The article originally appeared in the August/September 2019 issue of Canadian Music Trade magazine.
By Kevin Young
Coming into August, musical instrument retailers across Canada are looking down the pipe at one of their busiest times of year: the back-to-school season. Annual preparations vary from store to store, depending on their location and the suite of services on offer to students, teachers, and parents, but there are constants across the board.
“Really, back-to-school, it’s survival mode,” says Sam Trachilis, owner of Quest Musique in Winnipeg. “There’s so much going on – a lot of pieces: rental instruments to service, repairs… We’re bombarded every summer.” It’s been like that, he adds, since Quest opened its doors 25 years ago.
According to a market research report from IBISWorld published in November 2018 and covering musical instrument and supply stores, “Rising disposable income will boost sales, but competition will continue to limit growth.”
From 2013-2018, Canadian music retail experienced 3.5 per cent growth overall, the report notes, but it has been slow, in part owing to competition from big-box stores entering the music retail space and online sales.
That said, it forecasts ongoing growth – gradual but steady – for the coming years, and the fall season is a big driver of that trend considering its importance to annual bottom lines.
Back to Lessons
Across the board, back-to-school remains a busy time for Jimmi Daoud, owner of Rogers Music Centre in Toronto. Printed music and method books are still a going concern at this time of year, he explains, but his primary one – which he begins addressing well before
the beginning of the school year – isn’t directly related to his stock.
“Scheduling for our educational programs – that’s the main thing,” Daoud says. “Students finish school at a certain time [of day], so everybody wants the same spots, time-wise, but we try to give people a heads-up before they go on summer vacation, and a lot of our students actually choose to book in advance.”
Daoud, who has also worked as a master vocal coach for Canadian Idol candidates, sees Rogers’ comprehensive lesson program as an important companion to in-school learning, and adds that Rogers also offers in-home lessons.
“Some [students] may take a few lessons either to see where they’re at level-wise, or because they have certain problems they want to address. Also, if they’re planning to take Royal Conservatory exams, our teachers can prepare them for that,” Daoud continues. While that’s a role that independent music stores have long fulfilled, it is arguably more critical now as many school arts programs, music specifically, are suffering in one way or another.
Beyond ensuring students have access to everything they need for the next phase of their musical education, Anne Deyme, owner of St. Catharines, ON’s Rysons Music, stresses the role that music and independent music retailers play in helping to prepare students for life in general, explaining that the study of music is also a means of developing (and demonstrating) an aptitude for other disciplines. “Nowadays, if you wish to become a doctor, accountant, or something along those lines, music shows discipline, and also that you’ve completed something,” Deyme says.
“We’ve been doing this for 80 years,” she continues, adding that Rysons provides Royal Conservatory training specifically. “Grade 6 RCM gives you a grade 11 credit in school, and Grade 8 RCM provides a grade 12 credit. Royal Conservatory [training] opens doors for you everywhere.”
It also keeps doors open, she says, citing adults who take lessons at Rysons to improve and maintain long-term cognitive function.
A comprehensive, store-based educational program, beyond providing a service to the community at large, is an integral part of maximizing sales during the back-to-school season and throughout the year.
Granted, change from year-to-year is constant. Demand for instruments and services may spike every year at this time, but determining which products will be in demand can be a bit of a moving target.
“You can’t really track it,” says Sheldon Power, owner of Village Music in Corner Brook, NL. “A couple of years ago it was home recording and I couldn’t keep interfaces in stock. Last year it was bass guitars. I hadn’t sold that many basses in years. And acoustic guitars are always a hot item.”
In his area, though, print music products haven’t fared as well. “They’re gone,” he says bluntly; “there’s no way we can compete with online.”
Preparation for the back-to-school season tends to begin long in advance at Quest, Trachilis puts in. “For us it starts before summer.” Print and educational media, he notes, remain popular between his two locations – particularly musical method books. “We have 10,000 students in town making music, so print is still happening here.”
As for instruments and accessories: “Sometime you have extras, sometimes you run out. It’s hard to tell. Some years it’ll be trumpets, but in the springtime, we get our orders for how many rentals the schools need, so we have an idea of how many of the big four – flutes, clarinets, trumpets, and trombones – they’re going to need.”
Still, he agrees with Power that it can be tough to gauge exactly which products are going to be popular in any given year. “Most of our instruments are in those four categories, and then you’ll get some tenor saxophones, oboes, French horns, tubas, and euphoniums. Those are specialty instruments that rent easily enough, too.”
Ukuleles, acoustic and electric guitars, amplifiers, and accessories tend to be strong and steady come the fall.
“I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s happening this year, and it’s a good year for supplies and pre-orders,” Trachilis continues. “Our purchaser, Dan Raposo, makes sure everything is ordered: instruments, straps, cork grease, reeds… We’ve also got to make sure our rental instruments and repairs are ready to go. The first day of school, you’ve got to have everyone’s instrument there waiting with whatever supplies they need, so you’ve got all that, but then you’ve got to make sure you’ve got all your cleaning kits in stock. There’s a lot of preparation.”
Deyme’s approach to stocking up for back-to-school involves drawing on past data and anticipating trends. She too cites method books, band instruments, Royal Conservatory titles, and ukuleles as strong sellers. “I sell a lot more method and song books and RCM music than any other [types], and we sold over 400 ukuleles last year.”
Trachilis also cites newer method books with fairly extensive online components as good sellers that are bringing more attention to his print and educational offerings – an encouraging trend.
Spreading the Word
Communicating with both schoolteachers and private educators well ahead of the season to determine how many students they have and what they might need is key, as are a few other considerations.
