Nate Corning, Mark’s Guitar Shop – Thriving During a Pandemic

by | May 25, 2022

Episode Summary

Nate Corning discusses the rewards and challenges of running Mark’s Guitar Shop in Spokane, Washington. The shop focuses on service and sales of new and used equipment and the strategies and tools they use to accomplish their goals.

Although Nate started his career as a performer he discovered a love of the retail music business and the skills he could bring to the shop. Eric and Nate talk about how as a small business owner he wears many hats and how to simplify his approach to selling and servicing guitars.

Key Insights

  • You may have expertise in one area of your business, but you will wear many hats during your career.
  • Have the courage to build a music business that fits your style, market, and personal business goals.
  • Take advantage of the sales channels you have to sell product you can acquire at a discounted price.

Episode Highlights

  • “…any music store is gonna tell you if they’re being honest, they’ve got guitars that have been on display for four years, five years, and nobody wants it in town. So it’s good to have that ability to say, like, well, somebody has been searching for this. They might be in Louisiana. They might be in Utah. They’re not at our town, apparently because they haven’t come into buy it.” 
  • “If you just Google, you know, shopping for a guitar, you know, whatever brand you think is cool. But we do show up as an option and local stores that ca
  • “Yeah, well, I mean, I went to school for music, which is kind of what led me to, you know, a music store. I didn’t go to school for business. I mean just the banking, the taxes, you know, I try, I do a lot of things. I wear a lot of hats at the shop and you know, I don’t use an accountant on a daily basis. I don’t use, you know, a lot of other outside things. So there’s a lot of stuff that you learn to do on the fly that you didn’t think you were going to do.”
  •  “Yeah. I mean, we had a website. It was more of just a contact page. It was, here’s our name, number, email address. We had the ability to list things…And if it sold, oftentimes we didn’t have it because we didn’t pull it down because it was out of inventory, you know?” 
  • “And then Rain, you know, activated that local pickup options. So people were buying stuff on the website and hitting local pickup. I even offered delivery and I’d lock the doors and run it down the street and toss it in the mailbox. If they wanted, you know, we sold a lot of strings that way, people sitting at home waiting to string up. But I even sold a banjo that way. I mean, a guy called me from a couple hours away and said, Hey, I’m on your website? Do you have this in stock? And I said, yeah, can I come get it today? I want to learn how to play the banjo. And he bought like a $1,500 Deering that way.”
  • “…we may not sell a bunch on the web cart, but the number of people that walk in and go right to the pedal case or start scanning the wall because they saw something that was on the website and they come in looking for it, you know, and then like, you know, and you see that and you go, ‘Hey, what’d are you looking for?’ ‘Oh, you had this, such and such pedal used.’ ‘Yeah, it’s right here.’ ‘Awesome. I’ll take it.'”
  • “Well, almost everything we buy, we kind of compare it to a Reverb or an eBay sales history just to kind of get a feel for if we had to move it on there, what would we be asking for it? And we kind of try to base our pricing around that. And then we might, you know, I’ll oftentimes mark it a little bit lower in our market, but knowing that I could still sell it, if it all happened, if it had to go today, I could get it on there and get it sold.”

Guest Bio

Nate Corning of Mark’s Guitar Shop focuses on serving knowledgeable customers new and vintage and cool player grade used guitars, basses, and amps. Nate founded Mark’s Guitar Shop with Mark Morse in 2002 as a service oriented “Pro Shop” located in Spokane, Washington’s Historic Garland District.

Visit their website: https://www.marksguitarshop.com/

[00:00:21] All right. Thanks everybody for joining us again on The Music Shop podcast. Today, we have Nate Corning of Mark’s Guitar Shop in Spokane, Washington. Thanks Nate, for joining us today.

[00:00:31] Nate: Yeah, good morning.

[00:00:32] Eric: Good morning. So one thing we haven’t asked a ton of people as we’ve done this podcast, but I’d love to hear from you, is tell me where your love for music started. What got you to this point? Or how did, I guess, just music become a big part of your life?

[00:00:46] Nate: Well, I mean, there’s pictures of me from a very early age, probably 6 years old. And I remember running around the house and if there was a tennis racket or a baseball bat, it was, you know, it was an air guitar, it was a prop. And we were putting on fake concerts to, you know, whatever we had access to some cassette tape or eight track that was around the house and so that’s as far back as I can think of it. And you know, I played in the high school band and grade school all the way up through and then got into guitar in high school as friends around me would have guitars and I could steal it, learn a chord or two, and then carry on from there.

