Ukulele Sales Continue to Trend Up
“It’s crazier than you think,” says Sammy Ash of Sam Ash. “It’s exploded, and I think this holiday season it will be the hot product. Five years ago we stocked two no-name [brands], but now we stock over 30 models including the [Kala] UBass.” It seems to be spreading internally for Sam Ash Music Corporation, too: “Both my sons play, and our executive vice president has seven in his office!”
“You mean there are retailers who don’t have ukulele teachers?” Myrna Sislen asks in disbelief. As proprietor of Middle C Music, Sislen serves the Washington, D.C. area and is currently keeping two uke teachers busy. “It’s amazing what has been happening with these instruments. It’s like everyone has discovered them for the first time. I can’t tell you how many college students are coming in and getting them.”
“It boomed about four years ago and people were coming out the woodwork buying ukuleles,” says Al Markasky of Sylvan Music, a stringed instrument retailer in Santa Cruz since 1984. “We were like, ‘Wow! Let’s carry more!’ And it’s been consistent since then.”
“Absolutely it’s huge, and I don’t think it’s abating,” says Mike DaSilva of the DaSilva Ukulele Company. “I host a beginning uke class and I always think it’s about to level out, but then I get another half a dozen new players.” For the main meting, DaSilva gets up to 100 people coming and has a full stage with a sound system. (He’s even setting on breaking the Guinness Book of World Records number for uke players playing together – 850.)
Retailers jumping on the uke bandwagon are tiptoeing through higher margins, usually 40 points or more.
“It’s an interesting business to watch, because it seems like whenever we add another line, it just adds more sales,” Ash says. “One new line doesn’t seem to be taking sales away from another. That’s always a fear – if you have eight lines of guitars and you add one, you’re not selling more guitars you’re just selling less of one of the ones you already carry.”
Ash says while a lot of basic acoustic guitars from different makers look the same, ukuleles vary noticeably, which is a part of the appeal. “Some customers want a little color, some want a different shape – that’s what is cool about them.” Also attractive is that, “It’s the ultimate travel guitar. You can literally throw it in your suitcase.”
Ash is seeing people coming into the store who have never been before because of their large uke selection. “There are a lot of new faces, and it’s exciting.”
What’s Working, At What Price Range?
At Sam Ash, Kala is their number one seller, and Lanikai is number two. “We stock a Fender model, which sells because of the name and the headstock. The Ibanez uke sells well, too. We sell Cordobas, which are slightly more expensive.”
Sylvan Music, which caters to the country’s largest uke club, carries Flea, Flukes, Kamaka, Mainland, Maiki, and Lanikai instruments, plus some high-end Rick Turn Renaissance ukes and even some made by Santa Cruz Guitars. The uke enthusiast has a choice between the $28 instrument of the vintage Martin from the 1920s for $14,000.
Not surprisingly, ukes are doing well in the Aloha state. Peter Dods of Easy Music, who operates two locations (Honolulu and Pearl City), declares that he enjoys more gross profits coming off ukulele sales then almost anything else he sells. Dods literally has a “top shelf” on his display wall, and the cheapest on that row is $500, going up to $1,300. But he has plenty of lower-priced instruments, too. “Kala ukuleles are our bread and butter, and are a better-than-average Chinese import,” he says. He adds they just started carrying Big Island Ukuleles which have some really nice mahogany instruments, and those have been doing well.
“Kamaka are handmade in Hawaii and they are like the Martin of ukes. They’ve been around since the 1960s and survived the ‘uke wars’ back in the day. Kanile’a are also wonderful instruments, locally made, and so is Koaloha.” They also carry Applause ukes made by Ovation. But “Kala is 90 percent of our sales.”
Those who ignore the acoustic/electric and electric ukulele market seem to be doing so at their peril. Retailers like Dods are doing well with them and the related accessories, including amps. “We’re waiting on the Kala amps now, as we do quite a bit of business with electrics,” he says. “Applause, Kala, and Big Island ukes all offer models that are available with pickups.”
Dods, Ash, and others say Kala’s UBass is doing especially well. These are not cheap, retailing for $400 and up. And while all are doing well primarily with the $30-$99 level ones, there are benefits in carrying the higher priced ukuleles.
“I’m excited about Kala because they make a perfectly fine uke at a reasonable price,” Sislen says. “It’s a good beginning instrument for anyone from two to 90 years old. And I love dealing with Kala – they treat their dealers very well. In the rare instance there is a problem, they make it right.”
