Music stores play the blues as consumers play on(line)

Photo: Guitar Center
Mar 09, 2018

Online selling has taken its toll on the selling of guitars. But the CEO of Gibson Guitars, Henry Juszkiewicz, believes the in-store experience at music stores is also partly to blame.

In an interview with Billboard, Mr. Juszkiewicz vexed that music stores have little seating, are generally unwelcoming to women and often located in seedy districts that turn off families. He wondered why the most expensive guitars hang high on walls while Apple has no problem providing easy access to its priciest items. Staff often lacks knowledge of the latest recording technology, and many stores are “afraid of e-commerce” amid complaints around showrooming, he asserts. 

Part of the problem is that electric guitars haven’t evolved since their arrival in the fifties due to the influence of “purists,” and innovation is required to reach a new generation of players. Said Mr. Juszkiewicz, “Kids are out there creating their own music and their own videos; we have to find a way to be a part of their lives.”

A new article from Acoustic Guitar magazine on the state of the independent music store encouragingly said some stores are using online engagement to motivate consumers to come in and try a guitar. Retailers are adding demonstration videos and 360-degree imagery to websites, and some stores are successfully using Reverb, a bidding site similar to eBay. Starter packages (including instrument, accessories and instructional books) can be helpful in encouraging beginners.

An article last year in The Washington Post exploring the declining popularity of the electric guitar pointed to the growth of School of Rock to nearly 200 branches as a potential path to encourage today’s youth to pick up the guitar.

But both the Acoustic Guitar and Post articles lamented that fewer teenagers and Millennials are interested in the electric guitar due to changing musical tastes. A lack of “guitar heroes” to inspire kids remains a hurdle.

What’s worse, yesteryears’ guitar buyers, largely Boomers, are shedding their vintage collections. Richard Ash, CEO of Sam Ash, the largest chain of family-owned music stores in the U.S., told the Post, “Our customers are getting older, and they’re going to be gone soon.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see ways music stores can reimagine in-store selling and online engagement to help revive the electric guitar and overall instrument category? What’s the best path to connect with teenagers and Millennials?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Music stores need to invite wannabes in and make them welcome — not intimidate them from touching the merchandise."
"We call them “music stores” — they should be selling the experience of making music. If you define it that way, it’s a whole other world..."
"...the problem with music stores isn’t online, it’s in the associates and the ease with which you can demo and enjoy the best equipment."

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15 Comments on "Music stores play the blues as consumers play on(line)"

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Lee Peterson
Confession: I used to rotate going to guitar stores on Saturday mornings just to go in and play the best instruments for the fun of it. I rotated them so the employees wouldn’t figure out what I was doing. Because the associates of a classic music store don’t like you coming in and messing with their museum pieces (in their minds) and touching the store up. That means more work for them! Or a scuff they might have to polish out. Heaven forbid. They also prefer pro musicians to us amateurs, who, of course, would be the bulk of their business. So from a ton of experience I can tell you, the problem with music stores isn’t online, it’s in the associates and the ease with which you can demo and enjoy the best equipment. Which, if they were actual retailers, they would realize causes you to buy a $1,000 piece of equipment every now and then (but not every time). There is NO substitute for picking up an instrument and playing it. Not one… Read more »
Bob Amster

It baffles me that guitars would sell online to the point of hurting in-store sales. If you are going to want to play the guitar, I would think that you’d want to feel it in your hands, strap it around the shoulder and hear it while you play. Music stores could do any number of things to enhance the shopping experience such as put the customer in a soundproof room with a screen in which one can see oneself playing alongside one of their favorite guitar idols. Music stores could show on-demand videos of the customer’s favorite music groups or soloists. I think the music segment may be missing an opportunity to entice and enhance.

Ben Ball

Having just spent a weekend hanging around downtown Nashville, it is hard to believe half the people in America don’t walk around with a guitar on their back! But the son of a friend who is trying to “make it in Nashville” also works in a guitar store. And it is not in the best part of town. But that’s not so much the issue. The issue is that the store is just darned intimidating for anyone who isn’t a “picker” (Nashville slang for someone who can really play). I would have loved to pick up some of those classic Gibsons and give them a strum, but there was no way I would do it in that atmosphere. Mr. Juszkiezwicz is correct. Music stores need to invite wannabe’s in and make them welcome — not intimidate them from touching the merchandise.

Rick Moss

That’s an important point, Ben. My local Guitar Center has a separate little room for the high end acoustics, complete with stools, so you can close the door and play the guitars without fear of intimidation. I’ve yet to have an associate pester me while in there. Then again, when it came time to buy the model I decided on, I went to a classic old independent store with wizened old players who offered invaluable advice.

Bob Phibbs

I put it squarely on the in-store experience. Many retail music stores were new in the ’60s when interiors could be painted black and grey and off in a corner of a shopping center; they still look and smell that way. Many employ untrained staff who largely want to “get rid” of the customer looking at an instrument rather than encouraging them to pickup and use it — guitar or piano. Think the crew in the movie High Fidelity. The staff have to want to work with shoppers, not commiserate behind the counter.

