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Episode Summary

Will Roffers of Northland Music Center discusses with host Eric Thornton of Rain Retail Software how Will built a successful music store in Northern Wisconsin. They talk about how Will grew what he describes as a music closet into a thriving physical location and an online business that serves musicians, students, and enthusiasts across the region and nation.

Will and Eric tell the story of how Northland Music Center got online. They go on to show how being online enabled Will to serve the community in ways that he did not foresee when he was dreaming of getting into the music business.

Will discusses how important an integrated POS and website was to conducting online business. Eric and Will also dive into how rentals are made much more simple by administering the process online and focusing on delivering instruments to students in a broader market area.

Key Insights

  • An integrated POS and website is crucial to selling online
  • Being online enables serving an area beyond your local customers
  • Rentals can be an important driver in your business
  • Make the rental process easy

Episode Highlights

  • “I knew that I didn’t want to, first off, create every product twice. Second off, how can your inventory ever be accurate if you’re trying to keep your inventory, your physical, in-store inventory accurate.”
  • “Our first legitimate sale that was on our website came during the pandemic. We’re in Wisconsin. It was somebody buying a t-shirt in California, and I’m like, this is it. We’ve done it. We sold our first legitimate thing to someone else that isn’t from the next city over or from in town checking things out.” 
  • “We’re so deep into the rental game and being in Northern Wisconsin we service schools all the way to the upper peninsula and all around. So instead of either needing to travel to them for a rental night or them coming in needing to sign a rental contract in store, as soon as our rental program went online, that’s been a game changer.” 
  • “We might only sell a t-shirt here or there, or a set of strings to someone in another state and mail it to them. But our rental program, I would have to say is 85 or 90% online rentals right now. And that has been huge. That’s been just phenomenal and something that we couldn’t offer before.” 

Guest Bio

Will Roffers took over the Northland Music Center in 2010. However he started his relationship with the store when he bought his first drum set at the store in sixth grade. With the goal to serve musicians, Will worked with the legacy owners of the shop to build a successful local music shop that also serves the greater northern Wisconsin music community and beyond.



[00:00:00] Eric: All right. We’ve got Will Roffers here today with us with Northland Music Center up in Wisconsin. How are you doing today, Will?

[00:00:07] Will: Not too bad. How are you, Eric?

[00:00:09] Eric: Doing great. Thank you so much for joining us. I’ve known Will for a few years and Will understands retail. He’s been super helpful with questions that I’ve had over the years and just helping me understand being a music retailer. So, always love talking with Will and getting his perspective on things.

[00:00:25] So tell us just a little bit about your store and the beginnings of it. Are you the original owner? Did somebody else start it? What’s the story there and just kind of a general timeline.

[00:00:35] Will: Sure. Thank you for having me. It’s been a good couple of years getting to know Eric and to partner with Rain, so I’m really excited to be here.

Kind of the beginnings of my store, it is a little bit of a long story, but I actually took over the store in 2010. It was, I believe, started in about 1996. It was Lakeland Music and Supply back then. A gentleman that I got to know, we actually purchased my first drum set from him when I was in sixth grade. My parents went in and bought a drum set from him. His name was Don and he owned the store. He was a brass and woodwind repair man, and did a good job, and he looked at selling his store.

[00:01:14] A long story short, the person that took over and was buying it from him and had a loan with the bank, didn’t keep up on all of his payments and whatnot, and the bank stepped in that kind of gave myself and Don the original owner, the opportunity to partner together and repurchase from the bank what they had, and then we created Northland Music Center. So it’s kind of a long story to get here but the best part of it is I was probably 20 or 21 years old and Don was in his eighties, so it was definitely quite the partnership.

[00:01:45] Eric: Yeah, I usually don’t hear that big of a gap. Now, were you working at the store at the time? I know you talked about how you originally came across the store, but were you working there at the time?

[00:01:54] Will: Yeah. So, years later after I got out of high school, I started wanting to expand with some of my instruments and my drums. So, I found Lakeland Music again and by then it was the second owner, and I started helping out around the store when I could, and when I wasn’t at my other job and got to know that owner and got to know Don again, who I had seen as the repair guy around when I was in high school and of course we bought our drum set from him and stuff. So, that’s kind of how I got to know this store again and got to know Don, a little bit better.

