In August of 2007 Phil Vickman left a career in the computer industry and opened Fat Tone Guitars (www.fattoneguitars.com), located in a warehouse just outside of Chicago. With nine months as a business owner under his belt, Vickman has no regrets or intentions of returning to his former occupation. During March, April, and May of 2008 Fat Tone has seen its highest sales since opening. As Vickman puts it, “We have been building our reputation and it seems to be working.”
Of course, as with any new business, there have been growing pains and a learning curve. “There have been some tough sells,” Vickman acknowledges. “I plan on phasing out two amp lines and three guitar lines, two of which I thought to be my flagship brands. But it is those brands that have been sitting in the same spot in the shop since the day I opened.” Some of Fat Tones’ best-selling guitars have been Eastwood, Gretsch, and Nash. The surprise seller has been Fano. “When I told people that I was interested in Fano, they told me that I was crazy and that I would be losing money. Now I can’t get them in the store fast enough, which is made even more difficult by the fact that Fano’s output is one or two guitars at a time. Fano is my fourth-largest source of revenue, after amps such as Peavey and Orange.” Vickman is inundated with e-mails and phone calls from people asking when the Fanos will be in.
In addition to Fat Tone’s success with Fano and their fast-growing, local customer base, internet business is booming from sales on their Web site and eBay. Mostly, they have increased their Web traffic and business through vendors and ads placed on Google. As Vickman points out, “The internet allows customers to purchase what they want, the way they want it.” Vickman views Fat Tones’ Web site as one of the most important aspects of his business, second only to knowing his customer base. “You have to figure out who your customers are and what products are best for them. You can’t let vendors dictate your inventory. It’s not about vendors having a sale. I want to continue to provide a creative alternative to, not only big boxes, but other independents, who are not looking at their customer base. For example, I have no heavy metal guitars because I have no metal customers. Don’t get me wrong, I like metal, but my customers don’t.”
Auburn Music Group
Steve Auburn of Auburn Music Group (www.auburnmusicgroup.com) also caters to the student market, but on a larger scale. Auburn’s Music Group in Longview, Texas, features a music school, retail store, and recording studio. Since opening in April 2006, business has been growing at a steady pace, most of which has come from the music school and recording studio. They’ve outgrown their space of 6,400 square-feet and are moving into one that’s 9,800 in a high-traffic shopping complex, with neighbors such as Target and Kohl’s; they will be one of only two non-national brand stores. Because retail has not been as fast-growing for Auburn as their music school, they are waiting to restock until they are in the new space. At Auburn, which is located in eastern Texas, sales of mid-level imports and electrics have been slow, while acoustic and custom-made products have fared much better. “I could have a $300 electric guitar hanging on the wall for a year and no one would touch it, but a $2,000 mandolin would be gone in a day,” notes Auburn. “It has a lot to do with where we are – this is Bluegrass country.”
Since opening their doors, they have adjusted their inventory according to customers’ requests, which have included more pro-sound options and home recording equipment. At the new location, Auburn will be adding percussion to his inventory, featuring two custom lines and one full-price line. Taking note of the growing Latino market, Auburn will also add accordions, cuatros, and harmonicas. In expanding his inventory, Auburn says that he has received great support from manufacturers and his clients – his customer base has grown and so has their loyalty.
Auburn says that he didn’t go into business to run his competitor out of town, but he is seeing new customers come in. “We are gaining patrons who have been frustrated by high prices and a lack of customer service. I have had people tell me that they have been in our competitor’s store for an hour before being asked if they need help by a staff member. That would never happen in this store. I always say that we are more like a barber shop than a music store. People like coming in and talking about what’s going on in their lives. We have created a strong relationship with the community and are very involved in the area, as a whole.” Auburn adds that his relationship with customers is symbiotic. “Sometimes people just come in and thank us for being here.”
Big Bang Music Center
Craig Buchman, on the other hand, does have heavy metal customers coming into his shop, thanks to the Guitar Hero and Rock Band phenomena. May 2008 marked the one-year anniversary of the opening of Buchman’s small music shop, Big Bang Music Center (www.bigbangmusiccenter.com), in Hillsborough, New Jersey. Buchman says the wildly popular video games have eager young students flocking to his shop to learn how to play like their heroes. They and their parents have become Buchman’s customer base and business has been growing.
Because his customers are predominantly young novices, low-end sales have been fruitful, but it has been difficult for Buchman to sell his high-end inventory, “When the big stuff moves, it’s a great bonus,” he says. He has had success with Crate amps, particularly the affordable solid state models. His more pricey Mesa line has been a bit more difficult to move, but Dean guitars have done well at Big Bang. Buchman, who employs about eleven teachers, also reaps his rewards by giving young musician a place to learn and test their chops with quality instruments. He has big hopes and plans for the future. “I want a new location for a bigger store. Man, I want this place to be musical Disneyland!”
Double D Music
Dan Andreas opened Double D Music, a 1,400 square-foot musical instrument shop in McMinnville, Oregon, during October of 2005. Andreas, a musician, has found owning a business a fun and exciting venture. He opened the store with a friend and fellow musician, but bought him out a year ago. He now runs the business with his son Doug.
Double D also offers music lessons and currently has an enrollment of 42 students. Double D is the only music store in the area and Andreas has seen quite a bit of growth over the past couple of years: “Our growth has come in four- to six-month spurts.” He has maintained the same product lines since opening, with brands such as Dean, Ibanez, and Morgan Monroe. Andreas would like to offer lines like Gibson, but says, “I am still too new to buy the amount of stock required to carry those brands.” The shop has been selling, on average, five to six guitars a week, with accessories being their biggest movers. With growing sales and a new, professionally designed Web site about to launch, Andreas continues to look ahead.
Buffy Macsherry is always looking ahead and seeking out new growth opportunities for her business. In September 2006, she opened Notable Music (www.notablemusicnc.com) in Denver, North Carolina. As a retired music teacher, Macsherry wanted Notable’s focus to be on music lessons. This has been her formula for success and it seems to be working. “The first couple of months were pretty lean, but after running some ads during the holidays, things were just exploding by January. Sales have increased steadily every month and although we have done well with accessories and printed music, it’s really the lessons that pay the rent and keep the lights on,” Macsherry says.
As for the future – Macsherry wants to not only expand her studio and store space, but also her student enrollment, which is currently at 110. In June, Notable will begin their summer music camp, which she hopes will yield more enrollments for private lessons. She also wants to work with kids to form bands and create a space where they can practice with a teacher looking on as an in-house producer of sorts. Macsherry wants to expand the age range of her students as well and plans on reaching out to seniors to encourage them to experiment with music.