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Why Every Dealer Should Stock Print

...about pervasive digital downloads and the competitive threats posed by the likes of Amazon obscure the fact that consumer demand for traditional print music products is strong, and that for many retailers, print remains a vital component of their business. With an estimated retail value of $505 million last year, print is the industry’s sixth-largest product category, but its importance goes far beyond revenue generated: it drives the sales of every other product category, providing the roadmap that guides beginners and the inspiration that motivates more accomplished players. Retailers have continuously debated the value of stocking print, but for thousands of Hal Leonard customers, it is simultaneously a profit center, a traffic builder, a community service, and a market expansion tool.

Let’s examine the supposed mortal threats to print. For starters, the problem of digital downloads is seriously overblown. The internet has made it easier to access content digitally, but the vast majority of downloads are single songs—what most people associate with “sheet music.” This segment of the print market hasn’t grown in more than 50 years and today still represents less than 3% of the total print sales. Thus, downloads have yet to seriously affect anyone’s top line. 

Sales of method books, band and orchestra arrangements, choral octavos, and song books are the core of the market and they remain strong because they provide a much better user experience than any digital alternative to date. With a paper book, the interface is intuitive, the battery life is infinite, there are no latency issues, and it can be readily shared. Publishers have also enhanced traditional print with online features such as ensemble accompaniments that deliver extraordinary educational and performance experiences for musicians of all levels. Current sales volumes, along with a lot of market researc, indicate that this product medium will be around for a long time to come.

Will Amazon and other online retailers take over the entire print music market? I don’t think so, and I base this opinion in part on the recent experience of independent booksellers. Since the rise of Amazon, the advent of the Kindle, and the demise of the Borders Book chain, pundits have been forecasting the end of the book store. Yet, in a presentation at the recently concluded Retail Print Music Dealers Association (RPMDA) convention, Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, reported that the number of independent booksellers in the U.S. had actually increased 27% from 2009 to 2015 to 2,227 outlets. In addition, these independents enjoyed a revenue gain of 5% last year, outpacing the book industry’s 2.5% gain. Teicher attributes the improved performance to better internal operations at book stores, a resurgent “buy local” trend, and better policies on the part of publishers. He added, “Despite all the quantum leaps in technology, the fact is nothing beats a physical, bricks-and-mortar store to discover books that you didn’t know about.” Every one of Teicher’s observations is applicable to local music stores.

We’ve heard some retailers say they are abandoning print because their customers can access it online at Amazon. What they seem to overlook is that Amazon started as a bookseller, expanded through a combination of low prices and extensive selection, and now stocks just about everything. A retailer who cedes the print business to online competitors should ask themselves, “what else am I inviting my customers to buy online?”

At Hal Leonard, we get a closeup look at all different types of retailers—school music stores, full-line stores, keyboard stores, guitar specialists, and online retailers. What we’ve found is that success with print has little to do with online competition. Yes, retail is challenging and competition is fierce, but the basic laws of retail still apply. Those who provide service and selection for their customers can make a good profit with print.

The first step in creating a successful print department is carrying the appropriate amount of inventory to service the customers coming in and out of the store. On this front, publishers can be tremendously helpful in tailoring an appropriate inventory to a specific store’s clientele. In addition, useful point-of-purchase materials are readily available.

Beyond inventory control, successful print stores realize that you have to “sell” print. Not just in terms of the cash transaction, but taking a critical look at how it’s merchandised and how your staff presents it. Certain titles like Hamilton, Adele, and Frozen enjoy such strong demand, they sell themselves if they are visible and attractively merchandised. However, for the less “in-demand” titles, employee training is critical. It can be as simple as making sure all employees see the publisher’s new release updates, or at least the monthly new release forms. If you’re servicing the school markets, the sales staff should have ready access to the methods and music recommended by the various music directors. Same goes for all other teachers in the market area. Be sure to stock what they and their students are asking for.

Customers are also wanting and looking for recommendations, and print is the only category that can be a potential sale for every customer who walks through the door. The majority of music store employees have owned and learned from a book at some point in their musical development, and would be happy to recommend a title they are excited about. Encourage them to do it.

It also helps to think out of the box. Elliott Wessel, the print music manager at Schmitt Music, recently assembled a display to showcase the music of Prince, the late Minneapolis-based musical icon. The display led to immediate sales, but more importantly, it prompted customers to open up, creating the opportunity to forge relationships. 

Our salespeople routinely hear some retailers express concern about publishers “loading them up” with slow-moving products. The days of “over-producing music” and offloading it on to unsuspecting retailers are over. Publishers can’t afford to put out music that doesn’t sell, or have retail customers sitting with unsold stock. The technology now exists for us to produce highly specialized books, like an edition of Star Wars: The Force Awakens for accordion. However, we’re not going to push it on people who don’t have a market for it. 

For those who think print may be too difficult, or too SKU-intensive, or that they don’t have a market for it, I’d suggest they attend the RPMDA convention in Atlanta next April. You’ll find all the resources there that you need to be successful.

David Jahnke is the vice president of national sales for the Hal Leonard Corporation.  He holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh with emphasis in music business and recording technology.  David is a drummer who’s proud to say that he has a great career with an industry leader and that he’s still married to his first wife, which has helped him to avoid the whole “homeless” issue that surrounds many of his percussive counterparts.

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