May 12, 2020 I Cover story
Adapt & Overcome
Sims Music celebrated 40 years last November thanks to its ability to swiftly adapt to changes in business while staying lean. Less than six months later, the retailer finds itself battling Covid-19 the same way —adapting to a new normal.
By Katie Kailus
photo by Adrian Gonzales
On a Tuesday evening last November, as the Sims Music team celebrated the exact day of the store’s 40th anniversary, owner Jerry Sims could be found on a ladder above the showroom working on making a fix to the store’s ceiling.
“I remember looking up at him and saying, ‘Congratulations, Dad. You made it. Forty years and you’re still doing the dirty work yourself,’” said Justin Sims, Jerry’s son and the store’s general manager.
But it’s that mentality of “doing the dirty work” himself that has kept the business Jerry founded in 1979 lean and strong throughout the last four decades. From the 2008 recession to an increase in big-box retailers to the rise in online competition, Sims Music has weathered it all. But, as of the writing of this piece in mid-April, the Columbia, South Carolina-based retailer is currently managing what is most likely the largest battle it’s faced in its 40 years: a temporary shuttering due to the coronavirus pandemic.
By evoking its keen ability to adapt, coupled with the family’s roll-up-your-sleeves mentality, Sims Music has made the most of these trying times and, as a result, has reported a large boom in online sales since closing its doors on March 20 due to the virus. During Easter weekend (April 10-12) alone, the store received more than 100 online orders.
“South Carolina put a mandatory close on businesses a few weeks after we closed, but we wanted to get ahead of things and keep everyone as safe as possible,” Justin explained. “Since closing, however, we’re a seeing a huge boom in online sales. Our pages on marketplaces like Reverb and eBay have been doing great, but our website has really picked up.”
On a normal business day, Jerry runs the nuts and bolts of the one-location retailer, while Justin, as general manager, wears many hats — from selling guitars on the sales floor to updating Sims Music’s Instagram page to shipping out online orders. But in recent days, it’s been much more of the latter.
Before the outbreak, Sims Music was doing approximately 30% of its business online. Regular posts to social media and bringing on an SEO company led to the increase in business. It’s been so significant that Sims recently renovated its keyboard department to create more space to shoot online product photography and expand the shipping department — two spaces Justin has been spending a lot of time in lately. Investing in this increase in video and photography and sharing the latest gear with its more than 2,000 followers on Instagram is paying off now more than ever.
“It’s a good thing we had our website and online marketplaces in order, as our online sales have really helped us stay strong and power through these crazy times,” said Jerry, adding that shoppers have been buying up everything from packs of strings to guitars.
To better accommodate its local customers, Sims Music quickly adapted its shipping protocol to set up a curbside pickup option via its web chat feature Clientbook, which lets Sims’ employees text with customers through the chat function on its website. Due to a roll out of stricter shelter-in-place guidelines, however, the store eventually discontinued the program, but not before seeing the added benefits of the service.
“Clientbook was really a lifesaver for us,” Justin said. “In the middle of shipping a lot of orders, I was texting away with customers and arranging purchases on our site for local pickup. We haven’t really offered curbside pickup as an option before because most local customers want to come hang in the music store. It never felt like any of our customers were in so big of a hurry that they couldn’t come in for a few minutes. But I imagine after this success it will become something we offer moving forward.”
To adhere to government guidelines and keep employees safe, Sims Music is working with a limited staff of about four. Justin ships out all orders himself while Jerry stops in to set up guitars sold online. An inventory specialist and a photographer drop in periodically throughout the week to help make updates.
Due to the reduced staff, Justin explained that the store isn’t taking phone calls but is instead directing customers to use the webchat function on its website that directly text messages his phone.
Justin said he and Jerry currently plan to pay their full staff normal pay and are waiting on Small Business Administration loans to help with payroll.
While Sims might be shipping out more product via the internet, that doesn’t mean the store isn’t trying to connect with those shoppers and provide a personal touch. Justin said he includes a handwritten note in the box of every single online purchase.
“It doesn’t matter what they buy — whether it’s a pack of picks or a guitar,” he said. “We also include little gifts as well. When someone purchases a guitar online, they also get a Sims T-shirt. Other shoppers might get a Sims sticker or a coupon. We’re trying to take the relationship we have with in-store customers and transfer it online.”
Creating a curbside pickup option wasn’t the first time Sims Music adapted to fill a void in its business.
Sims started as a small lesson studio in the late ’70s with only few guitars and a banjo but quickly grew into a full-line dealership offering repairs and rentals. After outgrowing its space a few times over in the early years, Sims Music moved to its current-day, 9,000-square-foot location in 1993. Despite having roots in lessons, Sims Music eventually turned its focus to retailing and, as a result, its lesson program began to dwindle. In 2015, Justin decided to team with local music lesson studio Freeway Music, which had four locations across the Columbia area, to open the fifth location within Sims Music.
