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Guitars wait to be rehumidified and repaired at Third Coast Guitar Service in Chicago.

A Music Inc. Exclusive
March 11 | Retail News | By Kathleen Costanza

Retailers Feel
Winter's Chill

This winter was one for the books. From December to March, record snows, cold snaps and ice storms gripped the U.S. from Manhattan to Atlanta.

But retailers didn't just feel this winter in their bones — they felt it in their bottom lines. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, January retail sales fell .4 percent from December and sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores saw a 1.4 percent decrease. While it's tricky to tease out how much of the dip was directly connected to the exceptionally cold winter, some music retailers have been faced with extra challenges on top of the dismal foot traffic.

Paul Tobias, co-owner of Tobias Music in Downers Grove, Ill., said his shop has kept its humidifiers going non-stop since December, using about 15 gallons of water a day and fielding electric bills that are "through the roof." Tobias added his store has seen about 20 customers come in with the tops of their guitars cracked. In a typical winter he sees three to four.

Matt Brewster, owner and head repair tech of 30th Street Guitars in New York said the brutal winter has hurt small sale items and accessories most. While he's seen a large increase in acoustic crack repairs, a bonus for his repair shop, he's also had to devote hours to keeping up with damage on his own inventory.

"On electric guitars, the fret's sides pop out. When the necks shrink the frets don't so the frets stick out on the sides like a cheese grater. We call it the winter blues around here," he said. "It just starts eating into man hours and keeping people busy with maintenance instead of actual sales."

Like the bump Brewster has seen on the repair side of his business, the dry conditions mean repair shops in cold regions are busier than ever. Chris Eudy, owner of Third Coast Guitar Service in Chicago, said the volume of repairs across his five locations has doubled over a typical winter from acoustic cracks and other damage caused from dried out wood. He said the lessons of this winter present an opportunity for retailers to sell guitar humidifiers and educate customers about keeping guitars around 40 to 50 percent relative humidity.

"You're going to educate your customer and help them take care of the guitar that they're buying," Eudy said. "But [humidifiers are] also an upsell. You multiply that $15 across every acoustic guitar you sell over a 12 month period and it's going to help your margins and it's going to help your customers. It's a win-win."

Eudy wasn't alone in finding unique ways to cope with the brutal winter. Dirt Cheep Music in Smyrna, Ga., just outside Atlanta, has been forced to close five days this winter due to the weather and the traffic gridlock that ensued. However, owner Aaron Rathbone said since the thaw there's been increased demand locally and high foot traffic, resulting in no net effect on sales.

"We took the opportunity to pick up a few hundred Facebook likes and reach about 30,000 targeted people with our social advertising," Rathbone said. "We also took the opportunity to create a cache of photos before the storms came in, so our eBay efforts were active even though the shop was closed."

Final advice for when next November rolls around? "You have to prepare for what you had the year before," Brewster said. "Prepare for the worst."

Well, except you, West Coasters.