This article originally appeared in the December/January 2017 issue of Canadian Music Trade magazine.
By Andrew King
Guitar lovers in London, ON have somewhere new to get together, geek out, and put their hands on some truly unique instruments.
Earlier this year, the second floor of The PA Shop was transformed into London Guitars, a boutique guitar shop that caters to local musicians and touring pros passing through the city, staffed by veteran techs who themselves have hit the road with acts ranging from Barenaked Ladies to Jeff Healey to Tom Cochrane.
What’s interesting about the venture is that The PA Shop is a specialty retailer itself – one that’s been serving a specific niche of the musical products community locally and, thanks to a strong online sales portal, nationally and internationally. Boasting a selection of DJ, lighting, audio, and music creation and production tools, its physical location on London’s Charterhouse Crescent is unique even on the national retail landscape.
The goal with London Guitars was to similarly create a space catering to a specific segment of the market and gain loyalty through specialized and knowledgeable service and a unique selection of new and vintage instruments.
The idea that good product curation and expert service can trump low prices and convenience when it comes to earning consumer loyalty is at the heart of the “shop local” and “support small business” movements that have seemingly swept across North America over the past five years or so. And that idea is at the core of how specialized MI retailers like London Guitars are operating and, in many cases, thriving.
With the economic turmoil of 2007/2008 came a flurry of fear for brick-and-mortar Canadian retailers about increased competition from large chains, online sellers, and cross-border shopping, all with the impression that rock-bottom prices were of pinnacle importance to cash-strapped consumers. Lately, it seems that’s turning around.
One need only look to our neighbours to the south for testament to the proliferation of this trend. Even luxury fashion brands are recognizing the potential of tightly focused specialty stores. In October 2016, Saks Fifth Avenue opened its first specialized shoe store in Connecticut while Chanel has just announced that its own footwear-only boutique will soon open in Hawaii.
On the small business side, this holiday season, American Express’s Small Business Saturday initiative hit a new high in its seventh year of existence, with an estimated one-third of Americans shopping at a small business that day.
To further examine this re-emerging trend, Canadian Music Trade put together a panel of retailers whose shops have popped up in the past five years or so to serve specialized niches of the musical products industry to understand how and why their business models are working for them in today’s retail climate.
Peter Sawchyn has been handcrafting acoustic guitars and mandolins for over 40 years. In early 2011, he and his wife, Kendra Walker, recognized an opportunity to expand their services for their clientele and opened a retail space called Sawchyn Guitars in their home city of Regina. “We knew exactly what our specialties were: acoustic stringed instruments, expert repair, and master building,” Sawchyn says. “We also knew that there was no one in this market that focused on new or vintage acoustic instruments, so a shop of this kind would fill that void.”
Out in Edmonton, Tyler Stang similarly noticed a “huge hole” in his local music market. “With one prominent indie store deciding to wind down operations, Edmonton needed a new ‘higher-end’ indie guitar store,” he says. He opened Stang Guitars in May 2015 with major lines like Fender, Gibson, PRS, Martin, and Taylor available from day one. “I saw a need and an opportunity to open the kind of store I always wanted to see,” he adds.
Murat Baslamisli is a drummer and longtime percussion retail specialist. The idea of opening a store that he himself would want to visit was at the heart of his decision to open Drummer’s Hangout in Aurora, ON, in the fall of 2015. As the name implies, he sought to offer more than just products for sale. “I wanted to create an environment for drummers and prospective drummers alike,” he says, “where they can hang out, have a drink, sit and watch drum DVDs from their favourite drummers, talk about them, compare them…” It’s the environment and overall experience that differentiates his shop from the many full-service MI retailers in the Greater Toronto Area.
Identifying your niche is one thing; differentiating yourself from other retailers serving even a small fragment of that niche is another. And that’s where London Guitars really stands apart. The core team of Ryan Schroeyens, Steven “Bungie” Kovacs, Stan Fountain, and Boris Novosel has collectively logged countless hours working behind the scenes (and sometimes on the stage) with major touring artists and productions.
As Kovacs explains, “Working as a guitar tech for many of the country’s greatest players, I get to see first-hand what they’re using both live and in the studio. That gives us a one-up when a customer is looking for a specific sound.”
