|While much has changed since 1968, when Bob Willcutt set up shop in the basement of Fred Moore Music, he still does many of the set-ups that are performed on every guitar that leaves Willcutt Music.
How Bob Willcutt’s Hobby Became A Thriving Business
WHAT DOES IT TAKE to turn a hobby into a thriving niche business that weathers stiff competition, market swings, economic upheaval, and changing consumer needs? In May, Willcutt Guitars celebrated its 50th anniversary during a weekend party at its Lexington, Kentucky store. Festivities included a performance by hot session picker Brent Mason; meet-and-greet opportunities with Paul Reed Smith and representatives from Martin, Taylor, and Fender; and a showcasing of limited-edition Willcutt 50th anniversary models by PRS, Fender, Rickenbacker, and Taylor. For founder and owner Bob Willcutt, the event marked a lifetime of bold choices and steadfast adherence to old school retail values aimed at ensuring his customers’ satisfaction.
A social worker by profession, guitarist and self-taught luthier Bob Willcutt began repairing and rebuilding vintage folk instruments as a hobby in the 1960s. After coming off a 1968 album-promoting road tour with his band, One of Hours (whose album was recently posted on YouTube), he set about launching his own guitar repair shop in the rented basement of school band-focused Fred Moore Music in downtown Lexington. A few months later he began supplementing his repair work by offering a modest selection of instruments, amps, and accessories for sale.
Eleven bumpy years later he relocated the business into its own building, more than tripling the original location’s footprint to about 2,500 square feet. The move was spurred—and to a degree enabled—by the emergence of new brands such as PRS, Taylor, Larrivée, Mesa Boogie, and the original Schecter that were willing to take a chance on Lexington’s upstart retailer. In those lean early years, Willcutt struggled to secure the bigger lines, which were already represented by more established businesses. Bob proudly snagged the Martin line when he moved into the larger store but then lost it two years later because he “couldn’t keep up the numbers.” In a gratifying turnaround, Willcutt reacquired the Martin line in 2009, and in recent years it has been Martin’s top independent dealer. Plaques commemorating that feat have plenty of company on a wall in the Willcutt offices, and about 150 awards from many of the guitar world’s top manufacturers are displayed on its website.
“GC was running smaller stores
out of business, and I was faced
with a tough choice: throw in the towel,
or ante up for technology.”
Willcutt Guitars’ first breakthroughs came in 1998, when it launched a website, and two years later, when Bob got serious about using it as a sales tool. His strategy was based, in part, on his ambition to grow more than the local market would support. Expanding his market would enable him to increase the size of his orders and become more competitive by passing along preferred pricing to his customers. But there was also an element of self-preservation: “Guitar Center had started to run smaller stores out of business,” he recalls, and he was faced with a very tough choice: throw in the towel, or ante up for a technology that, at least in music retail, was still relatively untested. Back then, getting started was much harder, he points out. With no templates or turnkey solutions, businesses had to hire coders to program even the most basic websites. But in retrospect, Bob says, being one of music retail’s early adopters of online commerce was a game changer for Willcutt Guitars. Sales began rising almost instantly, and the growth has been “pretty phenomenal” ever since.
One key to the modern site’s allure is “some of the best product photography in the business.” Willcutt employs two full-time photographers in its pro-level in-house studio to produce multiple high-definition images for many of the roughly 4,000 guitars in its inventory. Presenting no generic images, the site depicts each instrument offered for sale along with its serial number to assure shoppers that “what they see is what they’ll get.” The only exceptions, entry-level instruments, don’t appear on the site at all, as it’s not cost-effective to photograph them. Which is not to say that Willcutt neglects this important market: It does stock and sell its share of beginner Fender Squiers, Ibanezes, and Danelectros, and every one—even the $99 models—receives a full shop set-up before it’s shipped.
Today, in addition to its own site, Willcutt also sells on eBay, Reverb, and Amazon. Online sales now account for roughly 95% of its total revenue. Many of even Willcutt’s longtime local customers peruse its website before visiting the store to shop, if only to get a complete picture of what’s in stock. Unlike some of its competitors, Willcutt hangs only a sampling of the guitars in its inventory in the showroom for customers to play-test at will. Many are kept in cases so they are “factory-fresh and perfect” for the customers who buy them in the store or order them online. Bob admits that local shoppers wishing they could “pick their favorite PRS from 500 on the rack” could be frustrated by this policy, but that’s an acceptable trade-off to avoid scratched and damaged merchandise for “incredibly particular” customers who have come to expect that every guitar coming from Willcutt will be perfect.
Not surprisingly, Willcutt no longer has a problem getting product lines. The fringes of its electric guitar selection range from heavy metal axes—mostly Ibanezes with Floyd Rose tremolos—to jazz boxes from D’Angelico. But its wheelhouse within the 80-plus instrument brands it carries is probably best represented by the top end of the world’s leading manufacturers—Martin, Taylor, Fender, PRS, Music Man, and Rickenbacker—with aesthetics ranging from Fender’s Relic models to “magnifying glass perfect PRS’s,” plus prestige brands such as Collings and Santa Cruz. Bob is also a champion of select boutique brands and venerable luthiers such as Roger Giffin, Matt Artiger, Juha Ruokangas, and Scott Walker. Equally impressive inventories of amplifiers and effects pedals make Willcutt something of a Disneyland for guitarists.
Over the years, Bob has learned to balance the ratio of eye candy boutique instruments that bring customers into the store and onto the site with market staples that will turn over at a reliable pace. He constantly hones his gut instinct, developed over half a century, by listening to customers on the sales floor, to the manufacturers at their factories, and to peers at the NAMM show. “You can’t do it from a distance,” he says. “You have to be there.”