[00:02:29] Eric: Would you say it was ever a goal to own and run a music store or was it just kind of, you were there and you thought, sure. Why not?

[00:02:37] Will: Until, you know, before I started getting back into it and hanging around the music store, I never thought that I would… never, in a million years thought that our music store was where it was at. And it is. I will tell you when the opportunity came up, when it was first proposed, “Hey let’s, partner up and let’s do this,” there was a lot of laying in my bed at night, just dreaming, just hoping that it was going to work out. I was excited. And it has. It’s been a dream come true.

[00:03:07] Eric: If you were to rethink that decision now, and of course you’ve got some industry knowledge, so we’re going to get really hypothetical here, but do you think it helped being such a young kid that you didn’t realize maybe the risk of opening a business as much as you would now, with “oh,well, I could lose this and I could lose this and this.” Do you think it helped being in the spot you were in?

[00:03:27] Will: I knew that there was risk. But yeah, obviously I was a little naive, but also I thought if it didn’t go that well, I could probably recover. I was young enough that I’d probably be okay. And to tell you the truth, it was a very small store. Yeah, it was a lot of money for a 20 year old kid, but in the scheme of things, now I look at it and it’s like, oh, that was nothing. But yeah, I was a little naive but it all worked out and I’m glad it did. I’m glad that we took the long road building it. It was a small store and we’re still not huge. We’re not a huge store, but think we do okay for Northern Wisconsin.

[00:04:01] Eric: Now since that time, if I understand correctly, you guys are a full service music shop. You guys do service and repair, you do some rentals, you do retail. You guys do everything now, correct?

[00:04:13] Will: Yeah. I mean, aside from our age, I’m still not as old as Don was, but when you talk about mom and pops, my wife is our repair tech. We have a couple of really good people working here and they’ve been in or around music all their lives and it’s really a family game around here, that’s for sure.

[00:04:33] Eric: So, you’ve been able to get good employees and keep them around pretty long-term then?

[00:04:37] Will: I have. I mean, it’s tough with everything. They definitely deserve better. I wish I could do better for all my employees, but I think they see that we’re growing and they still give it their heart and soul. I hope that they take some of the ownership, some of the pride in it, and know that they’ve helped build this store more than anyone.

[00:04:56] Eric: Now you took over the shop in roughly 2010 just by yourself. So we’ve got the beginning of 1996 to now. Somewhere in there during that timeline, e-commerce became a thing. So tell me about what that looked like for you guys; the transition, the idea, maybe even just toying with it and trying things out. Tell me about your guys’ experience with e-commerce in the music space.

[00:05:19] Will: Sure. So for the first couple of years while Don and I were still partners, we were at a small location and I really didn’t do a lot. It wasn’t totally up to me, as with any partnership, I think. And it’s not that he was against e-commerce either, we just had a lot of other things happening.

So our very first e-commerce started with we knew we had to get online and, hey, this particular provider, we can put 50 products online and we can even, turn on a shopping cart and if something sells, it sells and we’ll figure out the shipping when that happens. And of course it didn’t happen, and that’s okay. But we looked legitimate. We had a website. Our phone number was out there. That was the big thing: get your phone number on a homepage.

After I purchased the business out, and then we actually moved locations and started getting more inventory, we stuck with our point of sale for a while and that point of sale was not going to have e-commerce, not for a price that a small store like us could afford. That was like, you have to purchase a big network, like a server computer and all this and that, and after that expense, they were going to continue to charge us every month for other things and it was just going to be way more than what we could take on.

So at that point, social media is getting a little better. We weren’t selling on social media, but when we started looking, we started going to the NAMM Show and we started seeing this product called Rain, and I’m glad that we took a look because now our website is fantastic.

[00:07:02] Eric: You guys had played with e-commerce a little bit, but you felt like you needed to switch to a different system to get to that point, cause I know I’ve talked to retailers that have done both that have just said we ran fully with e-commerce, but then we eventually found an integrated system, but for you guys, it was the integrated system that really pushed you guys over the edge?

