Larry’s Music Center
How a Small Town Store in Wooster, Ohio Mixes Social Media, Internet, and Old Fashioned Customer Service for Success – Personal and Otherwise
“There are only two reasons to work in a musical instrument store,” declares Brad Shreve. “One is because you can’t get any other job, and two is because you don’t want to do anything else!” “We’d do this even if didn’t get paid,” chimes Gabriel O’Brien. “Well… maybe just not as often,” laughs Shreve. “True!” O’Brien says, laughing, too. “But we do feel glad to get to show up here every day.”
Thus is the vibe of Larry Music Center, a full line music instrument retail operation with a kinetic energy that is infectiously fun. The store’s website is sophisticated, their social media approach savvy, and their aggressive reach for sales belies their small-town location. Spend a little time with them and it’s clear that owner Shreve and sales manager/e-commerce director O’Brien are dedicated to building an operation that does more than pays their rent – they are on a journey to embrace their community and have fun along the way.
“Our customers, including band directors and teachers, feel like they are coming to our house when they come to the store,” says O’Brien. “They are here to have fun and hang out. It’s not uncommon to find our staff out seeing a local band play. It’s not uncommon to see [general manager/repair technician] Scott [Chapman] out hearing a local band in concert, and while he’s there he’ll repair something on site if needed.”
“We try to create any reason we can to get people in the store and keep them here as long as possible,” Shreve says. This includes having donuts and coffee around on a Saturday, a Tom Petty documentary playing on their big screen in the lounge, and drinks and free wifi for those parents waiting for a child to finish his or her guitar lesson.
They have given into one big box corporate aspect: Larry’s Music Center has a greeter, a Siberian husky named Mia. “She’s probably our top sales person!” Shreve jokes.
Not naive, the team at Larry’s knows that as an independent they need to be able to provide the personal service often in short supply at national chain stores, yet still meet their price and selection as close as possible. And they take that attitude to their online store, working to bring their expertise and personality to the virtual world. Larry’s embraces it all.
“Look how big Facebook is,” Shreve says. “That is a generation of customers who want to connect and feel good about the people they deal with.”
In 1979, band director Larry Lang changed careers and opened a small B&O repair shop in Wooster, Ohio. “He was a band director who decided that that career wasn’t for him,” Shreve explains. “He had learned enough about fixing instruments to be dangerous, and so he opened a small shop two miles from our current location.” The one-man operation had Lang up early every morning and driving many miles picking up instruments that needed repair. Larry’s Music Center was built on this market, and Shreve says today it still counts as 40 to 45 percent of their total business. “We wouldn’t see the continued growth [in this area] without our general manager Scott Chapman, who really is a fantastic planner. And we have an ‘Energizer Bunny’ in [educational sales manager] David Lueschen who works in the store, but also spends a lot of time out visiting schools.”
Lang branched out, slowly at first, and hired Shreve in 1983. “I was 19 and going to college in Akron, and I never looked back,” Shreve says, a multi instrumentalist who plays in several area bands. “I loved it right away. I knew this was the career for me. I was enthusiastic about it, and I look for that enthusiasm in all the people we hire.”
In 1984 Chapman was hired, and the NAPBIRT [National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians]-certified instrument repair technician still maintains that “in one day, out the next” philosophy that Lang built his reputation on.
As for Shreve, he built up a loyal clientele of churches, music ministers, and local musicians over the years, while also carefully expanding into combo and pro audio.
Lang would hire Lueschen to take over the road as he stepped back to concentrate on the day-to-day and oversee with Shreve additional expansion and a serious remodel of the store. In 2001, O’Brien, another local musician Shreve mentored, came on board as a salesperson. O’Brien quickly took over store graphics and marketing, including supervising a new website and creating videos for the store’s new YouTube channel. In 2005, Larry’s Music moved to its current, bigger location that features expanded teaching studios and a lounge.
In 2011, Lang retired and sold the operation to Shreve. In early 2012, Brad opened a satellite operation in the Amish town of Millersburg, 25 miles down the road. It’s about a fourth the size of their main Larry’s Music Center, and is managed by Kyle Beachy. Shreve, who lives out that way, drops by the store nearly everyday. “It’s Amish country, so people come from all over to visit the town,” he says. (The population of the village is a mere 3,000.) In addition to feeling there was growth potential opening a second operation, Shreve notes that Millersburg made the proposition especially inviting by providing a good deal on a lease of an old, beautiful bank building as part of their efforts to revitalize the downtown area.