Used gear sales represent a small part of Willcutt’s business and are subject to what Bob characterizes as a somewhat atypical approach. He rationalizes prices that are higher than at stores that focus on “selling it cheap and moving it quick” by citing the extra time and effort dedicated to bringing the instruments up to snuff. Bob and his team inspect every used instrument and, as necessary, upgrade it with fretwork, a bridge reset, a wet sand buff-out, etc. before it’s put back on the market. “All of our used instruments are top-notch and luthier-certified,” he insists, adding that the staff’s fastidious attention to detail in everything from playability to cosmetics is a pillar of Willcutt Guitar’s brand identity. “Even if we lose money on some of the low-end and used instruments,” he says, “we have to maintain the reputation of the store.”
“Customers want to communicate
with someone they trust.
They want assurances that the guitar
they’re ordering is the exact one
they’re going to get,
and that it will be set up well.”
There’s an argument that all of the product information available to consumers online makes everyone an “expert,” diminishing the value of experts behind the retail counter. While agreeing that today’s shoppers are armed with every possible spec and feature, at the end of the day, Bob says, “a lot of them still want to communicate with someone they trust. In addition to internet pricing, they want assurances not only that the guitar they’re ordering is the exact one they’re going to get, but also that it’s set up exactly how they want it to play.”
And for some consumers, perhaps counter-intuitively, the profusion of product data can make buying decisions harder. For example, Bob points out, players can listen to hundreds of different pickups in online sound clips and videos—so many, in fact, that they get confused. “That’s when they call to talk to an expert.” Other times, he adds, their product search is based on a misconception. “They may say, ‘I want the hottest pickup available,’ but then we explain that if it’s too hot, you lose the high end and the sparkle....” Through these kinds of conversations, Willcutt Guitar, not the internet, becomes its customers’ trusted source of information.
It took decades, but Willcutt Guitar has become a destination store, both by click and by car. Visitors regularly drive there from Nashville, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and many East Coast cities; one recently made the trip from North Detroit. The biggest attraction is its 4,000-instrument inventory, including premium one-offs and limited-run models from Fender, Martin, Taylor, PRS, and other manufacturers that can’t be found anywhere else, and expensive custom shop axes from several brands. Then there are the six-figure Martins and true rarities: Bob recalls a Gibson double-neck six- and 12-string Jimmy Page signature model. One of just 25 made, it was played and signed by the artist. The buyer insisted that Willcutt not change its strings, saying “I want Jimmy’s DNA on it.” The store’s history as an outpost of the greats also draws visitors. Over the years, customers have included Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, J.D. Crowe, Eddie Vedder, Ed King, Howard Leese, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Walsh, Rick Nielsen, Ray LaMontagne, Sturgill Simpson, Joe Bonnamassa, Walter Becker, Al Anderson, Paul Stanley, Kirk Hammett, Nazareth, The Who, Molly Hatchet, and the Rolling Stones.
Bob describes the store’s typical online customer as “a middle-aged or older guy who’s ready to spring for the guitar he’s always wanted. They search on the internet and get confused by all the thousands of choices. They call us up, and we counsel them to make sure they get what they really want.”
Fifty years in business provides an uncommonly broad view of the evolving retail landscape. Willcutt survived the late ’80s-early ’90s collapse of the guitar market by taking on keyboards and p.a.’s and renting audio and lighting gear. “It was hard to sleep at night during those years,” Bob admits, “but you do what you have to do.” By the late ’90s, Willcutt returned to exclusively selling guitars, basses, amps, and related accessories.
Within a narrower, more recent context, having benefited immensely from the e-commerce revolution, Bob is quick to cheer the public’s growing comfort with buying online. The negative flipside of their comfort is that online shoppers have been conditioned (read: spoiled) by the liberal return policies at Amazon and eBay, and some have been emboldened to abuse merchants who must match those policies to stay in the game. In the worst cases, Bob says, “A guy orders a $10,000 guitar so he can impress his friends at his weekend gig, and then sends it back, and we’re left trying to sell an instrument that isn’t pristine anymore.”
Especially for online and call-in customers, making sure they are satisfied requires time and patience. Once the customer has identified the make and model he wants, a Willcutt sales associate picks two or three instruments out of inventory based upon the customer’s stated sound and feel preferences. For customers who ask to hear sound clips of those picks, associates try to limit these demos to three to five instruments. “If they asked to hear every Martin D28 we have in stock, they would get so confused,” Bob explains, noting with only a slight smile that online buyers want to compare and contrast these virtually identical instruments’ sonic nuances through sound clips played on their computer speakers or smartphone. (“We do the best we can,” he quips.) Typically these interactions lead to the customer asking the salesperson, “What do you think?” and the salesperson responding, “After talking to you and learning what your needs are, I think you’re going to want this one.’” At which point the transaction comes full circle back to trust. “We never try to dump the guitar we’re trying to get rid of,” Bob stresses. “We recommend the one we think is right for that particular customer.”
Willcutt Guitars has promoted itself to non-local customers with investments in search engine optimization, web banner ads, and ads in magazines. But growth has been best served by cultivating the reputation of the business by both word-of-mouth and, more recently, on internet forums and social media. Since his first years in the business, Bob’s reputation as a master luthier helped lay the foundation for the retail operation. And through years of doing business with integrity and meticulous care for his customers, he and the team he built have consistently earned the guitar community’s trust.