“Price is number one, and number two is repairs,” Deyme says, citing Rysons well-stocked repair shop. “Here, nothing is sent out; it’s all done at our studio. I have parts for pretty much every instrument going. It’s an important part of my business and our prices are reasonable. Plus, when you bring in an instrument, we look at it, give you an estimate, and then call you before we do anything to it. People seem to appreciate that.”
Every year, at every store CMT reached out to, repair services are an ongoing and important part of their overall business and tie directly into their back-to-school strategies. “For us,” Power says, “that’s the biggest non-overhead service. We reach out to all the schools and they bring their instruments in. That’s something that works really well.”
Repairs are an advantage of bricks-and-mortar stores that online outlets can’t easily replicate and are particularly important and relevant to school music programs, Daoud notes. “Some kids might have a loaner from the school, and if something happens, they can’t return it broken, so a lot of people come in for that.”
Of course, repairs aren’t the only service the internet can’t easily replicate; there’s also just plain old customer service – a great opportunity not only to generate a sale, but also generate connections that can lead to many sales down the road.
“You have to have the human touch and reach out,” Power advises. “I call all the schools and talk to all of the music teachers in my district. Corner Brook is a small town – about 18,000 people – so I just make sure that I’m relevant. New products, anything pertaining to schools, I make sure I have them and that I let people know about them.”
Unique promotional events can also draw in back-to-school business, Deyme says, noting it’s an exciting time of year for young people. “We’ve done the store up as the Titanic, where we turned the whole studio into a boat and our reception area looked like the reception area of a cruise liner,” she offers as an example.
But like Power stressed, it’s individual service – that human touch – that’s most important to maintaining existing clientele and drawing in new customers at Rysons. “This is about passion,” says Deyme, who goes to great lengths to ensure her customers are set for the season.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Rysons’ efforts to source sheet music for customers, including rare or hard-to-find titles that may even elude online shoppers. “There’s a gentleman in Montreal that I get my sheet music from. It might only be a $5.95 purchase, but he and I will go to the ends of the Earth to find music. When a customer wants something, my job is to get it, and I will find it somewhere. Service is everything here and always has been. The richest child is poor without a musical education. That’s what we’re all about, honestly.”
Service – hands-on, custom-tailored to the market, and highly personal – is the hook for customers whether they’re renting or buying one instrument or 100 and a big potential advantage for local, independently- owned music stores. It’s the kind of thing that starts the minute someone opens the door, Daoud says. “We might know them by name, or vice versa, and there’s huge value in that. It’s one-on-one, so people feel they’re not just a number; they feel like they’re in their own place.”
The consensus is unanimous that putting in the work – from researching new MI technologies and current trends in sales and education to reaching out to instructors and parents – is vital to success.
For Quest Musique, a big component of that is sorting out who they need to cater to, what they need, and where and when they need it. As part of that effort, Quest helps educators survey their students to find out which instruments might suit them best – a very hands-on and entirely free service that people appreciate.
“You’re hoping that they’re going to persuade parents, teachers, and students to rent from us, and sometimes, directly, we’ll have contracts where they’ll provide instruments for the students and rent a bulk sum of instruments from us.”
Typically, what people most want and need is guidance when purchasing or renting instruments and deciding how to best engage their children in music.
Customers – particularly parents – are often at a loss as to where to start, or how to further their children’s musical education.
“There are just so many options,” Daoud says. “The market is flooded, so we ask a lot of questions. We don’t want to take anyone down a path they don’t want to go or that will hurt their progress, whether they know what they want, think they know what they want, or don’t know what they want. In all cases, we have to ask the right questions. We really genuinely care, and if we don’t have the right answer for one of their questions, we educate ourselves and get back to them. We want them to have exactly what they want and need to get where they want to go because you want the child to love music.”
“I’m constantly doing research,” Power says. “If somebody has a question about anything, I like to be able to answer it then and there. If I can’t, I’ll quickly call one of my suppliers or reach out to the person that I know has the answer and then relay the answer right away. The first thing you have to do is speak to the parents. They have a budget and once you determine what they want to spend, then you can show them what they can get, the different features available, and why those features are better than others. Then you explain the next option up, within their budget, and why that’s better.”
“There’s a percentage of people who will buy online and buy an instrument that teachers don’t recommend,” Trachilis puts in. “But for the most part, teachers have a big say in persuading parents where to go, what to get, and what brands to look for. Being around for 25 years, people know Quest Musique and they trust us. When there’s any issue with instruments we rent, they can just exchange them or get them fixed up right away. We’ll always make sure they’re looked after.”
Making the Grade
The more demonstrably experienced your staff, the more confident parents, teachers from the community at large, and students themselves will feel in the store. Without exception, all our contributors stress the importance of their staff being well-educated, working musicians who can engage with students, parents, and teachers and offer good advice catered to their needs.
Depth of knowledge is key, but so too is offering customers and students the facilities to put that knowledge to use in-store. Village Music, for example, has its own fully-equipped recording studio on site and employs a dedicated audio engineer.
At Rogers, Daoud explains, they offer access to a variety of dedicated individual practice rooms, “Which people rent either because they have an exam coming up, or because they cannot practice at home because of the noise, or they’re in the middle of touring and the drummer or another player doesn’t have a place to practice,” he says. That brings everyone from beginners to professionals through the doors and helps them advance on their respective paths – a vital component of ongoing education at any level.
Each store has its own approach and its own specific focuses, but all are about taking care of their communities and helping to instill and advance a love of music. As Daoud sums up: “We are in the community. We are a small store, but we have everything and look after people, which we hope engages them in making music for the long term.”
Kevin Young is a Toronto-based musician and freelance writer.