Middle C is also starting to carry Mahalo, which Sislen says are appealing because of the way they look. “Also, Luna has come out with some ukes and they are really nice.” The range of instruments she has is a Kala for $39 up to Kala’s $349 acoustic/electric archtop. “It’s a beautiful instrument and I sell a number of those, too,” though most of her sales are less expensive models, those under the $100 level.
Like every aspect of Easy Music, Dods pays attention to how the ukes are merchandised, and he says they’ve been going through every section of each of both stores and overhauling them. “I had white slatwall, which I hate because it’s the least creative way to merchandise,” he says. His uke wall has gotten a makeover, which involved cutting up traditional slatwall in strips and setting it off with a plywood backdrop. “This made the wall look infinitively better, and it’s cheaper too.” The only “problem” is keeping it full – on the day he spoke to MMR, Peter said the wall was only at 60 percent capacity. “We’ve been getting mobbed – since the redesign we’ve been carry 40 percent more then the old set up,” but still they are flying off the wall and out of the stores.
Sylvan proprietor Al Markasky says they actually have three sections: “Entry level ones are displayed right at the door. We have probably 40 ukuleles there. Then you can walk into the nylon room where with the harps and classical guitars there are mid-range ukes, from $200 to $1,500.” In their vintage room, there are the truly high-end collector items.
Ash says the displays he gets from the manufacturers are helpful. As major manufacturers of other categories have cut back supplying POP displays, the uke industry has stepped up. Kala has a nice one, and Lanikai has one that looks like a surfboard.
Upsell & Cross Overs
Sislen says when these customers come into her store – and many of them are new – they don’t necessarily have their mind made up on which model to buy. But while she does try to upsell them, if they are predisposed to the least expensive uke, she’s fine with that. “I want them to walk out with an instrument, and if they go, ‘Wow! I can have one for $39?’ I think that’s wonderful. And the Kala’s that are at that price point are great. They sound good, and hold up.”
Also she’s actually had parents come in wanting a guitar for their child as young as two and, in those cases, she’s able to sell them a much more age-appropriate ukulele.
Ash also says there’s a big difference in the $39 ukes and the $99, and by the time you get to the $300, it’s now solid wood, it’s a cutaway, and it has a pickup.
Markasky says the typical first-time buyer just wants one in the $28 to $55 range to see if they like it. But he stresses while those instruments are inexpensive, they need to be as playable as possible. “We thoroughly set up those instruments – it’s always a concern of ours that they play right.” If it goes well, “that customer comes back six months later and will move up to a $200 Mainland uke, for example. It’s not common that they jump up to the $2,000 ones, though I bet we sell 200 to 300 of those a year.”
Are these players eventually buying guitars? Markasky sees the crossover going in both directions: guitarists who like ukes, as well as uke players who get good enough on the instrument that they want the two additional strings a guitar offers.
For Ash, he sees this market as being contained. “A guitarist might buy a uke, but playing uke doesn’t necessarily lead to playing guitar.
Ash says the first thing his sales people do is make sure the buyer has a digital tuner, telling the customer that if they have one they could spend a half hour tuning it. Kala makes one that clips on that is popular. They also carry plenty of strings and cases, and around 25 different book titles and DVDs. Stands are big too – including an accessory that attaches to the mic stand so the instrument can just hang from it.
Middle C also benefits from a healthy collection of uke print music. “Virtually everyone who comes in wants a beginning book or a chord chart, then they later come back and want books of music, so I keep a full selection,” Sislen says. This includes Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and even a collection of Rolling Stones music for uke, both from Alfred Publishing.
At Sylvan, hardshell cases and gig bags do well, but strings do even better. “One of the big things for us is Aquila Strings,” says Markasky. “They are really exciting strings and make the ukes sound much more alive and even make inexpensive instruments sound good.” Also tuners and pitch pipe do well. Interestingly, so do uke capos. “And we install a lot of pickups,” he adds, including plenty of K&K Sound pickups.
“We also sell lots of the smaller amps to these customers, especially the smaller ones, like the Roland AC-33, which is even battery powered so you can take it to the beach.” The step up from that, the AC-60, also does well.
The Uke Clubs
Sandor Nagyszalanczy has a collection of nearly 370 ukes, is a longtime member of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz, and performs in a uke trio called the Uke Aholics. He says that his uke club is the largest in the country. There are 2,000 names on the roster with 250 showing up for the average meeting. How fanatical is the uke craze? He says that pretty much the only way they lose members is “by attrition – as in they move to Hawaii.”