While Sawchyn Guitars does offer instruments across all price points, its namesake’s custom instruments and those from brands like C.F. Martin and Breedlove mean they cater to the higher-end crowd, and subsequently aim to give their showroom an inviting and relaxed feel with comfortable chairs and a coffee station.
“The idea was to get people used to coming into our store whether it’s to buy something or not,” Sawchyn explains. To that end, they host “house” concerts in the store and take every opportunity they can to present workshops specific to the instruments they sell. There’s also a monthly ukulele circle with 30-40 members that meets at the shop each month.
At Stang Guitars, aesthetic is key to differentiation. “We wanted it to look more like a gallery than a guitar store,” says its owner. Like Sawchyn, the store also has soft seating and hot and cold refreshments on offer to enhance the relaxed and welcoming vibe. “Nothing is behind locked glass and all the instruments are ready to be grabbed and played.” Bottom line, “culture is everything” at Stang Guitars.
Rufus Drum Shop is relatively new to the retail landscape in Vancouver, having opened in May 2015. Its keystone – like that at its long-established sister store, Rufus Guitar Shop – is service. “We try to give the best service in the industry,” states Operations Manager Blaine McNamee. “Every customer that walks into the shops is treated like a longtime customer. We try and remember everyone’s name, what they bought and what they play, and what they’re looking for.”
Echoing that, Baslamisli says “When a customer walks in, I want them to know they’ll get personal attention until the end of the visit.” His motto is that if someone leaves his store without a smile on his or her face – regardless of whether they’ve made a purchase – then he’s failed.
But arguably the two most important and noticeable aspects of differentiation are product selection and staff.
Stang aims to stock items that are less common in the larger chains and says the store is experimenting with a number of boutique lines to find the most effective balance. Even within the major and widespread brands, though, they’ll look to select custom colour options, odd configurations, or limited edition releases. “We love the high-end rare items, but also feel that a newer player should have a path to get there,” he says, emphasizing the importance of serving customers early in their musical journeys. He offers the example of a player jumping from a Squier Strat to a Fender American Standard to a Custom Shop model over the years. “We want to be there every step of the way.”
Drummer’s Hangout features products from the major brands as they foster a sense of familiarity and trust, but adds that he also makes sure to stock some lines that customers won’t find anywhere else. “That’s important, to be a destination for certain items,” he says. “Folks in the GTA are starting to find out that if they want to see a good selection of Noble and Cooley snares, for example, they come to Drummer’s Hangout. I’ve had people travel two or three hours for a visit, and that’s humbling,” he admits. “That’s where carrying unique products really comes in.”
Sawchyn recognizes that, even if they’re shopping on a tight budget, guitarists want to purchase an instrument that plays well and sounds good, and his experience as a builder means he can recognize a quality instrument at any price point. He also knows that carrying more exclusive lines helps to differentiate his offerings from those at other stores. In addition to brands like Guild, Breedlove, Sigma, Deering, Cordoba, and Martin, Sawchyn also aims to include other Canadian builders when possible, pointing to their success with Vancouver’s Halcyon Guitars as an example.
Schroeyens says that, at London Guitars, it’s not about what the team wants to carry; it’s about what the customers want to see – “and we help find a way for them to get it in their hands,” he says. “While sometimes the brand name is important, the feel, quality, and story behind the brand or product can be just as important.”
Partnering with boutique brands also makes a lot of sense on the B2B side, according to McNamee. He says the approach at Rufus is twofold. First, they ensure they’re carrying products that their staffers would play themselves. “It’s always easier to sell products you believe in, when you can share what you personally like about the product,” he says. Second, they target lines that not only offer a good profit margin, but where there’s room for mutual growth. “We’re not interested in working with companies that see us as a means to a cheque,” McNamee asserts, “but are interested in companies that want to help us grow and build a long-term relationship.”
Your staff attesting to the quality of a product they believe in is critical, but so is the customer’s ability to believe in your staff. A specialty store’s competitive advantage is based on an elevated and more targeted experience and company culture overall, and it’s the people in the store that contribute to and deliver that.
That’s certainly central to the success of London Guitars thus far. Along with the top-line and rare and vintage finds, customers can tap into the staff’s advanced knowledge and even hear some stories from the road. As Novosel offers, “We have the gear we know most professional players are after, based on four decades of road and studio experience. And beyond that, ask and we’ll find it for you.”