[00:07:18] Will: Absolutely. I knew that I didn’t want to, first off, create every product twice. Second off, how can your inventory ever be accurate if you’re trying to keep your inventory, your physical, in-store inventory accurate, and that’s hard enough, how am I going to then, after we sell this guitar go onto our website and be like, “okay, this just sold”?

At the time, I wasn’t worried that we were going to sell that guitar a second time on the website, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do. As soon as when everything was integrated and you go to one place to take care of your inventory and it automatically updates online, that’s the only way to do it. I mean, pardon me on this, but time is money and that it was definitely not something I wanted to spend a lot more time on.

[00:08:05] Eric: Yeah, it seems stores and retailers in general were able to get away with no e-commerce previously. Just what we’ve seen over the past couple years with the COVID sort of stuff, and depending on who you talk to, it’s been a necessity for a whole lot longer than that, but at this point, how have you seen, having a website with your products, how has that changed things for you guys? How has that helped you? Cause there’s the obvious piece of selling the products, but there’s more to it than that. It’s just seeing that you have inventory. It’s reaching out to you as a store. How has that dynamic even changed more so, just over the past couple years?

[00:08:39] Will: So as soon as everything was online for us, and maybe there wasn’t even a price online, we still have some products we can’t ship because we don’t have a weight entered, we don’t have a good plan for shipping right now because we’re not one of the big box stores that can offer free shipping whatnot, and especially this year and post pandemic, shipping as a tough one.

But, all of our customers have since day one since our products have been on our website, they’ve been calling and saying, “Hey, I saw this on your website. Is it actually in the store?” Yes it is. Why don’t you come take a look and come and try It out, you know?

[00:09:21] Here’s a funny story. Remember, we’re a small store. We’re not huge. Our first legitimate sale that was on our website came during the pandemic. We’re in Wisconsin. It was somebody buying a t-shirt in California, and I’m like, this is it. We’ve done it. We sold our first legitimate thing to someone else that isn’t from the next city over or from in town checking things out. Some people are going to laugh about that, but we’re a small store.

[00:09:53] Eric: Yeah, maybe even calling up the customer, “Hey, so we’re Northland Music in Wisconsin. Do you have a Northland Music down the street from you in California?” But that’s pretty awesome, and from there it’s been able to roll and things have been good. Anything else that you wanted to add with that?

[00:10:09] Will: I will say, I mean, that was our first sale, you know, it was like a $20 t-shirt or something. But I will say – and this actually dates back to our last question too about when did we decide that e-commerce had to happen – it was more of an online rental thing for us. We’re so deep into the rental game and being in Northern Wisconsin we service schools all the way to the upper peninsula and all around. So instead of either needing to travel to them for a rental night or them coming in needing to sign a rental contract in store, as soon as our rental program went online, that’s been a game changer. We might only sell a t-shirt here or there, or a set of strings to someone in another state and mail it to them. But our rental program, I would have to say is 85 or 90% online rentals right now. And that has been huge. That’s been just phenomenal and something that we couldn’t offer before.

[00:11:11] Eric: So with this online rental component, I’ve talked to a lot of retailers that either want to be in that space or are in that space and they’re trying to work with the tools that they have to make it work. It might be difficult. Tell me about your experience with the schools and how that relationship, how that looks with this online rental. Do you notice anything from schools? Are they excited to see that you have an online option? Is it just another thing to them? Tell me about that.

[00:11:36] Will: Some schools are very excited about it. Of course during the school year we do have a sales person that calls on the school. But for the rental part, this means, especially during the pandemic, when they didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, they couldn’t hold a rental meeting at the school where they would have kids come in and try different instruments, and then the next kid tries the same instrument. We were able to let the band directors know, okay, this is how this works, and we even created a small video on our website, a cartoon video that explains our process and how everything works out and it’s really easy.

To tell you the truth, even before the pandemic… I might be jumping around here. I’m excited that online rentals have been huge for us…

I remember going to one school where you would walk in with a box full of paper contracts because you had to do that. We walked in with two laptops and we just went to our website and let the parents do the online rental right on our laptop and we just talked them through it and it’s just easy. We don’t have to handle their card ever. They don’t have to come to the store, unless they have something where they absolutely have to. I mean, that’s fantastic, especially if they live a whole state away from us. They weren’t coming here anyway. The schools do love it. The directors that we’ve talked to, it’s easy for them, and I think the parents love it more, and we love it too.

