By Michael Raine
With Summer NAMM approaching, and with it, the annual Top 100 Dealer Awards, CMT decided to chat with the
owners of three Canadian companies on the Top 100 Dealers list to find out the keys to their success
Just two years ago, singer-songwriters Jenn Ladd and Paul Haggis decided to radically change their lifestyles and open Blue Dog Guitars in North Vancouver. It has quickly become the region’s premier destination for highend acoustic guitars and earned a spot on NAMM’s Top 100 Dealers list in each of its first two years in business.
CMT: Why start a niche music store at a time that hasn’t been very friendly for independent music stores?
Jenn Ladd: When we started it was even less friendly. People thought we were crazy generally, and that was just our family [laughs]. There was a huge niche here, firstly. We were looking for high-end guitars in Victoria and Vancouver and couldn’t find any because we wanted some just for ourselves. There was nothing here and so it was kind of an eye opener and we said, ‘Well gee, there’s an opportunity.’ Once we saw that opportunity, that’s when we started exploring it. And also, we were ready for a life change. We were ready to do something that we really wanted
to do instead of what we had to do for a living and we were willing to take that risk…
We actually currently live above the shop; it is a commercial retail live/ work space. We did things to reduce our costs, especially in Vancouver where the rents are so high. So instead of paying two rents, we chose to live minimally and as the business grows, we can grow.
CMT: Was there a business philosophy or vision that allowed you to get on the Top 100 list in each of your first two years?
JL: We’re all about honesty and integrity and we learned that from Rich Hoover [at Santa Cruz Guitars.] That is the nature of our personalities and we really wanted to approach our business with that same philosophy. We don’t want to sell you something and have you return it. We have a one per cent return rate on our instruments and we make sure you’re buying exactly what you want.
Paul Haggis: The other thing is we wanted to create a space where we ourselves would want to go and shop. When you’re buying a good instrument, it involves some time. You need to sit down and play it and not have a guy checking out a Marshall stack in the room next to you. I think that has been a part of our success too.
CMT: How did you connect with the niche high-end acoustic guitar market so quickly?
JL: Our Facebook page grows organically every day without us putting any effort into it. Every day we get new ‘likes’ and we want it to be people who actually like the store because there is no point in having 20,000 people ‘like’ your page who have no interest in guitars. We’ve sold guitars through Facebook by putting a picture on Facebook and the guitar is gone within 10 minutes. People phone and a buy it over the phone or drive down right
away if they’re in town. Instruments don’t even necessarily make it to our webpage before they’re gone.
PH: The other thing, I think, is when we came to town, because of what we brought to the table, all the local builders who maybe only had international representation and certainly had international reputations…
JL: …but weren’t represented locally and were world class luthiers, like David Webber, Shelley D. Park…
PH: …Michael Dunn, they wanted to get in on the party when they realized that they could have their guitars next to the big boys, the Lowdens and Huss & Dalton.
JL: We wanted to support the local luthiers because there are so many here in B.C. I don’t want to say we didn’t want to support the bad ones, but we don’t. So we’re very picky about who is in our shop.
Dale Wentworth has been in the MI business since he and his parents founded Wentworth Music in 1966 in Kelowna, BC. Now with two additional stores in Vernon and Penticton, BC, it remains a family business. Dale’s three sons are a vital part of the operation, with Nori Wentworth as VP of sales, Noel Wentworth as VP of education and media, and Neil Wentworth as VP of finance. This is also the second year in a row that Wentworth Music has made the NAMM Top 100 list.
CMT: Going back to 2013 when Wentworth first made the Top 100 list, why did you think you had a shot at it?
DW: Honestly, I thought our business was a little different than the traditional retail store that has sort of evolved over the decades. We are very, very proactive in our communities and we always have been. It’s just that I think we’re probably seeing a little less of it in today’s retail environment with the box stores and whatever, that it’s really not part of their game plan. If fact, it is up to brick and mortar stores to keep this community involvement going. We support one charity and that’s the children’s ward at our local hospitals and one of our claims to fame is Noel’s dream of producing the rock concerts. He runs two of these a year and they’re absolutely major productions using our students. Each one has a theme and over the last five or six years we’ve raised over $110,000 for the children’s ward. So we put our full efforts into those shows and it has worked out very, very well.
