A Year in MI Retail: Moseley Violins


We have asked a range of retailers 3 key questions to find out about their experience of 2020. Today, Alice talks to David Bruce Johnson, Director of Moseley Violins, which is a ‘micro-business’, based in Birmingham…

Moseley Violins is a ‘micro-business’, based in Birmingham, employing only 4 people to repair, restore and sell orchestral string instruments from student to professional level. The two principals, David Bruce Johnson and François Bignon, have been in the trade over 40 years. They and one other member of staff repair and restore and another who is an amplification expert, and all share in the retail side of the business.

Q: To say 2020 was a difficult year in Retail would be an understatement. What was the one challenge that stands out most?

A: The biggest challenge was getting the right information to make the best decisions. While we have many concerns about finance and cash flow, we would be devastated if a member of staff of a customer became ill as a result of an action or omission of ours.  As a small firm we don’t have a personnel, legal or research teams.

Also, as little research had been done on Covid 19 and ‘stories’ about it changed day-by- day, so the constant decision-making was exhausting.. We found a good source of information was the BBC Science webpages – which gave clear and straight forward assessments of which related research could be drawn upon to help make safe decisions. The MIA was helpful too. The webinars they organised with other music retailers were reassuring in that we were all facing the same dilemmas and we could share our thinking. Also, we were assured we weren’t alone!

The MIA’s circulation of some French Government Guidance (in English) aimed specifically at the musical retail trade was very, very helpful. We then felt more confident in making decisions. Our accountants, Cutters and Co, were also helpful dealing with the furlough side of things, the legal advice line provided by our insurers Allianz, and the local (Birmingham City) Council, once we found the right person to talk to, helped provide clear advice too.

Based all the information we had we decided to ask staff and customers to wear masks early on, many weeks before the Government and the World Health Organisation encouraged people to do so.  Luckily, we were able to obtain colourful and comfortable masks from a neighbour who was encouraged to make masks to sell to raise money for a charity food kitchen.

Q: Of the ways you changed your business, which one has been the most fundamental?

A: The main change is that we have made our service ‘appointment-only’ as this allows us to restrict access to one group of customers at a time, for their safety and ours. Like most things this has had a number of upsides, in that we have been able to plan for their arrival, having instruments in their price range tuned and ‘warmed’ up for them to hear and try. They then have our undivided attention and a better quality service.  Many have contacted us afterwards saying how much they enjoyed the process of choosing an instrument, the good attention and that they will pass on our details to others. Word-of-mouth – the best marketing!

Going forward, we will certainly keep some form of appointment system and encourage customers wanting to buy an instrument to use it. People can underestimate that, even at student level, each instrument has its own ‘voice’. It takes time to listen to a range of instruments and choose the one that inspires you the most.  Once people have had this experience we will know they will nearly always come back to a retail shop again, rather than buying on line. To help new customers understand this we have been putting lots of sound samples for individual instruments on our website. www.moseleyviolins.co.uk

Q: What do you feel is the biggest opportunity for your business in 2021?

A: Like most retailers, we hope that there is a lot of pent-up demand going to be released, once restrictions can be lifted.  We know we have many existing customers keen to come back to our shop.

In general, people haven’t been spending as much but saving and we believe they will appreciate coming back to the retail experience after months of being ‘stuck at home’.  However, as retailers, we will need to make sure it is an enjoyable, quality service.

However, we have also been busy building up our website so that we have another ‘shop front’.  We watched a useful webinar hosted by the Federation of Small Businesses and one of the expert panel made a good case for taking a staged approach to going online. So we have resisted jumping into a complete online service, believing although it’s where people will find us first, and they can then choose to take the opportunity to come and hear and feel the instruments themselves. The best of both worlds!  However, over lockdown, we have sold more of our electric violins, including our own custom-made brand Violectra.

We also believe that Covid 19 has changed people’s thinking about what is important to them. So people may increasingly want the ‘The Repair Shop’ experience, a chance to talk about a treasured possession with someone who cares about it as much as they do, and has the skills and experience to restore an instrument to its best playability and quality of sound.

We have used the time that staff were not furloughed, to restore our considerable backlog of antique and second hand stock, so the choice we can offer will be even greater.

Choosing a musical instrument or having one restored to back to life  should be a special moment in anyone’s life and we hope we can continue to provide that in 2021 and beyond!