Experts agree the world will not completely return to what was seen pre-COVID-19. Knowing this, what you should do as an MI retailer?

So we’ve reopened, and we’re about two weeks live as I write this just after Memorial Day. While we are seeing more traffic than when we were officially closed, it’s still sparse, even for May. Of course, public confusion over the rolling litany of staggered openings means that a lot of people aren’t sure if we’re open. Getting to the ends of the abortive school year and staging virtual graduations is also consuming a lot of attention. But already, we’re seeing teachers come back, live in the store, with at least some of their students. (Although as I predicted, a big chunk of them are reticent — well, petrified is more accurate — about coming into a closed room for a lesson, being around wind players … the spit … AAAAAAHHHHH!!! You know the deal.)

Still, music holds a lot of peoples’ attention: as a stress-buster, as recreation and as a method of personal growth. It’s not just the kids, either; so many adults got through the spring thanks to music, and now that they’re faced with a summer of at least diminished possibilities, they appreciate the activity even more. We’ve already signed up students craving in-person lessons, and many of our pre-closure students who did not use Zoom with us through the quarantine months have asked to be notified the moment they can take lessons in the store again. Of course, everyone wants to ensure the safety of all involved and take the necessary precautions, but this interest shows the desire to make music is intact.

As we restock our inventory, it becomes evident that COVID-19 closures have often taken an even greater toll on some supply-side companies. It could not have been easy sitting on a full warehouse when most dealers were closed and big chains withheld payment while they sorted out their issues. So, I’m not surprised some of our sales reps are either gone or in suspended animation even though the company is shipping again. While I’ve always tried to cultivate personal relationships with my rep contacts, business-to-business portals have sometimes been the only way to get an order going. I’ve noticed the glaring differences between these interfaces: some user-friendly, some nearly useless. Those that show available inventory in real time also tell the story of stock outages due to delayed shipments or physical shutdown of domestic manufacturing (or just plain lack of money for inventory.)

Thanks to the pastiche of state-mandated strictures, putting our supply chain back together is a MacGyver kludge of new patterns as we try to stock what our customers want. We have a tiny honeymoon period to work with for a few weeks, but very soon store outages will drive people back online if we can’t fulfill their needs.

However, that presents the question: What do we do now? Plenty of pundits have warned everyone that there ain’t gonna be no reset. This isn’t about going back to pre-COVID existence; it’s about moving forward in a post-COVID world. The sooner we figure out what that means, the better chance we have of surviving, even thriving. But I stress (actually, I scream from the rooftop) that the path isn’t about our desires, it’s about what people want and feel comfortable doing.

That goes for both what we innovate and what we preserve. It would be just as foolish to think that everything must change as it would be to try to put everything back the way it was. People will forge the path.

Witness the dramatic surge in RV sales and rentals: Someone’s doing well in the post-COVID world — in an old-school way. People still want to go on vacation, and the RV approach makes them feel safer than flying and hotel rooms. But RV outlets need to harness their sudden windfall and convert fearful vacationers into RV enthusiasts. That may mean new programs, financing, new features — virtually every aspect of the way they do business will need to be reconsidered. I guarantee some dealers will grab the quick cash but never see return business, while the better-prepared, more creative, and thoroughly service-oriented dealers will see their businesses rise to new, sustainable heights. In the music products industry, we need to think in those terms even more.

Why? Because the RV industry is seeing a surge without taking a hit. Its core business remains minimally affected by the pandemic now that it can open. But we in MI will face a definite shift in our fortunes, one that I have been expecting for a few years, although not delivered in such dramatic fashion.

For example, schools are beginning to address band programs for next year. Unfortunately, in a growing number of districts, the decision is to suspend fifth-grade recruiting this year. Cautious administrators or overwhelmed directors in these systems would rather sidestep and wait for solutions, or at least calm the (often diametrically opposed) concerns of parents and the community, rather than addressing them. So while the schools in question still haven’t finalized the rest of band and orchestra, they’re definitely skipping a year as far as startups. For dealers who are exclusively band and orchestra oriented, this is an existential crisis. Further, while marching band will likely go on this fall (because of football), band competitions and festivals may be reduced or eliminated. If your main customers are band directors, good luck. This is why I have always touted relationships with families and end-users rather than school personnel. Having those relationships is helping us now, because we’re being approached by families who want to start the kids anyway, get a rental and sign up for lessons instead of waiting for the school program to start them.

If you cater to performers, they’re not working, and likely won’t work much this year. Some are scrambling to replace income via Patreon and other donation-based platforms, but at best, it’s just keeping most afloat. We’ll not only lose the revenue active players generate for consumables like reeds, strings, cables and other staples, we may actually lose those players completely as they are forced to pivot to other jobs just to make some sort of living.

So, faced with the fragmentation of “traditional” markets … it’s time to get creative. I’ve been letting everyone in my store know that my take is not that we’re reopening; we’re starting a new business. That means rethinking everything with an eye toward satisfying the needs of customers who seek us out. This is not the time to think of your store as belonging to a pigeonhole category when all the categories have been blasted to bits. Trying to prop up old models and hoping for a return to outmoded “normalcy” is pointless.

Yet unquestionably, people still want to make music. How do we reach them and convince them that we can help them do so? The businesses that figure that out will survive, and will likely become the industry leaders in a few years. The race is already on. Ready? Set? And … go!

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