“We were sending people to them for lessons, and they were sending people to us to shop since they don’t sell gear,” Justin said. “We decided it was time to partner together to beat off big box competition that had just rolled into town. So, I bought into Freeway here — sort of like a franchise — and this location became Freeway Music at Sims.”
As a result, all Freeway Music students are directed to shop at Sims Music for all their gear and accessory needs. While the Freeway at Sims location has about 125 students, Freeway has some 1,200 students across all five locations.
“Partnering with Freeway is one of the top three business decisions we’ve ever made,” Justin said. “Some of the students are located 30 minutes away from our store so normally they would never drive across town to get gear, but all of their teachers are friends of our store now, and they say, ‘This is where you should go.’ It’s cool because in a way, we are everywhere now. Each of those other Freeway Music studio locations have a small Sims Music kiosk, stocked with accessories, where they’re exposed to our brand. Our sales have grown since the partnership.”
During the Covid-19 crisis, all Freeway Music lessons moved online to Zoom and Skype.
“We’ve even seen teachers holding virtual showcases or recitals for their students,” Justin explained. “Don Russo, founder of Freeway Music, had over 20 students on one Zoom meeting performing for each other. It’s been a very cool experience.”
Subsequently, Sims Music has seen an influx in emails from people looking to sign up for virtual lessons.
“We’ve also put out a coupon code for our students, and its been turning [into] some online sales,” Justin said. “Just this morning, we had a student use it to purchase a very nice Fender amp.”
All of the Freeway at Sims lesson teachers are also gigging musicians, who, since the outbreak, have replaced their live gigs with live streams, requesting tips via Venmo and PayPal. Justin has partnered with many of them, sending them Sims Music gift cards in order to name Sims as their “stream sponsor.” In return, Justin asks them to put the Sims logo on the screen during their online performance and mention a Sims coupon code from time to time.
“It’s been a cool way for us to keep in touch and be connected with our teachers and local musicians during this time,” Justin said.
One way Jerry and Justin have helped the business stay lean while making improvements to the store is by taking on a lot of the handyman duties themselves.
“A few weeks ago, I ended my night by coming off a ladder running water lines to the humidifier [for the acoustic guitar room] because we started the day with one of the humidifiers going bad,” Jerry said. “I’m still the handyman. I used to have a pair of painting pants and a painting shirt here in my desk drawer.”
According to Justin, Jerry has painted every surface in the store himself.
So, in true do-it-yourself fashion, it’s no surprise that when the Sims father-son duo isn’t working on setting up guitars and shipping them out, they’re using this newfound downtime to make updates to their business to ensure the store comes back stronger than ever.
“We’ve been working on the back end of our website and working on product filters and photographs,” Justin said. “Normally, it would be hard to get all that work done with the constant flow of foot traffic on a normal day, so we’re taking advantage of this downtime. We think it’s going to pay off big time once things are back to normal. Our customers — as well as customers across the country — will now know they can visit our site instead of the other big online fixtures they’re used to.”
The question on nearly every business owner’s mind, including Justin and Jerry, is now: How will we restart when this is over?
“We have been very focused on this,” Justin said. “We know that if we don’t prepare for reopening, we’ll open back up in a chaotic state.”
Periodic drop-ins by Sims’ inventory manager have ensured that all small goods are ordered and stocked. Regular inventory counts have also been conducted and the team has worked on organizing the showroom floor.
“We have been able to order from a few brands that are still shipping so [we should] still have a good selection when things calm down,” Justin said. “We’ve been selling so much online that our inventory has dwindled, but we’re working hard to stock back up so when we do open our doors, our shop will look and operate better than ever.”
Looking beyond the Covid-19 crisis, Justin and Jerry said they’re proud to have hit the 40th anniversary mark, watching many of their customers grow up alongside their business. That has inspired Justin to keep building the company for the next generation of Sims.
“What my dad has done to grow this business and how my mom has supported this business has been inspiring,” he said. “Nearly every day we have someone come in and say, ‘I bought a drum set from your dad in 1982,’ and that’s the coolest thing ever. That’s a testament to their hard work and dedication.”
With Sims Music’s online sales on the rise, Justin said he hopes continuing to develop the store’s online footprint will yield many more years of customers stopping in and saying the same thing.
“The web is the most scalable,” he explained. “We just can’t do enough of it right now. There’s only a handful of independent stores that have huge name recognition; there aren’t a lot. That being said, I think in this day and age, now more than ever, an independent music dealer can have a voice like that and a place in the market. And at the end of the day, the brick-and-mortar is the foundation of it all. To me, it needs to be here and grow. If our online brand continues to grow, our brick-and-mortar will ride the wave with it.”
For Jerry, when asked what 40 years means to him, he replied simply.
“It means I’m gonna keep going. It means I’m not finished. I might not have 40 more,” he laughed. “But I’m going to keep going.” MI