Today Larry’s employs a total of seven full-time people, two part-time, and around 15 teachers between the two stores. “People think that these days there aren’t any opportunities, but our people are the opportunities,” observes Shreve. “We put faith in each other, hold each other accountable, and keep a good attitude.”
As for the modest town of Wooster (population 26,000), it was famous for being home to Rubbermaid, and was where one Jerome Monroe Smucker first started making his cider. “The College of Wooster is an Ivy League [quality] school plucked down in this small town of all places,” Shreve says. “That and other businesses have made the town a bit recession-proof. It’s a wonderful place to have a small business.”
O’Brien and Shreve share a management style that’s part “kid in the candy store” and part raw intuition. “The big thing about us is we carry the instruments we want to play and host the events we want to go to,” O’Brien says. “We have always felt that if we think it’s cool, most others will too.”
“We really want this store to be the kind of place that we want to go to,” Shreve adds.
Everything to Everybody
MMR: You’re a complete full line operation. Let’s go through and tell people what they will find in your store, starting with guitars.
Gabriel O’Brien: We’re a big Taylor dealer and do a lot of Alvarez as well. Lately we’ve been having fun with Wechter guitars too.
Brad Shreve: There’s also Composite Acoustic, now made by Peavey. We also have a decent collection of vintage.
GO: For electrics we have Fender and Gretsch primarily, and some Ibanez and Jackson.
GO: Our strongest line is Yamaha. We have had a long relationship with them because we carry their Clavinovas, and their drums sets are just amazing for the money.
MMR: Do you do well with Clavinovas?
BS: We sell quite a few. We even deal in some pianos, though mostly used. You have to be everything to everybody out here!
MMR: Tell us about B&O.
BS: Our repair shop is important, and we have unparalleled service. Most of our repairs are in and out in a single day.
Primarily we sell and rent Yamaha instruments, though in the last few years we’ve done well with Selmer and Jupiter too.
MMR: You have a spot in your store encouraging “step up instrument” sales. This has been increasingly challenging for some independent retailers over the last few years – why are you devoting real estate
BS: That’s a fair question. Usually that kid in the first chair wants to buy a better instrument, but everybody knows it’s harder for stores like us to compete with all that’s available online and at the big boxes. Online retailers are now sending multiple instruments to someone’s home and making it easy for them to send some, or even all, of them back.
We try to offer service and expert help in choosing that step-up instrument. No, we don’t get all the sales, but I think that throwing up your hands and not having any inventory [in the step-up market] is doing a disservice to your customers. There are always going to be loyal customers more comfortable with being in your store to try that next instrument then buying online. It’s silly not to have what they need.
Of course another advantage we have is David [Lueschen]. He’s also been a professor in low brass at The College of Wooster since 1986. It’s always nice to have an expert like that talking to you.
MMR: Again, for a store in a small town, you have a strong pro audio presence – Yamaha, Peavey, Samson, Audio-Technica. Is that a good market for you?
GO: We do a variety of business in that area, mostly with local churches and schools.
I was lucky enough to be trained by Brad [Shreve] when I first started hanging around, so now I spent a lot of time with churches and schools troubleshooting their systems, seeing what upgrades are best, teaching them to run sound, that sort of thing.
We don’t do full PA installs, though we do set up some with wireless systems.
BS: The new Audio-Technica wireless system is great. It just came out and we already have orders for it.
MMR: Your selection of print music and the real estate you dedicate to that is impressive.
BS: I have to give all the credit for this one to Larry. He made a large commitment early on to have print for all the B&O and piano teachers who come in. Now, while many dealers will talk about how you only get 40 points on it, less when you discount to teachers [et cetera] … well, compared to everything else, print margins are looking pretty good right now! [laughs]
Seeking Professional Help
MMR: Ohio seems very supportive of music education – is it going well?
BS: I have noticed that school enrollment is up recently, and more are joining bands.
MMR: You sell online, are active on Facebook … how is that working out?
GO: I have noticed that, for the last couple of years, people really like to stay in touch on Facebook. I think the new generation of buyers wants to know the people they buy from. That works in our favor tremendously.
MMR: Tell us about your website.
GO: It’s the second incarnation of it. We went to a local web design company to build it, to create the codes, but I work closely with them on everything else. We take a lot of photos.
