the end of April, six weeks away.

Despite mandated closing, I have personally kept a light on for our community, answering the phone myself for several hours a day, picking up and delivering repairs, and making sure in a safe and contactless way that we take care of our community. We’ve been posting daily on social media, from information to our own performances, and with everyone cocooned at home, our engagement went up an astounding 33,000 percent almost overnight. (Of course, now it’s stable at a higher level, so the changes are not that dramatic any longer.)

One of the things I’ve been very grateful for is that our community — and yes, this is what I’ve been harping about for several years when I talk about a “community music store” — has stepped up to support a local business closed by edict. People have purchased gift certificates for future use, brought in instruments they had not planned to repair yet, and shared our messages at large. If we survive, it’s because of our community.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of all this, though, is that the first thing I heard when the schools were closed and people started staying at home was, “I’m getting my old (guitar, flute, violin, etc.) out. I need something to do if I’m going to be sitting at home for weeks.” Yup, for many, the first thought was music, and we went through strings, reeds, setups and cleanings like wildfire for a few days. At first, because most people didn’t envision anything as extensive as the “shelter-in-place” situation that developed, we even had people calling for lessons. I saw much the same thing after 9/11: Even people who were laid off by the airlines came in for our help playing music.

It is, I think, the one thing we have going for us: People again and again tell us they want and need music, for comfort, for community, for intellectual stimulation. The response to posted musical performances — from artists and professionals to home-grown family bands — has been gratifying. Our own “Music for Shut-ins” series on our Facebook page has certainly reached an audience, despite its off-the-cuff nature.

I hope that, as people are given the time to pursue music, we will observe the seeding of a customer base that will sprout quickly once some strictures are relaxed. Heading into summer, I envision many who will still be uncomfortable with travel and large-scale events, but hungering for what I think of as the “smaller satisfactions.” If we remain in our customers’ view, I really think we’ll see business come back to us as the dust settles. No, we won’t just jump in where we left off. Guidelines will be relaxed slowly, so business will return slowly. But with any luck, it will come back with a broader base and deeper consumer interest. That can make up for lost time, played properly.

So as far as I’m concerned, “job one” for the moment is to keep our name in front of our audience and help as many people as we can in the context of current conditions. People will remember us as helpers, and the source for something that helped them get through all this. When we all start emerging again, a “new normal” of a clean and comfortable environment can attract customers back to us. Hopefully they’ll be tired of screens and contactless interaction and craving exactly what we can provide: a community of music.

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