[00:01:25] Eric: Okay. So you mentioned “we.” Did you have siblings then that played as well?

[00:01:28] Nate: I had a younger brother and no he doesn’t play, but we sure faked it when we were kids.

[00:01:34] Eric: Oh, that’s awesome.

[00:01:34] Nate: Cousins and fake concerts and the whole deal.

[00:01:37] Eric: That’s awesome. So how long have you been with Mark’s Guitar Shop?

[00:01:42] Nate: Since we opened in 2002. So we’re coming up on 20 years this fall. So I got into music retail in the late nineties when I was in college, going to school for music performance. And I figured it was just going to be a part-time gig until I was on the road, you know, wowing the world or whatever. But as it got, you know, school ended and I took on more responsibilities there and it became apparent that was kinda where I was going to end up, in traveling to NAMM shows and stuff with the owner there, which was marketed at a different store. He approached me at one point and said, “Hey, do you want to take my spot, buy me out when I’m ready to retire?” And that was supposed to be like, you know, 15 plus years down the road. And then him and his partner had an abrupt kind of ending there and he left and told me, you know, “Hey, the same rules apply. I’m going to go do my own thing. And if you want to take over and in the future I’d love to have you.” So, yeah, we regrouped and opened a new shop and that’s where we’re at.

[00:02:48] Eric: Okay. So, you guys obviously sell guitars. What else do you guys do there at the shop?

[00:02:53] Nate: Lots of ukuleles. Of course, bass gear, you know, and tons of service. So, yeah, just guitars and guitar related accessories. For the most part, that was Mark’s deal. You know, we came from a full line shop where there was drums and there was PA and, you know, some recording gear and things like that. And a big staff. It was a bigger store. And when we sized down, I mean, our shop now is like a studio apartment. It’s like 600-700 square feet. And there’s no corner to hide. It’s all out in the open. So, we just wanted to do what we knew and loved, which was guitars so that was the focus.

[00:03:26] Eric: So, I mean, there’s obviously a local component I’m sure. To your company, but what would you say is like the general split of in-store versus online, you know, and then that’s whether it’s e-commerce or through Reverb. What’s your guys’ split there?

[00:03:40] Nate: I mean, probably like 90-10 for local. Yeah. I mean, we’ve really focused on local. I mean, there were years there, especially even before we were where we did a lot of ebay and just if we found something that we could get a lot of and kind of re-list and sell, we would do that. And some, you know, used stuff wasn’t much for new on eBay. And it’s still kind of what we use Reverb for, is maybe quirky, used stuff. It allows me to buy things that I know my market’s not gonna understand. But really I’d like to focus on hands-on.

[00:04:15] Eric: I feel like, yeah, 90% in-store for just like a guitar shop. I mean, you mentioned a few other things. I feel like that’s pretty good. What have you done to, I guess, build you guys as the experts in your local market, because like you said, there’s these full line stores that will just come to us and we sell everything. What do you feel like has separated you and allowed you to grow your local business?

[00:04:36] Nate: Well, I mean service. I mean, that’s, you know, people come in, we’re interactive. You know, there’s stores in our town and all kinds of towns where you walk in and you might get ignored entirely, especially if it’s your first time in. They don’t recognize you. They don’t engage you. They don’t, you know, speak with you. So we try to talk to people as soon as they walk through the door. Not like, “Hey, what can we sell you?” but to say, “Hey, how are you doing? We’re over here? You know, let us know if there’s something that you’re looking for or if you have a question on anything.”

[00:05:03] And then we service the guitars after the sale. So, you know, we do a setup warranty for 12 months after they buy. And we just explained to them, listen, this can change. You get home with this and just go on from our house to your house could change the way it plays. So even if you don’t know, come see us in a few months and let’s just make sure it’s playing right.

[00:05:23] It’s just stuff like that. You know, you just try to build relationships and, you know, that word gets around. You hope that, you know, they tell a friend or whatever and yeah.

[00:05:32] Eric: Yeah. So the growth over the years I mean, you guys have been around for quite a while. How has much of your business model changed since you opened in, what’d you say, 2002? And like the size of the store, just the way that you’re running things. What’s changed over the years? What hasn’t changed over the years for you guys?

[00:05:52] Nate: Well, we definitely dove deeper into used. I think from where we were initially, Mark had some lines that he really had his eyes set early on that we got, which were big lines that had big requirements. And we were still partnered with them as a recession came in like 2009-10. And it just about killed us. I mean, we were meeting the large requirements, but we weren’t meeting the payments. So, we had a lot of high-end dollars on the wall. And no way to move them because there was, you know… nobody was shopping for that at that point in time. So we’ve definitely tried not to maximize, you know, a certain price category, you know, try to spread that a little evenly across the board and, you know, just carved our niche within Spokane and, you know, try to serve what our people are shopping for.

[00:06:40] Eric: So you did mention these used guitars that you’re selling. What do you find works best for you guys? Consignment? Trade in? What’s been working for you guys there?

[00:06:49] Nate: I love to own it. I’d love to buy it. It gives me the freedom to price it the way I want to and if somebody makes an offer or wants to trade, I mean, I don’t have to call somebody and ask about it. We do consign, although we’re trying to sparingly do that on maybe pieces that we just aren’t able to secure because we’re too far apart on price from what they want and what we can spend or really high dollar pieces or just something that we’re not sure about.

[00:07:13] You know, if it’s something that’s weird and I don’t know if I can sell it, if it’s a consignment, it’s just kind of no risk. It’s still there’s. I don’t have to put any money out for it unless we sell it. But we do trade-ins and we buy, and like I say, sparingly consigned now.

[00:07:27] Eric: Okay. Awesome. Now marketing to your local customer base, what are you guys doing to market to your local customer base? What avenues are you guys trying and using right now to do marketing?

[00:07:39] Nate: Social media. I mean, we do that, although not as consistently as maybe we should.

[00:07:44] Eric: And when you say social media, is that you’re just putting content up? Social media ads?

[00:07:49] Nate: We’ve done some ads. Not many. We do put content up if we get a batch of new stuff or if we’ve got something kind of unique to show off or even just something funny to share, we’ll do that, but it’s kind of, peppered in there. It’s not real consistent and that’s on me.

[00:08:04] Eric: Okay. What’s been surprising being a business owner, things that you know of course you knew, you were going to be dealing with guitars and selling those. I got to make sure somebody likes it, but what’s been this, the surprises of owning a guitar shop, the things that you didn’t think guitar shop owners maybe had to deal with, but yep. You, you deal with, or you do on a daily basis?

[00:08:24] Nate: Yeah, well, I mean, I went to school for music, which is kind of what led me to, you know, a music store. I didn’t go to school for business. I mean just the banking, the taxes, you know, I try, I do a lot of things. I wear a lot of hats at the shop and you know, I don’t use an accountant on a daily basis. I don’t use, you know, a lot of other outside things. So there’s a lot of stuff that you learn to do on the fly that you didn’t think you were going to do.

[00:08:54] Eric: Awesome. Now, You mentioned that you guys, you know, you sell the guitars, but you also have a service team. I’ve talked to some stores recently about the challenge of getting service techs. It’s a very specialized skill. Not a ton of service techs in the world. There aren’t, as far as I know, there aren’t a ton of degree programs to become a service tech. There’s maybe some technical colleges. What have you guys done to assemble your team and to keep a team that can keep the shop going so that you don’t, you know, you’re not just sitting there and, well, we can’t service you cause we don’t have the people?

[00:09:26] Nate: Sure. Well, we’ve been lucky there. I mean, I know that there’s like you say, their schools and stuff for that, but I’ve never had to go to that side of things to, to search for somebody. When the last store that I came from closed it was Mark and I for a couple of years. Or maybe it was about a year and then one of our old coworkers shifted over with us. And he kind of became our primary tech for, you know, for the most part. And he’s been with us the entire time. So he’s, you know, coming on 19 years of him and then myself, I mean, so we both do work. Although a lot of people don’t realize that everybody comes in and tells them they love what he did to their guitar. And it might’ve been me because on his days off, I, you know, I just live on the bench. So, we’ve been lucky. We’ve been fortunate and I know someday I’m going to have to cross that path where somebody’s going to have to replace cause he’s of retirement age and hopefully he’s not thinking about that right now, but we’ll keep him as long as he’ll stay.

[00:10:20] Eric: So you’ve been able to just figure out those skills. Did you learn any of that repair stuff while you were in school?

[00:10:26] Nate: No, it was all performance-based stuff at school. So, no everything’s kind of been learned, you know, by watching, you know, other people and gathering tips and tricks from guys, but sometimes you just got to tear your guitar apart and figure it out.

[00:10:40] Eric: Yeah. It seems like, I mean, when people have that love for music, it leads them into… when you really love it, if I understood correctly, you were wanting to go on tour and you were wanting to be, you know, your band, you wanted that, correct?

[00:10:55] Nate: Sure. Yeah.

[00:10:56] Eric: I wonder how many people are in that and they end up going into the music retail route, because it just makes sense. It’s like, well, I got an issue with my guitar. I don’t have a repair guy to take it to right now. I just gotta, I just gotta figure it out and fix it right now.

[00:11:09] Nate: Yeah, well, and we see it all the time, you know, people bring… it also brings us business when guys do that because they’ll tear into their guitar, they’ll try to rewire it and put in new electronics or whatever, and then they get stumped or it stops working entirely and they don’t know what they did wrong. It does bring us some work as well.

[00:11:25] Eric: Interesting. So if hypothetically, if you were to start, you know, restart a music store today and you had to focus on just an in-store business or just an online business, what would you choose?

[00:12:40] Nate: In-store.

[00:12:41] Eric: Okay.

[00:12:42] Nate: Yeah. Online’s a much bigger world, you know, it’d be like picking my store up and moving it to the heart of New York City or something like that. You know, just so many more competitors, I guess because Spokane is a, we’re a somewhat of a small market. I feel, I mean, there’s maybe 500,000-600,000 in the entire outlying, unincorporated suburb areas, you know, so it’s not real big and there’s not many stores to compete against.

[00:13:09] Eric: Okay now you, I mean, you’ve chosen like the in-store route is what you did choose and hypothetically, if you were to start again, you choose it again. So what makes brick and mortar special? You know, you’ve got the Amazons, you’ve got people that can go online and do all these things. Why do people keep coming into brick and mortar?

[00:13:29] Nate: Well, I mean, people want to touch a guitar, you know what I mean? I don’t know if you’ve ever bought a guitar that you’ve never played but it doesn’t always work. You know, you might get it and it’s nothing what you thought it was going to be. And I feel like that the return rate would be much higher at that point, too, which I think retailers hate returns. I do.

[00:13:49] Eric: Yeah. I mean, especially, yeah small retail. That’s a lot to eat. If you can do that. It’s been interesting to talk to different stores that have different opinions on that. And really, if you are taking those returns a lot, it seems like you got to have the volume to match that makes up for it.

[00:14:03] Nate: Yeah, absolutely.

[00:14:05] Eric: What has been, just out of curiosity, your guys’ policy on returns?

[00:14:10] Nate: We’ve always been three days for full money back, 30 days for exchange, you know, as long as it looks like it did. So somebody can buy a guitar, spend some time at home with it, and if they know they’re going to buy a guitar and they just aren’t in love with that one, you know, they’ve got a month to change their mind, or maybe they saved up a little bit more money and they want to jump to that next one that they couldn’t afford the day they bought the one they got. You know, we always kind of pointed it out that way, too, as a stepping stone. If you buy the smallest little practice amp, you know, and you go home and you save a couple bucks and three weeks, you can come get the next size up and then step your way on up to the big dog.

[00:14:45] Eric: Interesting. I’m curious, I mean, you’ve been in music for quite a while. Where do you see the industry headed in the next, I dunno, three to five years. What does music retail look like?

[00:14:57] Nate: Oh, it’s hard to say. It looks like guitars are having a little bit of a comeback. You know, we went through a very electronic era that you know, there were all those stories. Is the guitar dead? Is the electric guitar gone? And all this stuff, and it seems to be coming back around. I think the pandemic made a lot of new players. I hope a lot of them stick with it.

[00:15:15] Eric: Yeah. What did it look like for you guys as being a guitar shop during the pandemic? Did you find that business went up? Did it just boom? Or what did it look like for you guys?

[00:15:26] Nate: It was actually a pretty good year overall. I mean, we had a seven week period where we were forced to be closed. So the gates were closed. I went to work every day. I was there. My guys were at home and I just started selling stuff. You know, I started looking on Reverb and finding items that, you know, that I had, that sat in a price range that I was comfortable letting go of it at. And just started taking pictures and listing and then I started selling them and I started boxing them and running down to the UPS store and dropping them off.

[00:15:55] And then Rain, you know, activated that local pickup options. So people were buying stuff on the website and hitting local pickup. I even offered delivery and I’d lock the doors and run it down the street and toss it in the mailbox. If they wanted, you know, we sold a lot of strings that way, people sitting at home waiting to string up. But I even sold a banjo that way. I mean, a guy called me from a couple hours away and said, Hey, I’m on your website? Do you have this in stock? And I said, yeah, can I come get it today? I want to learn how to play the banjo. And he bought like a $1,500 Deering that way.

[00:16:25] Eric: Wow. Well, that’s awesome. Not having to worry about listing things separately. I mean, that’s one of the things that we pitch at Rain is being a small retailer, just having the time to put stuff on a website and then add it to your store and make sure it’s updated. The fact that it can just all be in one place is one of the benefits we’ve used. So it’s awesome to hear these stories.

[00:16:43] Nate: That’s what got me in, you know?

[00:16:44] Eric: To Rain?

[00:16:45] Nate: Yeah. I mean, we had a website. It was more of just a contact page. It was, here’s our name, number, email address. We had the ability to list things, but it was on a, I think it was on WordPress or something, which I didn’t understand. The guy that built it for me did, but it was clunky and, you know, to list an item was difficult. And if it sold, oftentimes we didn’t have it because we didn’t pull it down because it was out of inventory, you know? So it was, then we just kind of pulled all the listings off. We’re not going to sell online. You know, people can find us there.

[00:17:17] So it’s been great that way is just as far as we may not sell a bunch on the web cart, but the number of people that walk in and go right to the pedal case or start scanning the wall because they saw something that was on the website and they come in looking for it, you know, and then like, you know, and you see that and you go, “Hey, what’d are you looking for?” “Oh, you had this, such and such pedal used.” “Yeah, it’s right here.” “Awesome. I’ll take it.”

[00:17:42] Eric: That’s awesome. I do want to circle back a little bit to a Reverb strategy you mentioned. So if I was understanding this correctly, you aren’t just waiting for people to come to you to trade in an item or consign like you mentioned, you know, just a little bit. You will go and actively look on these marketplaces, like a Reverb and see, all right, what do I have in inventory? Or what do I feel is priced low that I can then spend the effort to try and sell?

[00:18:12] Nate: Exactly. Yeah, because there’s a higher expense there on Reverb, you know, there’s a little bit more coming out of your pocket, or less margin to do that. And so, you know, you look at that and you go, Okay. I can make more on that. That’ll make up the difference of what I’m asking here locally. And so I listed several used items that way. And I sparsely put some new stuff out there, just things that may be, you know, I’ve got some higher end guitars that are new, you know, mid price point, Reverend, Ernie Ball Music Mans, or something like that, that maybe sit for a few months and then you go, well, I’ll pop it up there. And then somebody in Florida or something like that sees that you’ve got a brand new one in the color they want and they just grab it.

[00:18:54] Eric: I think that’s an interesting strategy. I’d love the way that it puts things a lot more in your control, you know, going in, searching out for it. I don’t know if I’ve heard of a ton of other shops doing that, but it sounds like that’s been working for you guys.

[00:19:06] Nate: Well, almost everything we buy, we kind of compare it to a Reverb or an eBay sales history just to kind of get a feel for if we had to move it on there, what would we be asking for it? And we kind of try to base our pricing around that. And then we might, you know, I’ll oftentimes mark it a little bit lower in our market, but knowing that I could still sell it, if it all happened, if it had to go today, I could get it on there and get it sold.

[00:19:34] Eric: Love it. I do have one last kind of broad industry question. Is there anything that you feel like the industry, and we’ll just say music retail in general, should either start or stop doing? Is there anything that just, you think about all the time that you’re like, man, I sure wish music retailers did this or I sure wish music retailers stopped doing this?

[00:19:56] Nate: I mean the most current thing on my mind, which is something that I just got an email about. I think yesterday morning, that MAP [Minimum Advertised Price] holidays. I dunno, those bug me and Reverb gets big on it. I mean, they kind of create their own MAP holidays with. With other manufacturers and stuff where it’s just, Hey, if you want, for this Memorial weekend, you can minimize your profit, which doesn’t make sense to me.

[00:20:22] Eric: Yeah. And as, yeah, the smaller retailers is the one that, you know, that’ll hurt.

[00:20:26] Nate: But yeah, they, you know, they always want to know if I can drop MAP on my items or, you know, take another 15% off for a four day weekend or something and it just doesn’t make sense to me.

[00:20:38] Eric: Well, this has been great to chat about these things. I love getting your perspective. You know, we’ve talked to full line stores. We’ve talked to stores that have worked with a lot of schools. I think you are our first guitar shop, so just like strictly guitar shop. So it was awesome to get your insight, Nate, and hear how you guys are overcoming things, what you guys are doing, strategies you’re implementing. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk through this and do this today.

[00:21:03] Nate: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Listen to The Music Shop podcast on:
Ready to take your retail shop to the next level?
See Why Thousands Of
Retailers Love Rain