Our good friend Brian Majeski of the Music Trades magazine has kindly let us share this brilliant article about how a store in the US used E-Commerce to reinvent itself.
Music Makers used a creative e-commerce strategy to offset the impact of a struggling local economy
Music Makers was like a lot of small-town music stores when it first opened in 2001. Owner Dave Plunk was committed to serving his Galesburg, Illinois community of around 30,000 with quality products, fair prices, and attentive service. And it was working.
Then in 2004, Maytag, the area’s largest employer, packed its refrigerator factory and thousands of jobs off to Mexico. With nothing on the appliance giant’s scale to replace it, Galesburg suffered, and Music Makers, still located on Main Street, has struggled even as competitors, one by one, slipped from the scene. But in 2017 Plunk seized an opportunity, shrugged off apprehensions, and set Music Makers on an ambitious new path that just might serve as a model for music retailers enduring less than favourable circumstances.
Remembering Music Makers fondly, Galesburg native Evan Holmes stopped by the store last year during a vacation he and his wife were spending in his old hometown. In a chat with Plunk, he revealed that he had worked at Reverb.com for two years helping small businesses develop their e-commerce capabilities.
Intrigued, Plunk asked him to help Music Makers. Apart from nostalgia, Holmes was motivated by Music Makers’ “really incredible inventory,” in part a product of the business’s challenges. The area’s economic doldrums meant that many musicians were selling their guitars, and many instrument purchases involved a trade-in.
Treasures displayed on the showroom wall included a 1967 Epiphone Casino with a Bigsby, a 1973 Les Paul Deluxe Goldtop with minihumbuckers, and a 1958 Gibson ES-125 hollow body “that looked like it had never left its owner’s living room.” Plunk was aware of his inventory’s value, but due to Galesburg’s stubbornly depressed local economy, his customers couldn’t pay what the many used and vintage instruments were worth. As a result, the guitars became known to regular customers as “Dave’s personal collection,” with all the esteem (and prospects for sale) of a museum exhibit. Most didn’t even have price tags.
Plunk had long wanted to develop a more effective e-commerce presence, and Music Makers already had a website, created with a well-known e-commerce software template. On the surface, it looked very professional, allowing insertion of stock images and banners to announce store events. But what it didn’t do, Holmes explains, was expose the store’s inventory to a larger audience. “People needed to know about Music Makers and search out its site to buy a product,” he says. Also, every web sale brought a “mini-crisis” of clerical and administrative chores. This hassle, along with the site’s negligible sales, had dampened Plunk’s inclination to develop that side of the business. His inertia was amplified by the notion that engineering a new, more sophisticated site required substantial investment of time and money before any of its benefits could be realized.
Holmes quickly convinced him otherwise. Beyond getting the store’s wares in front of a huge number of buyers, their first objective was to sell some of its long-inventoried guitars on Reverb and eBay to kick-start Music Makers’ liquidity. (The 1973 Les Paul sold for $2,900.)
After retooling its e-commerce capabilities in June 2017, Music Makers’ August sales soared to $40,000, a huge sum for the small-market retailer. And within three months, the strategy had generated about $100,000 in online sales.
Seeing Music Makers’ future, Plunk resolved to upgrade its own site’s e-commerce capabilities. With Holmes leading the way, the following months were spent working out the systems, how to brand the store, how to photograph the products and format the descriptions, and other details.
“We used Reverb Sites for the engine of our website,” Holmes explains. “From a logistical standpoint, most small businesses don’t have the staff and time to list products separately on eBay, Amazon, Reverb, and their own website. Reverb Sites takes everything we have posted on Reverb and automatically posts it on MusicMakers.com. So in one fell swoop we have our inventory displayed nationally, to millions, as well as our own branded website. In effect, Music Makers is doing its advertising on Reverb.”
After the initial stockpile of long-held guitars had dwindled, Music Makers made all of its new instruments available online alongside the used and vintage items. Because the store’s name recognition had improved with plenty of positive customer feedback on Reverb, the market paid attention when Music Makers began publicizing new product arrivals.
Meanwhile, Plunk used the liquidity created with the store’s initial push on Reverb to invest in more desirable used gear. There is now an entire page on the Music Makers website dedicated to gear buying, and it’s helping to maintain the flow of used and vintage instruments.