“Every meeting is a concert, and other than Jake Shimabukuro, every uke player of note has played for us, and we’ve never had to pay a performer.” And not just “stars” perform at these events. “Nobody is excluded from performing, and we have this traditions that all rookies get a standing ovation,” he says. “It’s amazing how widespread interest in the uke is,” he says, noting that there’s even a Ukulele Hall of Fame in Cranston, RI.
The club is supported by Markasky and Sylvan Music. “It’s incredible,” Markasky says of the group. “They get together every month at a restaurant called Bocci’s Cellar. We have so many customers of all ages coming in for ukuleles because of the club.” For the club’s events, Sylvan lends P.A.s for some of their shows and “whatever we can do to make sure their needs are met.”
Mike DaSilva of the DaSilva Ukulele Company is building high-end hand crafted ukuleles out of his workshop in Berkeley that range in price from $600 to $3,000. He also sells RISA electric instruments. It’s all supported by brings players from the San Francisco area into his Berkley workshop two Wednesdays a month. The Berkeley Ukulele Club starts at 6:30 for beginners then the regular session starts at 7:00.
DaSilva is million miles from what he used to do. “I was in the computer industry, and had a corporate job,” he says. Around 2004 he took some time off and started building ukes, then after he sold a few, “I didn’t want to go back to work!” he laughs.
“We have six stores holding uke society meetings once a month and that number is growing,” Ash says. They tried it in their Clearwater, Florida location and 25 people showed up to the first meeting. “We sold eight ukes that night and four more people came by the next day and bought them.” More recently 90 people have been showing up. “These meetings are a big thing because these people like to talk to each other about ukuleles. We bring them into the store, set up a P.A. and serve Hawaiian punch – they really get a kick out of that.”
The Source of the “Explosion”
“The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the world’s easiest instrument to play,” Nagyszalanczy says. He says the allure goes back to what attracts people to folk music – the simplicity.
Dods of Easy Music has two words for it: Jake Shimabukuro, the ukulele player sensation who is burning up on YouTube. His amazing rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has logged in over six million hits, and he sells out concerts whenever he performers. “Jake has really opened people’s eyes about the instrument.”
Several cited several hit songs in recent years that feature ukes as at least contributing to its popularity. Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” and Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” are just two recent big hits that feature the humble four stringed instrument. Also currently on tour and available on DVD is Mighty Uke, a movie that makes the case for the uke craze showing that anything can be done on it – from simple songs to classical music.
“People are just fascinated by the instrument, and the trend has been happening for a couple of years now,” Sislen says, adding that she’s had to do little to no advertising, it’s just the instrument itself that is doing all the selling.
How strong is the power of the ukulele? Audra Jeppson has started selling them at her store – her ice cream store. Aloha Snow uses a Hawaiian theme to sell those 90 flavors, so Jeppson, a guitarist, bought a uke for a prop. “I bought a $14 one I couldn’t tune, so I went and bought a Kala and it was really nice.” She was soon seduced herself by the instrument, and says she spent time on ukeunderground.com, where there are forums, lessons, and instruments for sales – that’s when she saw how popular the instrument is.
Located in a Charlotte, N.C. she bought three ukes from the nearby Sam Ash just for the customers to play. Then she hit on the notation of selling them herself and today she stocks Lanikais, Elukes, and Ohanas. “I’m told I have the largest selection of Eleukes electric ukuleles in the country,” she says. “The store has become a bit of a destination for them.”
She got herself trained in the art of setting the instruments up and preparing them for sale, so the instruments are in good shape when they go out the door.
Along with her customers, she often takes one down and plays one, but don’t expect “Ukulele Lady” – it’ll more likely be a song by Eminem.
“It’s definitely growing in popularity,” says Audra Jeppson. “You can make it as easy or complicated as you want. You can teach yourself four chords and play half the pop songs out there, or you can get really specific and make it sing like any acoustic guitar.” They have jams in her store once a month, and she’s adding a second one to accommodate high schoolers wanting to jam during a school-friendly time.
(Don’t look for her to become a full-fledged MI retailer though: “I do love music and it would be a dream to own a music store, but you have to have enough capital.”)
“We’ll see two more years of growth, but now what we’re seeing is that so many manufacturers are jumping in,” Ash comments. “Just look at MMR and see how many [related] ads there are. Now look back at an issue from three years ago and I bet there’s next to none.
“It’s a niche, but a strong niche,” continues Ash. “If you would have tried to tell me I’d be having this conversation five years ago… But there’s no store that is lacking in uke sales.”
Sislen says the uke market is “growing rather than leveling – I’m selling more every month, so I would guess the market hasn’t peaked yet. I’m happy!”