There was a lot to talk about when we met up with Strings & Things recently.
One of the most respected distributors in the industry, it has made a habit of not publicising itself – indeed, S&T goes out of its way to say ‘we’re not the story – the brands are’ – but that means there is always a lot to discuss when we do get together.
In this instance, it included the recent changes in the UK distribution of Jim Dunlop, S&T’s appointment as the distributor for Hiwatt, Source Audio Pedals, Smokey Micro Amps and, on the very day we spoke with general manager Andy Cocklin (pictured, left) and media and artist relations co-ordinator Alex Byford (pictured, right), news that the company has taken on distribution of the US GHS string and Rocktron effects brands.
Most retailers will know the company as one of the pillars of the UK’s MI business, established by former retailer/wholesaler Rod Bradley in 1976, solidly associated with Ernie Ball and Musicman ever since, fiercely loyal to its products and with one of the most respected sales operations in the country, currently comprising four reps on the road and a team of five in the telephone sales office.
The news about GHS being so fresh, we began by asking Andy Cocklin how that was going to fit with existing string brands, headed by Ernie Ball, but also including Elixir, DR, Dunlop and not by any means least, the venerable British Picato brand, which it owns and produces in its Welsh factory, along with the hugely successful Innovation double bass strings, various OEM lines, straps and other accessories.
“We are, and always have been, as the name suggests, a distributor of strings and things,” Andy Cocklin says. “By having Ernie Ball in your portfolio – the single best-selling strings in the world – people come to you and when they do, you’re
able to talk to them about other products too. Having them all in the mix is
strength for us but it’s also strength for the brands themselves.”
It’s a formula that has worked. While many are struggling, Strings & Things is actually expanding, with significant investment currently going into warehousing, IT systems and a brand new website due to be launched in the near future.
“We are very sound financially,” Cocklin states. “Rod has always reinvested profits back into the company, so when we need to do something, we do not have to knock on the bank’s door. In recent times this has proven to be an important factor.
“It’s easy for brand owners to be seduced by distributors offering slick presentations and funky websites. It becomes irrelevant, however, if you cannot afford to hold decent stock levels and have the expertise to sell it. Add to that an extremely flexible returns process and an accounts department that works with customers in these lean times and you can see why we not only have longevity with our existing brands, but are also attracting new ones.
“That being said, we recognise the need to move forward and embrace the challenges facing us as a distributor. Our website for example has been a weak link for too long now, hence the current work developing a completely new one.”
“Historically, we haven’t taken on products – in fact we have turned down products – in areas where we don’t have expertise,” adds Alex Byford. “The majority of customers are guitarists and the majority of our sales guys are guitarists – we play to our strengths not to our weaknesses, which would happen for example, if we started selling specialist drum products.”
And that from a self-confessed drummer! Strings and accessories not only tend to be fairly resilient in a recession (certainly compared with big ticket items) but also carry good margins, both for distributors and retailers – though price compression and commoditisation has meant that guitar strings have been one of the few MI lines to have remained at stable prices for many years now.
One of the few things that can change that is technology. The introduction of Elixir’s coated strings encouraged guitarists to pay more for strings and S&T say that the early signs are that Ernie Ball’s new Cobalt strings could be another nudge for the player to pay more for his set of 009s.
It was time to get to the Dunlop story. It was never the clearest of distribution deals in the first place, with the catalogue shared between Strings and Things, JHS and Paul Howard. Enter Westside – so who now does what?
Cocklin comments: “The Dunlop organisation and S&T go back many years. Apart from the fact they are a giant within the accessories sector, the family and employees are friends and we are passionate about the brand. But having us, JHS and Paul Howard presented the company with a dilemma.
“They felt that the fragmentation of the distribution was restricting the development of its electronics products and their ability to project a clear marketing message. Rather than appoint one of the existing distributors, they appointed Westside to make a fresh start. Westside now offer all Dunlop products, while the three original distributors offer everything but the electronics.”
Another strength of S&T is the fact that they will only supply bona-fide, legitimate retailers. You must have a bricks and mortar store which is freely accessible to the public before they will consider trading with you.
“For that reason alone, we do not currently trade with Thomann or Amazon,” Cocklin states. “It does sometimes feel as if we are taking the moral high ground. We receive around 30 requests a month from private individuals looking to buy Slinkys from us so they can sell them on eBay and they all receive the same polite refusal. We need decent musical retailers, it’s as simple as that.
“I do worry that some fellow distributors will panic that they will be dropped from the supply chain and this may force them to consider direct sales, as indeed will some manufacturers. We don’t need to sell direct. We need to adapt, diversify and add value in other areas, working with the retailers not against them.”
The news that Strings and Things had taken Hiwatt distribution for the UK cannot be glossed - over as simply just another distribution deal, for all that Rod Bradley had been the late Dave Reeves’ original distributor back in the 1970s. There has been a lot of press in recent months about the owners so we asked Andy Cocklin to update us.
“Hiwatt is an industry standard – it is super, super cool. The Killers, Coldplay, The Artic Monkeys, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, The Foo Fighters....these are the bands people are listening to and watching right now and they all use Hiwatt.
“We know that there has been publicity linked to the owners and a deal of resentment from some retailers and distributors towards them. But we were approached to distribute the brand and we felt that we could do a great job offering these iconic amps to our customer base.
“We will have a large stock holding and the range is substantial, so there’s something for everyone. We do accept that some retailers may not wish to stock the brand and we obviously respect their decisions. Our sales team need to convince dealers that the brand is worth stocking and presents an opportunity for them to make profit.”
We could have talked for a lot longer. We had barely had time to discuss the acquisition of a second new effects range, the high-tech Source Audio, and there were questions about S&T’s own string and accessory activities, not to mention other significant brands like Hercules, L.R. Baggs and Musicman’s revolutionary Gamechanger Guitar. We’ll try not to leave it so long next time.
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