Willamette Valley Music: Striking a chord with consumers in the age of Amazon

It’s no secret that Amazon has fundamentally changed the world of retail. Let’s say you want a musical instrument. A simple search on Amazon will net you countless results for the stuff you’d expect, like guitars and trumpets, as well as harder-to-find items, like kazoos, rattles, and electronic DJ equipment.

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With Amazon around, you could be a veritable one-(wo)man band just by loading up a digital shopping cart. So, who needs the local music store anymore?

Turns out, the rise of Amazon may actually be making local music shops more relevant to certain customer segments. After all, Amazon won’t drive to your school to fix a broken banjo, offer expert advice on drum head maintenance, or explain why it might be a bad idea to buy a pink flute.

“Music is an emotional experience, and people who take it seriously expect quality instruments and quality advice,” says Eli Kim, co-owner of Willamette Valley Music Company in Salem, Oregon. “People constantly ask us about the quality of the instruments we sell and service. An instrument is an investment — it needs to last. We have the brands and the expertise to ensure that happens.”

Eli has been in the music business for 25 years, the last six as a proprietor of Willamette Valley Music. The Salem store covers the three R’s of the music business for bands and orchestras: retail, rentals, and repairs.

On the retail side, the shop attracts customers who are looking for more than a half-baked hobby. They’re looking for and experienced staff that can offer detailed advice on the finer points of getting high performance and maximum longevity out of a delicate musical instrument.

On the rentals side, business is booming. Willamette Valley Music offers seasonal rentals to individuals — “typically fourth grade through college,” Eli says — but the biggest business is in renting to band and orchestra directors in local schools.

Willamette Valley Music rents to big institutions, like the University of Oregon, and elementary and secondary schools across a geographic area spanning McMinnville to the north, Aurora to the east, and Klamath Falls and Ashland to the south. These schools typically rent an array of instruments for a full academic year and need routine and on-demand service and maintenance, which is a complex ask that begs for a knowledgeable local provider.

Relatedly, the shop’s repair business is humming along — an anomaly in our throwaway society. While modern economics might make it easier to buy a new pair of shoes than repair them, musical instruments get broken in, and artists develop a familiarity with them. Add that to the knowledge gap preventing DIY repairs and you have the makings of a thriving repair business that goes on the road rather than requiring in-store service.

“Orchestra teachers need resin, and kids drop saxophones,” Eli says. “It’s incredibly disruptive to let these things stop the group’s learning and progress, so we’re happy we can bring these services to them.”

To optimize his business, Eli is joining the growing chorus of small business owners who are using technology in their everyday operations. In fact, according to research from Techaisle, 94% of small businesses will be uses software-as-a-service (SaaS) by the end of 2017, a steep increase over just 27% in 2011.

Eli uses Womply’s business intelligence capabilities to test the price elasticity of the music shop’s goods and services. In theory, consumers should be willing to pay more for the premium products and white glove service his store offers, especially given the assurances of quality required by savvy buyers.

Eli can easily test that hypothesis in two ways with Womply:

  • First, he can look at his store’s average transaction amount and compare it to other music businesses in the area. If he’s low, then there’s probably more headroom to increase prices. If he’s high, he’s either leading the pack or could increase volume by lowering prices.
  • Second, he can look for patterns in daily sales that aren’t available on a traditional processing statement. If he increased prices in one week, it’s easy to look at the immediate effect on revenue because Womply tracks sales on a daily basis and highlights the company’s best days. This simple analysis can also be viewed in comparison to local competitors.

Rather than guessing, Eli is able to get critical info quickly and make some informed decisions about pricing, competitive positioning, and the best days to staff up or run special promotions. That allows him to add some digital sophistication to his business without spending time he doesn’t have.

“It’s really helpful to have this information in your back pocket,” he says. “We’re always trying to figure out how other stores are doing so we can adjust our business approach. But it has to be easy to get that information because we have a business to run.”

If you’re in the Salem area, drop into Willamette Valley Music on State Street; if you’re not, download some sheet music. You can also like their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, or check out a few of their videos on YouTube.

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