I’ve worked with several music retailers including Cosmo Music in Toronto who are doing fine encouraging and selling instruments. Fix the training by fixing the engagement and you fix sales. Bemoaning your customers dying is a loser’s limp.

David Weinand

I agree totally with Lee and Bob. And from my experience, Guitar Center is usually hopping with people testing guitars so the touch/feel aspect is real. The problem is, there are just far fewer people doing it. As Tom pointed out, musical tastes are just completely different. Rock music, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t exist (save for the Foo Fighters of the world). New music, deemed alternative, is far less guitar-centric. As someone who is a massive music fan (I started Rock&Roll Retail at NRF just for this reason), and someone who does like much of the new music, it’s still a real bummer that guitar rock is a dying art — and that the retailers catering to it just may die with it.

Dave Bruno

I truly believe rock guitar will make a comeback, and young bands like Greta Van Fleet give me hope — and hope for music retail as well! But for that to happen, as many have commented, the store experience needs an upgrade — a commitment to more help, more access to inventory and more opportunities to explore and experiment.

David Weinand

Ha! I certainly hope you’re right. I have to check out any band with the name “Van” in it! There are definitely exceptions of good guitar rock and I could continue this conversion for a LONG time — but it’s probably better suited for music site! As for the store experience — I totally agree, your recommendations apply to multiple formats/segments.

James Tenser

Hmmm… is it the Van in the band, or the band in the van that really matters most?

Nikki Baird

I agree with the other comments: the in-store experience stinks, it’s intimidating, dark, dusty, full of “guitar bros” who look down their noses at newbies, or are newbies themselves and can barely choke out a few talking points about the difference between this or that.

There are definitely opportunities. Music is an important part of kids’ lives — I don’t believe it’s on the decline at all. Retailers need to expand into the whole lifecycle of all kinds of musicians. I look at my own kids – one plays drums and keys, the other guitar. One messes around on her own, the other has a full-on band (if they could keep a singer without any drama). But they have few places to practice. Practice rooms, lessons — these could all be part of the offering.

We call them “music stores” — they should be selling the experience of making music. If you define it that way, it’s a whole other world of opportunity rather than just a death spiral.

Dan Raftery

Guitars may be the most popular instrument, but there are others too, ya know. Music stores that want to survive need to target more people through a broader instrument offering. Online components of a strategy are certainly important, but you can try a new ______ only in a store (or conference, where a lot of this trial has gone).

Plus, service is very important at two levels: the knowledgeable sales person is critical to the sale, but the professional repair department will keep a customer returning for a long time. Those are even harder to find, by the way.

Education is the third leg. Private lessons, equipment rental, even a sheet music library all fall under education. If the first two legs are solid, this one can be the frosting on the cake. A nice relationship with local schools helps too.

Focusing solely on guitars may be the problem.

Shep Hyken

I’m a music lover. I play guitar — and own a bunch of them. My kids love music and play guitar, drums and keyboards. We love going to music stores. Yes, there is a new style of popular music that is digital and computer based. However, the experience anyone has when they learn to play an instrument is amazing. If they love it, and many do, they are hooked. The store experience doesn’t have to start in the store. It can start in schools. There is an association of music retailers that focus on schools. Get them into music at the school level and they will graduate from rented school instruments to buying from the retailer. And, that in-store experience can do a lot to further the cause. Finally, a little over a month ago the National Association of Music Merchandisers had their annual trade show, and it broke attendance records with over 110,000 attendees.

Joel Rubinson

Interesting and personal discussion for me both as a musician and because my first cousin Elliott created one of the largest music store chains (Thoroughbred music) in the country that he sold to Sam Ash. Any older musician who passed through Florida would tell you about Thoroughbred. He then owned and ran Dean Guitars and D-Drums. Now his son (my second cousin Evan) runs the business. Elliott told me (and others who visited the store) that Thoroughbred was a place musicians would hang out, jam, socialize, and feel a part of a community. Sounds a lot like Apple stores! Now I go into a store only when I have to buy something and I would love to whip out some harps and jam, but they tell me to be quiet! BTW, music tastes are changing. Ukes are the big thing now. I think Elliott had the right idea about community.

Mike Osorio

I am a amateur player and my son also caught the bug and took it further than I did and continues to play for fun occasionally. I agree that guitar playing is far from dead even though guitar-led popular music is not as significant as we’d like.

The in-store experience, designed for gen Y & Z, if imagined from a blank slate, would certainly be experiential, clean and understandable, with all product available for trying out, staffed by customer-focused passionate people ready to serve any need.

The big guys, like Guitar Center (if their debt situation allows), should be experimenting with new formats and locations to see what resonates with today’s consumer. If the big boys can’t do it, I hope to see an upstart show us all how it can be done. In other words, like any musician, keep practicing!

Christopher P. Ramey

It’s a passion product and their best prospects are digital natives who are likely to be highly impressionable incompetent want-to-be artists.

The winner will be the one who effectively sexes-up the prospect – not the product.

"Music stores need to invite wannabes in and make them welcome — not intimidate them from touching the merchandise."
"We call them “music stores” — they should be selling the experience of making music. If you define it that way, it’s a whole other world..."
"...the problem with music stores isn’t online, it’s in the associates and the ease with which you can demo and enjoy the best equipment."

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