What do you want to become?
MUSIC STORE SALESPERSON
Alternate Career Titles:
Music Store Sales Associate
Career Overview: Music Store Salespeople provide customer service for clientele shopping for musical instruments, both in the shop and online. They also assist with inventory maintenance and store upkeep.
Career Salary Range: $13,000 to $50,000+
Become a Music Store Salesperson
Music Store Salesperson and Ukelele Teacher Tim Mann works at the Music Emporium, a high-end independent music shop specializing in guitars, mandolins, and other stringed instruments. Of his work as a Sales Associate, he says, “We’re a small staff so to a degree, everybody does everything, from handling phone questions to sales to dealing with deliveries and working with customers on the sales floor. It’s everything from ringing up accessories to selling a one-of-a-kind guitar. [During business hours], the owners are paying the bills and one is very active on the phone and at selling.
The workflow depends on how much traffic there is on a given day. The internet has become a strong presence so the first thing I’ll do when I get in is to check the email and see if orders have come in. We do a lot of internet sales of instruments and we’re probably seeing as much online as in the store. There’s a lot of stuff to pack and ship every day. My focus is to see if something needs to go out right away or if it can wait. We have a system where we can communicate online with each other in a way where we can keep everything on the radar. Obviously, you want to keep the shop clean so some days you vacuum and that kind of thing.
On an average day during the week, it’s usually manageable with a staff of three to four people. Saturdays are a really busy day. (We’re subject to the holiday madness like everyone else, so things ramp up at that time.) If there are ten people in the shop we’re all helping ten people as best we can, showing them where the picks are kept or working with them for hours trying to help them find a guitar. Especially if they’re spending a lot of money, they want to have a strong sense they’re doing the right thing.” Depending on what services are offered at the store, Sales Associates may work with Private Instrument Teachers and Repair Technicians, as well as a Sales Manager.
“All the stuff we get in is delivered to us and we have to inspect and unpack it. There’s a lot of restringing and keeping the guitars presentable. We have nearly 400, so it’s a big task. There’s always something. We rotate a lot of stock but sometimes we have stuff that all it has to do is sit on the wall for a week in the summer and it needs new strings. We’ve always had a strong repair angle because instruments always need to be serviced. Now we refer stuff out because we don’t have a full-time Tech at the moment but we have had in the past and we still do basic pickups and adjustments — that’s just part of the game. That’s a qualified task; it’s not just something anyone can do and as a customer, you really want to have that trust.”
There are two different types of stores where Sales Associates may find employment. On one hand, there are the big box stores like Guitar Center. On the other are the smaller independent shops like Music Emporium. Mann says, “I’m fortunate enough to be in a store with a strong history; they stayed in business, were obviously doing something right, and had a good reputation. Everyone who had a stake in the store was steeped in musical tradition and the customers were an educated base who knew what they were after — and we’re one of the few places that could provide that. It became a community through this shop, which is going to be fifty this year. At the time, Guitar Center had just moved into town and it was seen as an imminent threat but it became clear that we’re not really in direct competition. There’s only one shop [like us here] and the thing that sets us apart still today is that sort of down-to-earth touch and people who have real expertise and knowledge. The owners don’t just want to run a business; it’s something they’re steeped in themselves.”
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“From time to time we’ll have Intern situations or have kids from school or part-time in the summer,” Mann says. In most cases, though, Sales Associates just walk in with a resume, a certain depth of knowledge, and then learn on the job. In this position, advancement would mean getting promoted to an Assistant Manager role, then to a Manager role. It could also mean branching out and opening one’s own musical instrument shop.
Education & Training
Sales Associates are not required to have a college background, although many have a degree in Performance or another Music related major, which can help give them an in-depth knowledge of musical instruments prior to starting in the shop. “For myself, I learned on the job,” Mann says. “There are certain aspects of sales and customer service that are somewhat universal so if anyone is really interested, depending on if they’ve had any work experience I’d say there’s a benefit to anything that can be gleaned from learning the customer service side of things. Regardless of the internet and the impersonal nature of Amazon and all that, we still have to deal with humans. They’re responsible for our business and we want to be set apart by the fact that we take the extra time.
It’s hard to say where to get the education for the musical side of things. If you’re like me, I’m a passionate musician. I’m always listening, reading, and learning. As far as teaching goes, I kept up with that on the side, even while working in the shop. When the ukulele thing happened, that opened another level for me in doing classes and workshops and things of that nature. It helped to be on the retail side of things because I knew the instruments. There’s certainly a lot to be learned about the products in question. There’s no substitute for just doing your research and really knowing what you’re selling, not just in terms of how it was made and how it performs. What is the history of the ukulele or mandolin? Because you’ll get discerning people who know and you have to keep up with that to show credentials.”
