Adam Savage speaks to the new man in charge of this up-and-coming Cheshire store...
The regular injection of new ideas and concepts is essential to the running of a successful business. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of a massive global corporation or the owner of a small independent MI retailer, keeping up to date with current trends and ensuring you remain in the thoughts of your customers or target audience is critical in order to survive.
For more than 25 years, Northwich Music Centre has been a key fixture in the town, starting off as an acoustic piano specialist before moving into other sectors – particularly guitars, which is now its specialist field. It’s probably safe to say though that up until recently, the shop had fallen into the category of stores that were once great, but require a little ‘TLC’ to get them back on track.
A little under a year ago, former session drummer and transport business owner Conor Slevin discovered that the shop was up for sale. Although his original intention was not to enter MI retail, the prospect of running his own music shop and immersing himself in a musical environment again proved too tempting to resist.
“I wasn’t going out of my way to get my own music shop, but one thing led to another and as I’ve got a couple of kids, it was a great opportunity to come off the road,” said Slevin. “It was the right price at the right time and it’s brought me back to the fun of drumming and being around musicians.”
Since taking the reins, the shop’s new general manager has wasted no time bringing the store up to a high standard by checking that they are dealing with the right suppliers – and therefore stocking the right products – as well as ensuring it has a proper online presence and that local musos see Northwich Music Centre as a worthy alternative to the big chain stores located in the nearby cities of Liverpool and Manchester.
“We already had some good suppliers in place, but we’ve focused on bringing others in and getting more stock in-store. There isn’t much bricks and mortar competition in the area and we’re well placed in every way so now we’re building ourselves as a go-to store,” comments Slevin. “We’ve definitely raised our game, brought in finance options like Take it Away and now consider ourselves a serious High Street shop.
The list of changes made even included cutting out what was once the store’s area of expertise.
“Getting rid of acoustic pianos was the right thing to do and now we are probably more guitar focused, but not at the expense of everything else we do. We’ve also been pushing folk, brass and woodwind and have been working with a lot more schools. We’ve not been taking on too much though, as we need to strike a balance.”
Northwich Music Centre is also another fine example of where social networking has taken it from a shop known mainly by the immediate locals to a store that has built itself a unique personality on Twitter, catching the attention of people all over the North West.
“We want to make people comfortable dealing with us and attract potential customers away from the chains and the Internet, although we have made in-roads with the Internet side of things ourselves. By getting involved with Twitter we’ve brought ourselves out into the light, announced that we’re here and now we’re generating real business from it.
Slevin is clearly a man intent on making his shop a real success, but to bring the store up to his desired standard, he’s had to work on the level of service offered by his trusty workforce, which includes two other sales staff.
To do that, he has employed arguably one of the best tactics possible to keep service consistently high: hired mystery shoppers to come in and rate the store. With a 98 per cent score from one Independent Shopper Survey, it seems to be paying off.
“We recognise the people side of it and we pay an agency to keep us on our toes. We can’t move the same volume of guitars as the biggies, so it’s all about service,” states Slevin. “We’re now open six days a week and we’ve brought other services – like repairs – in-house as well.”
It’s even more impressive that Slevin and co have pulled this off at a time when many indies are struggling to get by or closing completely. Furthermore, with reports emerging that we’ve now entered a double-dip recession, surely this is the worst possible time to try and come in and attempt to move a small business forward? Slevin agrees that taking it steady is his best option, but feels we shouldn’t listen to all the media scaremongering.
“All this talk of a double-dip recession doesn’t help. We’re all aware of it and big headlines like that don’t do anyone any good,” Slevin argues. “It is what it is and we just have to deal with it, but I’ve come in with a fresh set of eyes and listened to people who have been around in the industry for many years. Now our sales are up over 25 per cent and I’ve been getting some good, solid info from suppliers, who have all been fantastic.
“Would I recommend someone to start a music shop from scratch? Probably not, as some margins are terrible at the moment. Your absolute focus has to be ‘where is the money coming from?’. I do sympathise with the guys with bigger overheads and the long established small shops not fortunate enough to find a buyer, as well as the guys who have been around for over 25 years and haven’t yet embraced online. It’s difficult to change if you’re part of a certain fabric.”
The store’s new manager comes across as a person who, despite lacking in experience as an MI store owner, knows exactly what is required to grow a retail business in the twenty first century. Now that he’s put Northwich Music Centre firmly on the map, Slevin knows that the immediate future needs to be about stabilisation, as oppose to coming up with highly ambitious plans.
“We’re very confident we’re on the right track and there’s no silly plans to expand or jump in with the online pricing war. We’re building an online presence to complement the business and nothing more,” concludes Slevin.
“We just want to make the decision between the Internet and bricks and mortar stores less obvious and because musical instruments aren’t absolute necessities for people, it’s important that we focus on riding out the difficult economic times.”