“It’s just nice to talk to a sales person that has a clue about what they’re selling, greets you when you enter, and closes any deal with a handshake,” Kovacs tacks on.
Rufus Drum Shop was, in a sense, built atop the foundation of its staff – or rather, one key member of it. “Allan [Harding, store manager] and I have been talking about opening a drum shop for years,” McNamee shares about his longtime friend and colleague. Harding is not only a veteran of Canadian MI retail but also a touring drummer himself. “It was always my plan to bring Allan in to run the drum shop, and it had to be Allan. It was a risky investment and I didn’t trust anyone else.” They’ve since welcomed technician and worldrenowned drummer Nick Yacyshyn to the fold and, as McNamee touts, “couldn’t be happier.”
Stang Guitars has specialists among its specialists – a bass specialist, effects specialist, etc. – meaning employees can leverage one another’s knowledge to give any customer educated and experienced help. But across the board, Stang says he’s looking first and foremost for a “can-do” attitude. “We’re committed to finding the right answer to any question with a ‘yes we can’ mindset,” he says.
Knowledge can be acquired and skills can be learned, so Baslamisli believes that the most important thing for a new employee is to buy into the store’s philosophies and practices. “My ideal employee realizes that we’re not a big-box store and that our relationships with customers are more personal. Of course, we serve a niche market and knowledge is important, so our employees work on improving their knowledge every day.”
In most cases, a specialty operation means a small operation, and that can present staffing challenges. “Our ideal hire needs to be multifaceted,” Sawchyn says. “The more you can take on, the better it is for everyone.” In addition to its two owners, the store has a third full-time employee that can sell, build, and repair instruments and has become “an invaluable asset.”
“We want our employees to be open, engaging, knowledgeable, and friendly,” Sawchyn continues. “Most conversations don’t start with ‘What are you here to buy?’ but rather focusing on what they play or what they’re interested in. Building relationships is very important and is what brings people back to your store over and over again.”
Earning that kind of loyalty takes time, and it’s something that each of these retailers has been striving for since starting their respective operations in the past few years.
Having opened in 2011, Sawchyn says that, initially, it was a challenge to give potential customers an idea of what the store is about. “Many thought that if we custom built instruments, then we must be an expensive place to shop,” he says. “It’s also challenging on the other end of that spectrum, educating people on the value of owning a vintage or more expensive or even a custom-built instrument.”
Stang says that his biggest hurdle has been striking the balance between investing in inventory and investing in marketing and promotion. Through Stang Guitars’ rather impressive social media presence and engagement, they’ve been able to get the word out to musicians in their area rather effectively, “and I thought that’s what I needed to be successful,” he admits. “But it’s the new families with kids starting guitar that we’ve had trouble reaching. This industry is incredibly cash intensive, so deciding where precious dollars should go in a down economy has been the biggest challenge.”
It’s both encouraging and inspiring to see these unique stores in unique places finding success in a corner of the market that fuels their passions. And while they’re part of a widespread trend right now, that doesn’t mean they can rest on their laurels.
“Make no mistake,” warns Schroeyens. “Working in or running a music store of any kind today isn’t easy, and you won’t make boatloads of money. But you will have the opportunity to meet some of the most inspiring creators and people that, if you let them, can change your life for the better.”
It’s important to be proactive and support the community of creators that supports the store, Sawchyn adds. His shop has participated in fundraisers, hosts an annual Christmas concert to raise money for a local charity, and supports the Regina Symphony by sponsoring its educational programs. New for this year, they championed a compilation CD of Saskatchewan artists covering other Saskatchewan artists initiated by a local radio station and sponsored an award at the annual Western Canadian Music Awards, held at venues across the city this fall. Each of those initiatives has contributed to their visibility and reputation.
“There will always be a place for passionate niche store owners,” Stang says confidently. “If we can offer an environment that encourages conversation and the development of an open and accessible scene, then we will all be better off.”
“I think people are getting tired of being told what to buy and where they have to buy it,” Kovacs tacks on. “That’s definitely helping us, in the sense that we listen to our customers and try to base our inventory on that rather than top sellers or what’s the cheapest to carry. I believe that’s what keeps our customers coming back – the fact that they’re leaving with confidence in an informed choice, rather than having to settle.”
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Music Trade.