MMR: Few independent stores see the need to hire help for website design. Seems most either make do with something modest or are lucky enough to have someone on staff who has the ability to create a good site. You have limited resources – why spend on a website?
BS: You can take that mentality to the extreme of any aspect of small business. I mean, why invest in inventory either? You see that too often in music stores today, too. But you have to constantly invest – inventory, people, new ideas, new technology… or you’re going backwards.
MMR: Your website slogan is “making the website store as personal as a real store.” How do you achieve that?
GO: We monitor everything constantly. I’m on a laptop and iPhone all day long, 24/7, on weekends and holidays, staying connected to our online customers. Customers are excited by the conversational style in which we interact with them.
BS: It’s important to us when a customer contacts us online, they get the same feeling as if they were in the store visiting us in person.
MMR: Are you using your Internet presence to bring people into the store?
GO: We are definitely able to bring people into the store with it. For example, we’re posting things on Facebook of the “you have to check this out” nature and people come in.
MMR: How about sales
BS: Gabriel has done a really great job of finding new products that not everybody has, and that’s where the bulk of our success lies. That’s what drives traffic. We’ll never be Sweetwater, who do a fantastic job, but we do carve out little niches.
You can go online and guess the unusual items are the ones that sell online and you’d be right! [laughs] Give me a left-handed Gretsch that’s an unusual color and I’ll sell that pretty fast; a white Fender Strat, not so quickly.
MMR: How important is your YouTube channel?
GO: Very. We put up pretty much everything we can, but still not as much as we’d like. We have a whole backlog of vintage guitars I need to get up there. But it’s great. It’s a way for us to show off how a guitar sounds, and play it, so the customer gets to know the instrument and gets to know us. I have a background in video, so I’m able to shoot them quickly and edit them in Final Cut Pro.
MMR: What’s your strategy for how often you post on Facebook?
GO: We post more than average that’s for sure! [laughs] We treat it a little zanier than our website. We put photos of the store, new products, and things like that. But Brad has started doing a music history bit, “This day in rock,” that has a lot of fans, including me. It’s cool and people love it.
MMR: What is your teaching situation like?
BS: We have six studios here and four in Millersburg, 300 students coming through every week. It’s a thriving part of our business and we owe a lot to our teachers. They are fantastic.
We also built a lounge for the parents. Seeing them sit and wait in the little hallway always made me think we needed to do something for them. Now we have a café almost, with free Wi-Fi and a big-screen TV with surround sound. We have people come in just to sit and drink coffee and read and not even buy anything – and that’s fine with us.
MMR: Funny – I remember as a kid taking piano lessons and my dad sitting outside in the Oldsmobile during winter for 30 minutes.
BS: That’s the point. It’s easy to take parents of students for granted, but they are your most important customers. You want to make sure they and the student are comfortable, and not just for the first lesson, but forever.
GO: If you’re the parent of a student taking lessons, and you have a comfortable place to be during the lesson, a place you don’t mind being, not only are you going to feel better about the lessons but you’re more likely to linger and not be in a hurry to drag the kid out of the store.
The Literal ‘Pie’
MMR: What other types of marketing do you get involved with?
BS: We sponsor local events, band concerts, and even sponsor the stages at two high-end restaurants in town that have live music. We have our banner up and pay bands to play.
GO: We do some things in local papers but in our same upstart fashion. We ran a campaign about how rather than getting up early and fighting crowds on Black Friday for that $50 guitar, you could sleep in on that or any Friday in November and come here at our regular opening time and get 15 percent off anything. We even said, “and bring us pie.”
One did! [laughs] You know it’s a really great gig when your customers bring you pie.
BS: Actually it’s not uncommon to get baked goods from our customers.
GO: I’m getting fatter, but…
MMR: That’s pretty funny. Any in-store events?
BS: We have the Taylor Roadshows in and those are always great.
GO: We’ve been doing a lot of fun things lately. We started a uke club, and I’ll be starting a songwriting club soon.
MMR: What does the future hold for Larry’s Music Center?
BS: We have seven great full time employees, any of whom, with a little more time and seasoning, could run another store for us. So we’re always looking for the right opportunity.
MMR: Well it seems like you guys are having a good time as the journey continues…
BS: If you’re not having fun, you’re on the wrong bus.
GO: If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong!