There are so many theories out there on how we as an industry should respond to the Internet. Some experts say dealers should transition to a “click-and-mortar” business model, where consumers only come to the store to pick up the vehicle they purchased online. Other experts say dealers need to reject that theory and simply improve the customer experience.

Last month, I caught a radio report on Guitar Center’s efforts to do the latter. It realized its customers were only visiting its stores to test out equipment before going home to shop and purchase music instruments online.

But rather than closing stores, the big-box music retailer decided to open more. With 220 locations, there are twice as many Guitar Centers today as there were 10 years ago. But there’s a strategy behind the expansion.

“They’re making their stores a little bit of a destination,” Paul Majeski, publisher of Music Trades magazine, told the reporter. “They’ve got service — they never had service before. And they have teaching. They never had teaching before.”

Guitar Center hired 4,000 music experts to help customers test equipment and offer music lessons. The hope is that customers will stay long enough to want to buy rather than go home and click to buy. And as one commenter posted on the radio program’s website, Guitar Center outlets no longer feel as intimidating as they once did, especially to newbies. A big reason for that is stores no longer place equipment behind the counter.

“At GC, you can walk in, try a dozen guitars and no one will make you feel uncomfortable, regardless of your skill level,” the poster wrote.

Here’s what the same commenter wrote about buying music equipment online: “I’ll buy an amp or pedal online, but when buying a guitar, I need to feel it in my hands … If you pick up five copies of the same model Fender Tele[caster], even if they came off the assembly line the same day, each will feel different.”

I think the same goes for buying cars. And, no, I’m not choosing sides on the debate over whether a vehicle is a commodity or not. I’m just saying I can’t understand how you can make such a personal purchase without taking it for a spin and kicking the tires.

I know there are customers who will visit a dealership to test drive a vehicle before shopping for the best price online. We just have to figure out how to keep them in the dealership.

In a previous life, I worked for a trade publication covering car audio retailers. Their heyday was the 1980s and ’90s. Unfortunately, that mom-and-pop-driven industry has been ravaged by the Internet, but its slide really started when big-box chains like Best Buy began moving in.

Not only could Best Buy and the now-defunct Circuit City use their size and buying power to discount product, they could also offer installation for free, which was unheard of in an industry where installation prowess was how stores differentiated themselves from the competition.

I remember predicting in an article in my former publication that the pendulum would swing the other way and that consumers would once again demand service and expertise over discount pricing and free installation. The mom-and-pop shop would live again, I wrote.

Unfortunately, there are other issues that industry is struggling with that may prevent my prediction from being realized. I did feel partially vindicated, however, when Best Buy announced last month that it will close 50 of its 1,400 big box stores and will open 100 smaller, less costly Best Buy Mobile stores. Heck, read this quote form Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn: “We intend to invest these cost savings into offering new and improved customer experiences and competitive prices, which will drive revenue.”

I remember watching a YouTube video posted by sales guru Grant Cardone this past December. He and a cameraman walked into a Sears store to buy a lawnmower the same day the retail chain announced it was closing 120 stores. Cardone wanted to see how long it would take for a salesperson to help him. It took 20 minutes.

“Where are the managers at, where’s the help at, where’s the service at? … This is the American problem, not a Sears problem,” Cardone said into the camera.

Maybe Guitar Center, Best Buy and Cardone are onto something. Maybe customer service is the answer to the Internet. As for me, I’m sticking with my prediction from 10 years ago: customers will seek out those businesses that can deliver a mom-and-pop experience — just as long as they can find those retailers online.


Gregory Arroyo
Gregory Arroyo

Editorial Director

Gregory Arroyo is the former editorial director of Bobit Business Media's Dealer Group.

View Bio

Gregory Arroyo is the former editorial director of Bobit Business Media's Dealer Group.

View Bio