CMT: Are there advantages and disadvantages to being a family business?
DW: One hundred per cent advantage. We just lucked out; all three of our sons are musicians, as my wife and I are and as both my parents were. So that is part of the DNA and a given, but one of the interesting things with the three boys is they each have an area of the business that they totally control. So there is very little crossover, and I think that maybe with a lot of family businesses that there is too much crossover and that’s when the ruffled feathers start coming in. Don’t get me wrong, we go through some pretty heated debates but the bottom line is we need the feedback from all these different opinions and people are coming from different perspectives and that, of course, helps the business. It’s been just a marvelous thing and we didn’t plan this. It just sort of evolved into that state and here we are.
CMT: What have you done to thrive in a market that hasn’t been very friendly to independent retailers?
DW: A very strong education department. We have a strong band rental program and we’ve got a fairly strong weekend rental program, PA systems and such. These are all service-oriented aspects, so when retail softens, as it has, you focus on the service even more than you normally would. That’s why we’re still here. In Kelowna, which is in the middle of our three stores, we lost five music stores last year; just in Kelowna. So the market is thinning out and it’s not just music stores, it’s everything – shoe stores and restaurants… Retail is hurting.
CMT: What is your advice for other MI owners and managers?
DW: I would say community involvement. There’s the key. It is not advertising, it’s not promoting instruments, it is involvement in the community. If somebody thinks about music, you want them to think about your brand. If you’re out there all the time, and I mean all the time, you’re the face of music in that environment. Now, you have to back that up with a quality organization, with the lines and a clean store and everything else that goes along with it; you can’t drop the ball. But I would say the majority of retailers in today’s society have clean stores and clean bathrooms and they like to dust off their merchandise and whatever, so just by doing that, it doesn’t set you apart from the pack.
Alan Merriam started Merriam Music in 1988 and now operates two locations in Oakville and Vaughan, ON. It has grown into one of the region’s premier high-end piano retailers and also operates one of the largest private music school programs in the country with around 3,000 students. This is Merriam Music’s first year on the NAMM Top 100 list.
CMT: What sets Merriam Music apart and earned it the Top 100 Dealer designation?
AM: Some of the guiding principles that have really been entrenched in the company are to build the company one customer at a time and to make sure
that right from the very first customer to the customer we had a few minutes ago, that we focus on their needs. We make sure that from the time we are trying to attract them to the company through marketing initiatives and website and radio and word of mouth, that they have a positive experience in terms of the perception. Then when they’re actually engaged with us on the phone or in the store, that they have an exceptional experience so that they walk out or end the call feeling that they have got the most reliable, credible, professional, detailed information on whatever category they are looking at, whether it is education or a product…
So, the training regimens we have for our staff, the vetting process we have for our staff, the standards we have for our staff, right across the board, I believe are the highest in the industry and we are extremely picky.
CMT: Are there challenges specific to piano retailers that differ from general MI retailers?
AM: We did the general MI thing for eight years and so we had a full line of guitars and we sold drums and we found that our model of customer service – really focusing on product knowledge and giving people a full array of options in terms of products – it was very, very difficult to compete with multi-chain retailers just because of the price differential.
We were doing extremely well and had extremely high ratings, people really loved working with us, but the people that we hired were all very high end people and we just found it was very difficult to run profitably. So I decided at that juncture that we would do what we were best at. I know pianos inside out and so I increased the piano offerings quite dramatically and I brought in some of the best brands from around the world and I believe in the piano industry, to really do well in this type of world, you have to have the best products and have the best prices and have staff that know their stuff inside out. That is the model we went with and our piano sales have quintupled over the past seven or eight years because we’ve just laser focused on specialty products and high end sales
people and quality training and great customer service and after sales service
initiatives – and that is in a declining market.