Hot for profit: New Guitar Center facility opens

All photos Graham Clark/Catalyst

As dusk fell on Feb. 24, more than 300 people stood in a queue outside a new Guitar Center branch in Lakewood Ranch. They had gathered to receive free t-shirts, catch a performance by Sarasota’s own AC/DC cover band Highway to Hell and otherwise herald in the arrival of the newest kid on the strip mall. By store manager Stephen Bennett’s official count, a total of 1,171 people turned out between 7:00 p.m. and midnight for the store’s grand opening. It’s a crowd that Tom Waters described as “gorgeous.”

Waters is national accounts manager for Taylor Guitars. He was in attendance at the event along with his college Kurt Listug, co-founder and CEO of Taylor. The presence of these executives and others like them speaks to the economic significance of the store opening — from across the country, high-level representatives of companies such as Ernie Ball, Music Man, Gibson, Martin and Fishman all made the trek to Lakewood Ranch. For these “heavy hitters,” as Bennett called them, Guitar Center is serious business.

“I have to be here to give them [Guitar Center] props for doing this,” Waters said. “This is my best customer.”

Listug referred to the company as “the biggest music equipment retailer in the country.” Actually, Guitar Center is the largest in the world. According to Hoovers, Inc. the company posted revenues in 2009 to the tune of $2 billion. For comparison, the next largest music retailer in America, Sam Ash Music Corporation, put up $380 million the same year. While the recession has put a dent in Guitar Center’s earnings, store openings like this are meant to keep the retailer on top of the competition.

“They’re working really hard on evolving their business and their model,” Listug said, referring to the new recording and rehearsal studios available for rental at the Lakewood Ranch facilities. In addition to these new features, the branch offers private lessons and instrument repair by certified technician Ben Whitton. “They’ve been kind of rethinking how they do business a little bit and how they present themselves to the customer.”

By the night of the grand opening, the public’s interest in this new kind of Guitar Center had proven to be substantial. Most if not all of the store’s 35 local employees were on site to handle the raucous mass of customers.

First in line was elementary-schooler Nick Dillon. He had stood waiting with his mother, older sister and brother on the front mat of the Guitar Center for three and a half hours. He said that there was one thing that could make the wait worthwhile: “I want to get Fender,” he explained. “Fender.”

Half an hour after the doors opened, Nick made his way to the front desk with a new electric bass guitar strapped securely to his small frame. There he announced with both fists thrust into the air: “I got Fender!”

Nick and his family are an example of the customer base that has made this chain so successful. His mom Stephanie was downright excited to shop at Guitar Center and expressed this without hesitation. “You can’t get a better guitar anywhere,” she said.             “The variety is unbelievable — they have over two or three thousand guitars in the store. You don’t want to go anywhere else.”

But not everyone is such a vocal Guitar Center fan. Scott Cook is the owner of Sarasota Guitar Company, a local music retailer that he established in December 2009. Like Guitar Center, his store offers lessons and sells a variety of music equipment, though his selection is more exclusively focused on guitars. He’s considered how the retail chain’s local presence will affect his business and has a strong message to send to the competition.

“They should be worried about me,” Cook said in a telephone interview.

Though he tempers this bravado with a laugh, Cook says he’s seriously not worried about the national company taking his business. For one, in his opinion the nature of a chain store makes conducting business unwieldy. Although he acknowledges he can’t get the discounts on big purchases that larger retailers receive, he said that his small staff can be more flexible and self reliant when handling customers. Four employees work at Sarasota Guitar Center full time while another five teach lessons.

Cook is happy with how his business has performed so far. He said with pride that the store “sold 1,500 guitars last year,” and that he has plans to expand the company in the near future by offering merchandise online.

He added, “One of the reasons why we’ve done so well and why I’m not worried is that we do a lot of cause marketing. We’re sponsors of ‘Giving Hunger the Blues’ this year, which is for the All Faith Food Bank to help the hungry people in our community.” The company has provided support for a number of such initiatives, including the local music collaboration Noise Ordinance and the 2010 Save the Gulf Benefit Concert, which raised funds for the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage. A list of the projects Cook’s store has participated in funding is available on the Sarasota Guitar Company website, on the page marked “Community Matters.”

“Anything in the community that we can help with we definitely try to help with,” Cook said. “That’s really important. I mean, I think the community sees that we’re supporting them so I’m sure that the community will continue to support us.”

Cook believes that his customers will continue to support the local economy instead of giving their business to an international retailer. In contrast to Guitar Center’s Santa Monica, Calif. headquarters and expansive infrastructure, his model is downright grassroots. “I live within a couple miles of the store, actually,” he said.

“Some people, they think: ‘Oh — it’s gloom and doom, Guitar Center came to town.’ And other people like myself say, you know, it’s no big deal. We’ll just continue to do what we do, offering good customer service, and we’ll be fine.”

Bennett, who was responsible for handling much of the grand opening, begs to differ. Not that he forecasts gloom and doom on the horizon, but he certainly thinks of the opening as being more than no big deal. While he refused to disclose sales figures from the location’s first night in operation, “for obvious reasons,” he said in a telephone interview, he did say that this opening’s revenue surpassed that of the last such event, held in Louisville. With the opening of the Lakewood Ranch location, there are currently 216 Guitar Center stores in operation.

Summing up the night, Bennett said, “We’re simply all about the community — you know what I’m saying? It’s fun to come into a new town and let everybody experience what Guitar Center has to offer.”

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