Experience & Skills
Experience with and knowledge regarding a specific instrument are a must for Sales Associates. Mann says, “In our particular situation, it’s highly specialized and focused so what we’re looking for is a combination. It’s a little different than shops who just want a customer service rep. There must be applied knowledge in a certain field. A few years ago, we got into high-end electric guitars; they’re more specialized and higher quality. We hired someone on staff for whom that was really up his alley. Same thing with the amps. He has an incredible background as a Teacher and performer and he buys all this stuff so he knows it inside-and-out, but he still had to learn on-the-job because he knew essentially next to nothing about banjos and mandolins. He was absorbing all the info of every aspect of the shop.
Other than teaching or playing gigs, I never had any retail experience before starting so I had a steeper learning curve than most. I didn’t even know how guitars were made. I’m sometimes amazed I got hired! In my spare time, I would read books on Gibson and Martin because I was interested in the history and that helped. You can’t really fake confidence if you don’t know the products.”
A deep knowledge of musical instruments and the ability to provide caring, qualified customer service are important traits for Sales Associates. Apart from these two aspects, however, there are positions suited to all types of personalities at an instrument shop.
Mann explains how everyone in the shop works together using their personal strengths to provide great customer service, saying,“The high-end acoustic companies have just gotten better and better. They really vet their dealers. Some companies have the luxury of putting their guitars in any place that will sell them but the boutique stuff is a little more word-of-mouth. We are constantly trying to maintain our presence in the instrumental world and we recently upgraded our audio/visual listings on our website to be a cut above. We represent instruments that are a cut above so we have to be, too. Some people want to hear how an instrument sounds and when it comes to recording the sound of an instrument that can make a difference for some folks. That has meant we have some people who are experts in that field, who know good equipment and who some who know what works visually. There’s a full-time job now just dealing with consignment, photographing the instruments and putting them on the web. That’s an aspect of the job no one saw coming in 1968. We want our website to look as good as our philosophy. We don’t want to purport to sell a high-quality instrument, then have a mediocre website that people don’t want to shop on.” As Mann explains, people with all sorts of personal skill sets and strengths work together at music stores to make their shop’s bricks-and-mortar and online storefronts as excellent as they can be.
“It’s essentially conducive to a musician’s lifestyle,” Mann says of working at a music shop. “We open at 11 so that’s good for people playing at night. The main contingencies are the size of the staff and it’s hard to predict how busy the shop will get. It’s kind of hard to do tours and stuff like that but at the same time, Boston is a really rich area. At any time, 80% of the shop is gigging. You can maybe travel ten miles outside of your home city to play. I imagine there are other parts of the country where you have to get on the road but it’s easy in New England. It helps to have a free day when the shop isn’t open and we can be flexible in helping each other close shifts. Flexibility is the name of the game in our business. It’s kind of like the restaurant industry; you expect a dinner rush but never know from one day to the next.”
He adds, “Because of the online world getting so important we’re essentially 24/7. That has been within the last few years and that has changed the way we need to operate. When I started we were open seven days a week and had three nights where we were open till 8 pm, then that changed to two nights. We did away with those nights and with Sundays because we don’t really need to be here because no one is coming in at 7:30. At that point, they’ve had dinner and they’re online if they want to buy a guitar.”
“We staff as needed depending on who’s available,” Mann says. Job openings can be hard to find, as people tend to stay in these positions. “I’m not the only one who has put in ten plus years. Most of our staff is close to that and that creates a certain flow and it just evolves. In some cases, maybe they were Berklee grads who needed a job or they were musicians who had a flair for what goes on in our shop and bonded with the staff and customers. There are others who aren’t cut out for it and you can tell are just really itching to be on stage. We’ve had people come into the shop with the skill set who are wanting to do repairs or teach. Then we’ve had people who’ve just proven they’re really passionate about the product. There has to be a certain element that jives with whether or not it’s going to work and that’s hard to put into words. We don’t have a process where you fill out an application and get a training like you do at Starbucks. We don’t train people. We’ll certainly show you how to do things but you should already know what you’re doing.
To get to that place, the best education, from a product point of view, is learning how a guitar is made, knowing the product inside and out. The generic assets of salesmanship can be picked up anywhere with customer service. The particular aspect of what we do comes from a knowledge of all aspects – who else is out there selling this stuff. There are people who have stronger areas than others. Everybody has to know what we sell and have a rudimentary knowledge of how banjos work and the price points.”
Mann tells us how he got his job: “I originally was introduced to the store through running in a resume to be a Teacher because I knew they had a lesson center. I had moved to Boston from upstate New York to get active as a performing musician and all that and I wanted to teach. I put in resumes at stores across town. I got a call back from the store and went in for an interview and it was disclosed that teaching was a possibility but there was more of a need for sales help on the floor. My previous job had been in a box office for a ticketing agency so I had some limited customer service experience, doing phone sales, and I had a very strong interest in music and I let him know that. I feel like I fell into the job because I don’t know if any of those tactics would work today. It’s a tougher industry today. I was thrown onto the sales floor and it’s learn-as-you-go.”
