We try and cover as many issues affecting small independent retailers as possible in MI Pro, but one key talking point that comes up less frequently is store location.
You could spend years developing a shop that ticks virtually every box, only to find that where you’re based is actually your biggest problem. And that’s not something that’s easily fixed.
Most retailers looking to set up shop will have two options when seeking a base for their business. They’ll usually have to settle either for a suitable inner city or High Street premises – and cope with the high rent prices and probably a smaller shop size – or bag themselves a building out of town and develop it as a ‘destination store.’
Although the location that Jon Starling chose for his new Hertfordshire store Stable Yard Music can be pigeon-holed into the latter category, his decision to establish it in a new retail development in the picturesque grounds of Hatfield House is anything but ordinary.
Some of the UK’s most successful MI stores are located a fair distance away from passing trade hotspots and yet most would decide against a setting that is undeniably beautiful, but hardly a Mecca for musicians. So why here?
“When I was working at Music Stop in Cockfosters, I was approached by the retail manager of Hatfield House, who said they were looking for a music shop to open here and whether I was interested,” says Starling. “At first I jokingly laughed it off, but then we spoke again and I said it would have to be built as a destination shop and I would need a music school as well, because that would be the primary source of income.”
“Once that was agreed, they came up with a figure and I said “I couldn’t possibly pay that a month” and they said “no, that’s for a year.” I was then given this unit, which is called The Sugar Loaf, because it was where they used to keep the sugar for the horses. At first it was just four white walls when I got the shop in early November, but we were able to open by mid November.”
The shop may be on the small side, but its compact size made the first few months of Stable Yard’s existence much more manageable and one huge advantage is that there is already room to expand. A number of other old traditional buildings on site are currently unused and although he will probably have to negotiate with the other store owners around him should he feel the need to branch out, Starling already has a potential guitar showroom – or other department – on his doorstep, just waiting to be utilised. Keeping it basic to start off with has also allowed him to limit his suppliers to a select few, although the list does appear to be growing.
“I wanted to stock brands from manufacturers and suppliers that are better at stabilising prices and more supportive to the dealer. Tanglewood was the obvious choice, as were Peavey and Casio,” Starling reveals. “They immediately got a rep out as soon as I began contacting suppliers and that’s great because the small independents sometimes get glossed over a bit.
“I like to have nice products on the wall for beginner and intermediates and I’m just trying to build it up from there slowly and sensibly. We’ve only got one sheet music browser, but it’s stocked with books that people actually want to buy.”
Its setting may be unusual and getting its name out there has been unquestionably one of Stable Yard’s biggest challenges in its short lifetime so far, but it would have been even tougher if it weren’t for the success he has enjoyed so far with his educational side project.
“The music school opened in January and we’ve now got 45 students,” claims Starling. “In half term all of the shops here did something and we gave out free music lessons in the studio. We did about 50 lessons in one day and around ten signed up properly afterwards. For the 2012 Diamond Jubilee Beacons in June, we’re all going to stay open until 9:30/10pm and we’re going put on a musical event outside the shop. We’ll have buskers around midday, acoustic duos and other decent local acts on a stage area. We’re trying to get involved with the local community.”
Starling is clearly aware of the fact that opening a destination store is about so much more than making sure the shop looks good and that the right products are on the shelves. It’s also about ensuring people not only know you’re there, but convincing them that you’re a better option that your competition, who are often more conveniently placed.
And of course one of the best ways to do to do this is to hit as many available mediums as possible to reach potential buyers and students. As well as advertising on local radio station Jack FM, Stable Yard’s owner was keen to give the store an online presence that will get it noticed.
“I’ve always done web design and wanted to make a site that acted as an advert for the store, rather than an online shop,” says Starling. “I haven’t got time to run an online business as well as this shop and I also use the web as a networking tool through Facebook and Twitter.
“The Internet is a great thing and you’ve got to embrace it. The other day I was sat at home, with the shop closed and my phone ‘pinged.’ I checked it to see that we had just sold £90 worth of gear on Ebay.”
Having been in the industry for a number of years working for Digital Village in Cambridge and Music Stop, Starling has developed a good understanding of what works in MI retail and what doesn’t.
“There’s no point in bitching about the recession, you’ve got to do something about it. Customer service is lacking in our industry and sometimes you’ll go into a shop and there’ll be boxes everywhere,” he comments. “Someone from outside the industry like Mary Portas needs to come and sort us out because MI gets away with things that you couldn’t in other industries.
“It’s a difficult industry to succeed in and you’ve got to keep an eye on expenses and the profit margins are so low. For us, it’s all going to plan so far, though.”
It’s never easy to tell how well a shop will do when it’s only been around for a matter of months, but a combination of industry knowledge and experience with good understanding of how to get customers through the door and communicate with them will surely see Stable Yard come through the difficult first year and become an established part of the MI retail community.