Long & McQuade changes the tune on its marketing mix

The music retailer had a huge boost in online podcast and recording equipment sales, but it's no replacement for in-store business.

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Few businesses are more tactile than music retail – Guitar Hero is no substitute for butchering “Stairway to Heaven” in a store’s practice room. And while Long & McQuade has had a “crazy” e-comm boost from people taking up – or rediscovering – hobbies while at home, it is looking to figure out how to transition back to letting people find their perfect instrument in-store, safely.

The company, founded by trumpet player Jack Long in 1956, is the largest music retail chain in the country, with 86 stores that also offer service, repairs and rentals.

Jeff Long, VP of sales and marketing for Long & McQuade, tells strategy that during the pandemic, sales for recording and podcasting gear “was through the roof,” with guitars and even pianos also performing well enough that it struggled to keep pace with demand. This helped partially offset the rental side of its business, particularly PA system rentals, obliterated by the lack of live music during COVID. The service part of its business has been tricky too, because of limited staff and social distancing.

“We have always sold big ticket items I would not have anticipated selling online,” Long says. “I’ve always thought, ‘who’s gonna buy a $3,000 dollar guitar without trying it?’ But for some people, they just want it delivered right to their home.” The online business, he says “went crazy for a couple of months.”

The brand opts for a broad mix of marketing to accommodate a wide demographic, leaning on radio for older demographics as well as digital flyers to drive online sales for younger segments. Currently, Long & McQuade can be seen promoting “Fender guitar month” on digital flyer sites like Flipp and Reebee, and uses social media and mailing lists for outreach as well.

The brand relies heavily on event-based promotional materials throughout the year, with a touch of brand recognition marketing. Thanks to COVID, the store had to cancel the biggest sales event it does annually in June, created to counter sluggish summer sales and has been successful enough in past years to make June its most successful month: “in Canada, for a lot of people music is an indoor activity.”

In September, the store typically has promotions in some of its locations that draw lineups and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, and it is trying to figure out how to replace that volume of business.

Print is also a big part of Long & McQuade’s mix, with two big direct mail campaigns annually. The first is a 250,000-copy direct mailer in June – while several brands turned to direct mail as a way to make up for lost in-store marketing opportunities, Long & McQuade opted not to mail theirs out this year due to concerns about driving too many people into retail, with spend being diverted to digital options that had more of a link to ecommerce. The second is a 200-page catalog as a fall/Christmas season lead-in, which will be going ahead.

According to Long, it’s always considered itself an omnichannel retailer, and recently it revamped its ecommerce site to make it more user friendly. Still, it’s bricks and mortar that drives business.

“We want people to want to come to our stores, with lots of specials inventory and variety and to continue doing that,” Long says.

As things return to normal in store, Long & McQuade will be implementing what have become standard practice across retail, like hand sanitizer stations and limiting the number of people in store. But it is also dealing with situations that are unique to music retail; it has implemented measures to direct customers to the right instrument more efficiently to minimize number of trials, and it has seen skittishness around trialing brass instruments and woodwinds, that require blowing air.

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