He advises, “It’s really helpful to know your target. There are certain characteristics people in a hiring position will respond to well. One is a sense of motivation and a real passion (as opposed to simply obedience). Your passion should sell itself; you shouldn’t have to sell yourself. If someone wants to work in the industry, they shouldn’t have to be told to get really good at one thing like preparing guitars, etc. — they just should be doing it. If the goal is to be a Sales Associate and that’s what you really want to sell, there’s not an excuse for not researching. Now you can go onto Martin Guitars’ website and learn so much online with just a few clicks. If you see a shop specializes in certain brands, you should familiarize yourself with those brands and with the shop’s philosophy.
There are easy ways to tell if a store is a chain or a one shop deal. That makes a huge difference in where somebody is going to fit into the shop. We certainly vet people in terms of interest, passion, knowledge and skill set. If it’s a shop like ours, people who have a good repair background would be considered favorably but it’s not a must. Success in sales really has to do with people being organically interested in the instruments because they play them themselves. They come across as genuine; I hear them on the phone and the customers are aware of the same thing. That sets us apart. This is museum grade stuff. I have to know what makes an extra heavy pick less desirable than a medium one but there are also instruments of value that need a curator level of knowledge and that’s a rare thing to have.”
“At our shop, there’s no commission,” Mann explains, although some shops do offer sale incentives. “We’ve never had a commissioned sales staff. The rate and the hours really depend, if you’re full-time there’s a salary and if you’re part-time it’s more of an hourly thing.” Some shops also offer benefits like health insurance and paid time off to salaried employees.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
“As for resources, I couldn’t point to just one website,” Mann says. “There’s Stewart-McDonald, which has everything from tool guides to how to build your own guitar. It’s helpful to know all that. But I don’t know how else you’d learn about the industry besides being exposed to it. You can’t get around the learning on the job thing.”
- “Educate yourself about the products. Do your research about the job you’re going for, the company, and what you’re selling. You want to show them you’re interested.
- Always put in more energy than you think you’ll need. There’s a stamina aspect to it. Sales go up and down and the job can be demanding. Pace yourself.
- Be realistic. In our industry people don’t get into this to make money. You do it because you love it. It’s certainly not like going to get a job at Guitar Center. There are different mom-and-pop shops where all you need to know is the different types of strings and price points, but we have a pretty staggering variety of merchandise. If you’re looking for a job like that, it’s about customer service, being prompt, being patient and calm. Our staff is patient and calm because we have to do a lot of explanation for some products and in some cases, the clientele is really educated. Sometimes they’re not, so it can include some figurative hand-holding. We deal with people looking for their first instrument as well. We’re not just a high-end store.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Be as persistent as you can. That’s essentially what got me the job. I was the only guy who called back after putting in a resume. I kept calling back to check on the status and that made a strong impression. (That was told to me later on.) I thought that was just what you do but apparently, not everyone does! If I hadn’t persisted I never would’ve been hired.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“In general I think people underestimate the job. I know a lot of people think it’s like the life of Riley because you have the best guitars around and people think we just sit around playing them till someone comes in and wants to buy one — but there’s a whole
underside to that.
Another mistake would be undertaking too much too fast or not taking direction. Taking direction is huge. Being motivated and a self-starter is a little different than not following direction so it’s important to know that difference. It’s about making sure everyone is on the same page.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What’s involved in how this business operates?
I feel like if people knew that, they wouldn’t walk around saying things like ‘man, you must have the best job ever!’ We absolutely do but on their end, they don’t see everything behind it. My coworkers put in an enormous amount of legwork to represent the product and appease the customer and that can go unappreciated. That’s the one element I see that is sort of irksome. These aren’t people I deal with directly — it’s just sort of an observation. It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand what they go through to be of service to you. It goes with the job. We have a product that demands deep knowledge.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“If there’s one thing I’d want to throw in, it’s that I had been through college when I started but you really learn about the ways of the world when you work at a shop. You see how the tendencies of people work. It’s fascinating to see the trends in behavior but that only comes from being there and seeing it happen again and again. As far as being prepared with what to deal with, think on your feet and know how to read the customer.
We’re almost a niche shop so it really depends [on the shop]. There are shops that have phone centers that are bigger than us and all they do is sit on the job and answer the phone. But we might have a guy who wants to talk about a $30,000 guitar for four hours on the phone and sometimes your day is gone. Sometimes it gets really intense and you just don’t stop dealing with people for eight hours at a time, then other times you see tumbleweeds in front of you. That’s the nature of the game and they should be aware of that going in. For kids who get bored easily, stay motivated and don’t wait for the next high-end customer to come in and make your day. You have to create your own energy.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Knowledge. Knowledge of the customer and knowledge of the product. It’s hard to put into one word. Patience, humor, and a certain amount of confidence that goes with sales certainly help. I’d rather have someone with more knowledge and less confidence than someone who’s overconfident and doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”