I’m not sure I can recall the last time I walked into a music store and bought something.
I hear every so often that I should support local businesses and mom-and-pop shops, and I have to admit that this sounds vaguely like a responsible and virtuous thing to do. But here’s why I don’t—and can’t.
- It costs too much. Prices are inevitably higher in local stores. I understand that so-called “full-service” establishments have overhead, but so do I. If they can justify charging higher prices, it seems fair that I can justify shopping around.
- They don’t stock what I need. Other than a few scattered specialty shops, local music stores stock what they can sell in volume, and that’s inexpensive instruments and accessories for the beginning band market. I live in a small town, but even in the fairly large cities where I have lived, I have, more frequently than not, been unable to get what I like. A few months ago I made a two-and-a-half hour drive to go saxophone shopping with a student at a large music store in a large city. The store was large enough to have a saxophone specialist on staff. The store regularly stocks one brand of (arguably) professional-quality saxophone (and it’s not Selmer, Yamaha, Yanagisawa, or Keilwerth), and had exactly two major-brand instruments available, used. We also contacted a small saxophone specialty shop that was a little farther away, one that actually has “saxophone” in the store’s name. They had zero pro-line horns in stock.
- As far as I can tell, the “superior customer service” factor is largely a myth. I think most woodwind players have experienced the frustration of going into a music store and being “helped” by the heavy-metal guitarist behind the counter. And even in specialty shops, I’ve rarely found a salesperson who can answer serious questions with much more than regurgitated advertising copy or a personal opinion. And, while I don’t doubt that specialty retailers are passionate about what they do, it’s important to keep in mind that they are businesspeople and subject to motivations other than getting you the best possible product for the smallest possible price.
I do not begrudge brick-and-mortar proprietors their profit margins, or salespeople their commissions (or their jobs). And on a neighborly level I hate to see a local shop go out of business. But the loss is a pretty abstract one for me—not much more relevant than the closing of a big-‘n’-tall clothier (I’m neither big nor tall).
Since starting college as a music major, I have made almost all my music-related purchases from warehouse stores, by catalog and phone in the past, and now exclusively via the internet. The behemoth mail-order establishments stock nearly every product I use, charge the lowest prices anywhere, and often provide just as much product information on their websites as I could get in a local shop, plus customer reviews.
One of my favorite online retailers offers a virtually perennial free shipping promotion on orders over a certain, relatively small dollar amount. Since I’m usually in need of reeds in a half-dozen sizes, I don’t have any trouble qualifying.
I’ve tried in the past to offer brick-and-mortar stores the opportunity to match prices with the mail-order giants. This usually proves to be a hassle and often seems a little cruel, asking a small business owner to reduce their razor-thin profit margins to those of a volume dealer. A few have been willing, but most have responded with excuses about overhead. The excuses, presumably, are valid ones. But if they can’t budge on their price requirements, then why must I?
It’s sort of true that in a “real” store I can actually hold the product in my hands before I buy, but even this is a pretty slim advantage. Music stores that cater to intermediate-level students or professionals understand the need for musicians to try out things like mouthpieces before committing, but beginning-band stores or guitar-and-drums shops are less likely to allow this. The major online retailers all offer good trial and return policies, usually allowing you to obtain a number of mouthpieces, barrels, bocals, instruments, etc. for a small deposit, and return the ones you don’t want. If you end up purchasing one or more, most sellers will waive restocking/sterilization fees. The relatively minimal hassle and expense of return-shipping unwanted merchandise have, in my experience, virtually always resulted in a better product and a lower cost than purchasing at a store.
I’ve occasionally heard people extol the post-purchase service and support available from brick-and-mortar stores. This means repair service, which is another thing that I often find unsatisfactory unless I deal with a specialist, usually in a distant location. Many stores offer extended service contracts on purchased instruments, which, make no mistake, are designed to maximize the seller’s bottom line, not yours.
As a side note, I do think that there is one in-person shopping situation that can rival the benefits of online purchases, and that is conferences. A couple of years ago I bought a new oboe at the IDRS conference. I had a blast trying literally over a hundred oboes offered for sale by the vendors in attendance. Because the vendors were packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the exhibit hall, most were offering special “conference pricing” to stay competitive. Some had repair specialists on hand to tweak instruments to potential customers’ preferences. I was also surrounded by conference attendees, many of them professional oboists, most if not all of them happy to offer opinions. When I picked out “the one,” the vendor refused to let me pay for it, instead recommending that I take it home for an extended trial period, and then return it or make the inter-state purchase via credit card, avoiding the local sales tax at the conference location.
If you are lucky enough to be near a great music store with excellent service and knowledgeable staff, then you have my envy. If they offer prices competitive with the warehouse dealers, then enjoy it while you can, because they will soon be a Starbucks (sigh).