I mean, To tell you the truth, I knew that this might come up a little bit. So I was thinking about this the other day, and I think that it is easier for us as a store to process an online rental than it is to have a parent come into the store and go through the whole process of doing the rental in front of us. It’s easier on everyone. It’s easy For the parent to do it themselves, and then all of their info they handle it all, and then it’s only a few steps for us to pull the instrument and get it ready. So, talk about time-saving for everyone involved.

[00:13:43] Eric: Yeah, I’m glad you brought up the parent side. I’ve forgotten about that. I’ve, I’ve talked to some people that… they’re just so techie, they’re so digital. And there’s this concept, you need to come to the customer the way that they want you to come to them. You can’t just sell the way you want to. You need to sell them the way they want you to sell. So it’s good to hear the success stories with that, and not only the schools enjoying it, but parents enjoying it as well. And just ultimately saving you guys time there at the shop.

[00:14:11] To shift on the e-commerce just a little bit, something that I didn’t mention earlier is Reverb. So this being a newer marketplace platform that wasn’t around, even if people were doing e-commerce it just wasn’t a thing. You guys sell on reverb, correct?

[00:14:28] Will: We do. We sell, it’s very limited what we do on Reverb. Mostly I do any of my used items, especially if a customer comes in and wants us to consign something and especially in the musical instrument game.

[00:14:42] Eric: So you’re finding that reverb is helpful for consignment. When you have this person that just wants to get in front of eyes, you’re getting in front of as many eyes as possible by just putting it there.

[00:14:52] Will: Exactly, especially if it’s something that… boy, it might sit in the store for six months. Hey, let’s get it on Reverb and then everyone has a chance to see it. It’s a very powerful tool. It’s fantastic. Reverb is better than some of the other sites that you could use to do that because it’s musicians. It’s people that are looking, they know what it is, they know what to look for, they know what damage to look for, they know the item before they’re going to purchase it, so they know “hey, this thing’s used, this is what’s to be expected.” It’s a great tool that way.

[00:15:26] I do know that some stores, I can’t speak from experience, some stores, especially during the pandemic, have used it as their selling tool. All of their new products are on it. I haven’t gotten there. Our team hasn’t gotten there. We’ve talked about it and I think that is the way that things will move. But so far it’s done wonders for used band instruments, used synthesizers, the odd ball guitar pedal, stuff like that. It really does a good job for us.

[00:15:56] Eric: And I think this goes along with the earlier point of: well, different consumers, different customers want to consume things in different ways. So some people are old school and they want to come into the store. So, it’s great to have a retail front and some people just want to go online to your site and make it easy, and some people say well, I never go to a music retailer site, I just go to Reverb because it’s got tons of instruments. And so that’s great to hear that you guys have figured out a way to at least get your hand in each of those and take advantage of what’s going on there.

[00:16:27] I did have a question with your vendor relationships and how all of that works. So I know there’s a lot of vendors to work with in the music space and you guys sell guitars. There’s a lot of different guitar manufacturers out there. What has been your experience on figuring out who you want to work with and not necessarily with guitars, but just in general? What makes a good vendor for you guys? What are you looking for there? Or is it we just have worked with these vendors and just inherited it and they’ve been good to work with, and so that’s what we do.

[00:16:56] Will: When I started with the store, we didn’t have very many, what I would consider “name brand” vendors at that point and since then I’ve found a few. Some of the first vendors that came in and saw that, “Hey, this little closet up in Northern Wisconsin, we’re going to sell them acoustic guitars and amplifiers and things.” They helped me out. I stuck with them and that meant a lot.

[00:17:22] The other thing it really does come down to, what does your customer want? And I know that you can’t have everything that your customer wants and that’s okay. You know, when we’re picking vendors, we do pay attention to it, you know, customer walks in, “Hey, can you get me this?” I can’t actually. We’re going to look at it. We’re going to think about that a little bit.

[00:17:43] Eric: So, is a big piece of that then, whatever your customers are requesting you try to go that direction?