Music Makers’ transformation has created an almost romantic narrative that contributes to the store’s branding and consumer allure. Holmes recalls a customer bringing in a 1970 ES 150 D, “a big old hollow-body Gibson with a pristine walnut finish—and the hang tags still on it. [By that time] we had the liquidity to give this person a reasonable price for it, and maybe this instrument from a farmhouse outside of Galesburg will get sold and shipped to Nashville, where it will be played on a session for a country record.”
Some of the store’s newly acquired used items are purchased on Reverb. Holmes explains, “If we see extraordinary used and vintage items online, we now have the budget and flexibility of selling in a national market to add them to our inventory.” Both Plunk and Holmes, whose tenure at Reverb also involved used product appraisals, have an eye for vintage instruments.
As it was expanding its e-commerce operation, Music Makers was also ramping up its branding as the “Midwest Music Hub.” Prior to last summer’s rebirth,
Music Makers’ social media presence comprised a couple of Facebook posts a month, typically announcing in-store events. “It wasn’t growing things,” says Holmes. “It was reaching people who already knew about the store.” Now, with an incentive to reach potential customers in other cities and states, the store puts out multiple Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter posts a day. While also helping increase store foot traffic, this effort burnishes the store’s image as a national player.
A full-service combo store, Music Makers offers set-ups and repairs, and private lessons priced at just $15 per half-hour. (“It’s really important to Dave that lessons are affordable for everyone,” says Holmes.) These remain integral to its local business success, as does its pro audio installation service, which was a significant factor in sustaining Music Makers through the previous lean decade.
Being the music store in the region has made Music Makers the go-to resource for pro audio questions and installations in everything from the local coffee shop, bars, and restaurants to churches, the local high school athletic complex, and the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Galesburg.
The goal of showcasing the service’s scope on the site was to expand beyond its local, word-of-mouth promotion to reach potential clients in the Quad Cities “or anyone within a 200-mile radius Google-ing audio installation. We’re anticipating a slower climb in installations than with instrument sales,” Holmes admits, “because we don’t have Reverb’s shoulders to stand on. But raising our visibility has already increased the number of inquiries, and inevitably the number of projects will be growing as well.”
Website images of completed installations complement shots of guitars on the showroom walls and musicians gathering for the regular Saturday-morning song circle, where mostly older local musicians meet to sing traditional and ’70s folk songs. All project the homey essence of the Music Makers brick-and-mortar experience to consumers beyond Galesburg, a concerted goal of the store’s new branding and marketing efforts.
Rather than the stark white background common to the industry’s online giants, MusicMakers.com displays products against the worn wood floor of the 120-year-old, tin-ceilinged building that the physical store occupies. Visitors get a sense of the physical store as they browse its virtual “shelves.” Holmes explains, “Customers feel they’re ordering a particular instrument off the showroom wall of this community music store, where it gets professionally set up before it’s shipped to them, not a generic unit still sealed in plastic, in a factory box pulled off a 30-foot warehouse rack.”
Re-creating this organic shopping experience online has inspired some customers to make the drive to Galesburg from Davenport and cities as far away as Chicago. Employees have seen them “walk into our store while looking at MusicMakers.com on their phones.” At the last homecoming celebration for Galesburg’s Knox College, the influx of alumnae included customers who remembered Music Makers as their little local music storefront but had also been checking out the reborn Music Makers online. Despite having no planned sales event, the store rang up “huge in-store sales” of instruments and other gear customers had previously found on its website. “Local customers want to feel like they’re buying from Dave,” says Holmes. Later they discovered that even customers with no prior affiliation—or proximity—to Music Makers also like the idea of buying from a “real” neighborhood retailer.
Combining a local vibe with a national reach has generated about $170,000 worth of online sales over the past six months, a “mind-blowing” achievement giving Plunk and Holmes confidence that, with the right inventory and online strategy, they’re not stuck in a local, or even regional economy.
“It sounds corny,” says Holmes, whose original agreement to help out on a part-time, temporary basis has turned into a permanent position as internet sales manager, “but we’re using two distinct identities: national online sales juxtaposed with a Middle America music shop where locals sing Byrds tunes and buy their guitars. We’re leveraging those vibes against each other. Our goal is for our site to give people who’ve never heard of Galesburg the experience of walking into a small Main Street storefront. Rather than trying to be something we’re not—a big box or mega-store—we’re trying to take what we are to a national audience. And so far, we’re seeing that vision really resonate.”