Confessions of a mail-order shopper

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).


5 responses to “Confessions of a mail-order shopper”

  1. Ron Pimentel Avatar
    Ron Pimentel

    I believe that specialized consumer products of many sorts are best sold, and purchased, on line. In some of my marketing classes I give the example of the choir robes store. In about 1980, I was working on South Market in San Francisco. Nearby, there was a store that specialized in choir robes, and apparently stocked little else. I presumed that they drew customers from a large area, probably all of Northern California. My students agree that there is not enough potential volume in the choir robe market to have a choir robe store in every town.

    A key advantage of selling over the internet is the “death of distance.” It is no longer necessary to have a substantial potential market within a particular geographical area.

    I needed some 18th Century clothing for an event. There is a website that specializes in that. I cannot think of any single metropolitan area that could adequately support a brick and motor establishment dedicated to 18th Century clothing.

    So kudos to Dr. Pimentel for seeing the situation clearly and not succumbing to the implied (or declared) virtue of shopping local if that does not fulfill his needs. By naturally following the evolution of the market, he helps to optimize it.

  2. Chris Avatar

    When I moved into my dorm at one of the biggest music schools in the country I was very surprised to find that there was not a music store in town that stocked band or orchestra supplies. A few years later I opened just such a store and found out why.

    -There’s no profit to be made in professional instruments. Once you match the online price, pay your overhead and your payroll, you’re lucky to make anything on the sale.
    -All of the major big-name vendors require significant buy-ins – 30, 40, 50 thousand a year. Multiply that by all of the different manufacturers that customers want you to carry and you’re talking big numbers (especially for a college dropout like myself).
    -The real money to be made is in rentals to beginning students. The rent-to-own plan is a VERY expensive financing option with a lot of profit built in for the dealer.
    -All of that profit is necessary to counteract the folks who skip town with their rental instrument (more than you would think).

    It’s very, very expensive to operate a store with professional level instruments, and with the competition from online stores the margins get thinner every day. I think at this point there simply is not room for more than a few big warehouse stores in the professional market.

    I do see an opportunity, however, for local music stores that service the school band market. School band directors value their road reps who visit regularly, offer rental plans and help new band parents decode the supply list for band class. Often times the local store is a little more expensive than buying online, but the service after the sale is a major issue with middle and high school kids.

    The real advantage to the professional is the “right now” sale. When you need a box of reeds for tonight’s gig, or a spring breaks at rehearsal right before the concert, you need to have a place to go. As more stores disappear those places are becoming harder to find.

    After 6 years in business I closed down my store last year. I’m now working for a different music store in the same area focusing more on the school market (hardly and pro horns here!). We’re opening a new location in a few months with a full repair facility and a cafe/performance venue – online stores can’t compete with that!

  3. Thanks Ron (aka Dr. Pimentel, aka “Dad”) and Chris for your unique perspectives.

    @Chris—I would have guessed that pro instruments weren’t profitable for typical music stores, but I would have had no idea that the buy-ins were so expensive!

    I try to stay well enough stocked on reeds and repair supplies that I don’t have “right now”-type emergencies. Are there really a lot of pros coming into music stores who don’t have reeds for tonight’s gig?

    Sorry to hear your store isn’t around anymore. If it’s not profitable running one where you’re located (based on your email address), then I expect there aren’t many places where it is.

  4. Chris, if you are who I think you are, I was sad to hear about your store closing last year. It was one of the things I really missed about that town- I could order a box of reeds from you online at 5:00 pm and you would bring them to my dorm room a couple hours later for a $1 delivery fee! It was incredible! Since moving, I have yet to walk into a store and find the reeds that I want. We all bought reeds from you, but I remember being only vaguely aware that you had horns for sale. When it came time to buy a horn, the first place we turned was always the community- someone on campus was always selling a Mark VI or an R13.

  5. Chris Avatar

    @Matt – the delivery service was fun, but expensive – originally designed only to build a customer base before opening the store. The horns we had for sale for the most part wouldn’t have interested you anyway as they were almost all beginner or intermediate horns. Pro horns were just way too expensive to keep in stock for the only occasional sales we would’ve gotten.

    @Bret – you’d be surprised at how many professional gigging musicians would run into my store (and you’re correct about the location) on the way to a gig for a box of reeds or bottle of valve oil. There were a few who came in several times a week. How anybody can go through reeds that fast I don’t know, but they were some of my favorite customers. About buy-ins, it’s really a crazy amount of money. Many of the big-name manufacturers are also very hesitant to deal with specialty stores. They don’t so much want to sell you a dozen pro-level saxes, they want you to buy a variety of instruments of all levels.

    What it really comes down to is money, unfortunately. If I had a half-million dollars to put into a new business, I could have a nicely stocked store with pro-level horns and maybe make a decent living at it. Maybe someday.

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