[00:17:49] Will: We try to. We try to accommodate, especially if a customer knows of a certain product that they’re going to purchase. You always look at what is the buy-in for that vendor and sometimes that one product that that customer is going to order anyways covers most of the buy-in, depending on what company it is.

[00:18:08] Now, does that help you in the long run, necessarily? Not particularly, if you only sell the one item. I mean, obviously vendors want you to show their product, to be an ambassador of their brand, and we try to be, but we also try to help the customer when we can.

[00:18:25] On the vendor side of things though, to kind of go back to your first part of the question, you know, I think representation is huge, especially now we’re seeing a lot of vendors cut out their representatives.

[00:18:40] Eric: And simply go to a B2B commerce site?

[00:18:43] Will: Yep, yep. And the other thing I think a lot of representatives, depending on age, have looked at retiring, especially during the pandemic, and we’re seeing a lot of new representatives. I’m not saying that everyone has to bend over and give you deals or bend this purchase line for you so that you can squeak in but if they communicate with you about what needs to be done and and you can communicate with them how your inventory has to be maintained and, you know, “well, I can’t really reach that goal but just stick with me and I’ll get there.” If they will do that, that has definitely worked for us.

[00:19:24] What I see a lot is I try to be a partner. They’re a partner of mine, my vendors, my reps. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have the product. So they’re a partner with my business and if it wasn’t for me, I couldn’t sell their product now. Now I know I’m just a small fish. They can sell online. They’re going to be just fine without me, but I think that most vendors do see that the small store, the mom and pops on the corner that, definitely, there’s still a place for them.

[00:19:53] Eric: Great. That’s good to hear from that vendor side, that even as you feel like a small store, you feel like you’re getting the treatment. The vendors that I’ve talked to in the space, in different meetings that I’ve been in and whatnot, do understand that point. They understand that there’s obviously the big players, but a lot of small stores make up a huge part of the industry, still. So that’s great to see that, that you’re seeing the same experience there.

[00:20:15] So I wanted to ask you just one final question and it has to do with Rain.

[00:20:21] Will: Okay, okay, great.

[00:20:22] Eric: I want to hear, if you had to pick one thing, and maybe there’s a lot of things, let’s hope there’s a lot of things, what is your favorite thing about Rain? What is it that you feel like has just changed your business, that you can’t live without?

[00:20:36] Will: Oh boy, there’s a ton, there is a ton. Boy, I could go all day too about how good of a job I think Rain is doing. I’m going to share the opinion of my wife who is, of course, my business partner now and a big part of this store too.

[00:20:51] If it wasn’t for how our website looks now, how professional it looks, we get comments all the time about our website and how the products are on there and that stems into everything. That stems into the online rentals, I mean, I’m excited about that. That was really the big thing we had to do. That’s why we made the change and came to Rain; for the e-commerce, for the integrated system. I could go on and on though about all that. I mean, I talked to you how many times a week about about all the things [I like about Rain].

Here’s another thing, and hopefully it’s still answering the question and not going off too far, but when I bring up, I don’t want to call them problems, but when I bring up something that is, “hey, maybe we need this,” then Rain we’ll work on it. Since I’ve been with Rain, the way that things have moved forward and the way things have just gotten better… and they weren’t bad, they are just being polished… and Rain is learning as well.

Kudos to everyone there. They’re putting in the time, they’re putting in the work and the product is there. That’s the exciting thing is, how much Rain changes and grows and improves. It’s just exciting to see. It’s nice to have a partner like Rain on my side. And that’s why I try to help whenever I can, you know, “Hey, this thing needs to do this. What do you think?”

[00:22:14] Eric: And that’s always really helpful to get that feedback. We realized that things are changing, that even just over the last couple of years, there’s been so many changes and so there’s a lot of adaptation that, if you’re using software to run your business and it’s a way to reach your customer, even that just evolves so you can’t just sit.

It’s gotta be moving.

So, love the feedback that you’ve given. I really enjoyed being able to take this time to talk with you, Will. Thank you so much for taking the time. Best of luck and thanks to all the listeners out there for tuning in.

[00:22:44] Will: Thank you, thank you. It’s been great and hopefully we get to do it again.

[00:22:48] Eric: Same.