We’ve all been hearing about the fractured and scrambled supply chains that are affecting product availability right now. The far-reaching effects of the pandemic are showing up in myriad ways, from housing shortages in picturesque small towns (because remote work means you don’t have to live in expensive urban areas) to excess supplies of toilet paper because people are still using the stock they built up during the panic-buying early days of the pandemic. But now that vaccinations and reduced caseloads are pointing us toward new-normalized consumer demands, supply chains are still months behind the curve. Component parts, raw materials and finished goods are still caught in a nightmare logistical matrix that has left empty containers in ports where there are no goods to fill them.
Certainly, the music products industry isn’t immune to these complications, and as a comparatively tiny blip on the economy, the manufacturing side of things doesn’t have much clout getting the pipeline moving again. We’ll have to stand in line while the heavyweights yank things back into place.
That said, we do now have some product moving, albeit slowly. Guitars have been one of the biggest holdups, due in part to the surge in demand. But the guitar supply has also been affected by natural caution, because no one in our industry can make a million-dollar mistake ... anymore. With rare exceptions, most of the companies in the industry aren’t shored up by stockholders, grants or generous credit lines. So, ordering big was a gamble last year, as was holding off on orders. In general, the supply side played it cautious.
Now that product is flowing in on a limited basis, though, it’s also a challenge for retailers. Yes, the supply side lost revenue — in some cases a lot of revenue. But now, retailer demand for products isn’t leaving them with any leftover stock, let alone overstocks. The light is returning to the manufacturing side.
Demand is also returning — in some cases, it never left — to retail. But success on that front seems to have a lot to do with how well positioned stores were on inventory, and how easily they could replenish their stock as they sold through their existing products. I’ve heard from some companies in MI that were well stocked as the pandemic hit, and thanks to phone orders, web presence or the luck of being in a state that did not close retailers for two months or more, they had a banner 2020.
My store does its biggest trade in accessories, repairs and lessons. Being closed by the governor for two months was a challenge, but repairs and the loyalty of our teaching faculty, all of whom volunteered to continue paying rent to the store even when teaching remotely, kept the lights on. For us, the rest of the year was lackluster, in part because school band and orchestra didn’t happen at all. We continue to struggle with backorders and slower replenishment.
With that in mind, an aside to the supply side: We know you’re struggling too, but seriously, folks, if you take your time shipping to Amazon or one of the other big accounts, you lose. But if you slow down for us, we can’t compete without product. Increasingly, the customers I see in the store want to buy local, support small business, and avoid both the big companies and the uncertainties of their fulfillment practices. They want a
So my advice, and my plan, is to proceed cautiously until customers tell us more about their 2021 desires, but upon hearing the answer, to go boldly and swiftly down the path they point us to.
product, now, in their hand, and for a reasonable price. We can’t do any of that if you don’t do your part. I had several products on backorder for much of the first quarter, only to have customers get impatient and tell me they found it online. It makes us look silly when we tell people truthfully that we have a backorder. I know there can be reasons for this, but it doesn’t help the small stores. I honestly don’t know what the answer to that is, I just know the problem.
Another challenge: As consumers return to our store (this week alone I’ve greeted a number of families I haven’t seen in literally a year), our challenge is to address the shift in demand we’re seeing. Not increase or decrease. Suddenly we’re selling items, accessory brands and product lines we barely addressed pre-COVID. Did customers become aware of new brands through the “people also bought” algorithm? Has crawling down the YouTube rabbit hole made them aware of new genres? I think the answer to these questions is “yes,” as well as other factors. In response, I find myself researching other products and suppliers, some of whom I’ve never dealt with. In many ways, I feel as though I’m putting my store together for a different market.
What about you? Are you seeing “out-of-left-field” requests, or is it “back to normal?” This is a great opportunity for us to do in-the-trenches market research. Actually, it’s imperative that we do market research. So much has changed, there’s no way you can be sure what your customers want unless you listen to their requests and ask questions. The temptation to say, “Well, glad that’s over!” and reboot to 2019 is a trap, because it isn’t really over. People have been changed by this experience. Witness the people moving, changing careers, leaning into self-enrichment or perhaps still hunkered down as if the virus were hiding in the bushes. If we don’t do this research, we will certainly miss opportunities, but we’ll also risk stocking up for a reality that may never return.
So my advice, and my plan, is to proceed cautiously until customers tell us more about their 2021 desires, but upon hearing the answer, to go boldly and swiftly down the path they point us to. I still believe that music-making can be huge post-COVID-19. But it will be driven by the music makers, not the music merchants.
Certainly, the music products industry isn’t immune to these complications, and as a comparatively tiny blip on the economy, the manufacturing side of things doesn’t have much clout getting the pipeline moving again.