Stephanie Brown Howe and Whitney Brown Grisaffi

March 29, 2022 I Cover Story

Perfecting the Art of Music Retail

By Katie Kailus

Ted Brown Music does it all. From its bustling sales department that stocks a slew of brands to a nearly 175-school strong B&O rental program to its booming AV installation arm, the six-location, full-line dealer based in Tacoma, Washington, takes music retailing to the next level. So, it’s no surprise suppliers voted Ted Brown Music as their choice for Music Inc.’s Retailer of the Year for 2021 — a noble accomplishment in a particularly uncertain year.

When asked how she thinks the dealership has managed during the last two pandemic years, Whitney Brown Grisaffi, company president, put it simply: “Our staff.”

“We tell our people that what makes us stand out as a company is our sales experts,” said Grisaffi, who runs the business alongside her sister, company Vice President Stephanie Brown Howe. “We make sure that our guitar sales staff knows enough about trumpets so that if a trumpet customer comes in while the trumpet sales rep is busy, the guitar rep can get them started.”

That ability for staff to pivot is one reason Grisaffi thinks it’s key to foster an employee’s willingness to further their industry education.

“We nurture our employees and offer them opportunities to further their expertise in whatever interest they have,” she said. “One of the good things to come out of the pandemic is all the online learning opportunities out there now. Whether it’s from vendors or AIMM, having those resources and giving employees time during their work hours to further their work education is key.”

Grisaffi and Howe said giving employees “a great deal of autonomy” also fosters a sense of ownership within their roles in the company.

“We let them make decisions when it comes to something like price matching or accepting a coupon, for example,” Grisaffi said. “And, as a result, our employees have a sense of ownership. My managers will say things like, ‘My store did this.’ Or ‘My employee did this.’ They take ownership of their role in the company, and we think that’s great. Now, we have 130 employees, so it’s hard to make everyone feel like they have that ownership, but we talk with each employee on what piece their job importance plays in the success of Ted Brown Music.

“For example, we have a home-schooled, 17-year-old student who does pricing for us and just recently got us caught up,” Grisaffi continued. “One of the things we did was recognize her among the other staffers in the store — amongst her peers — and share the good job she did and how she helped us meet this goal. She didn’t think it was that big of a deal because all she was doing was changing numbers, but it makes a big difference. It’s important to let each of the employees see their piece of the puzzle.”

A Trickle-Down Theory
At Ted Brown Music, the company motto, “Your music is our passion,” is taken very seriously.

“We are passionate about our motto, because we are passionate about helping people make music,” Grisaffi said. “I actually get a little emotional when I talk about it because it is so important to Stephanie and me. It really trickles down. We’re so excited about it that our employees get excited about helping others make music, and then they get customers excited about making music.”

Howe said that due to the size of the six-location dealership, it is important to be “purposeful in their efforts.”

“I’ll be the one traveling from store to store to maintain that continuity,” Howe said. “This makes sure customers have a consistent experience no matter what location they shop at. Those visits are also important for the employees to see.”

Operating the store with the motto in mind has even trickled down into Grisaffi’s own family where her son, Garrison Grisaffi, is now the family’s fourth generation to work in the business.

“My son got to fill in as an education rep and is a supervisor now,” Grisaffi said. “It’s exciting for me, and he’s expanded his horizons. Even though he knows he’s not going to become rich running a music business, he’s still passionate about it, and he’s doing it because he’s having fun doing it and watching others learn to play.”

Hiring Smart
Creating an engaged staff starts with hiring the right people. So, Grisaffi and Howe use Predictive Index, a hiring tool that helps employers make informed decisions about potential job candidates based on collected data.

“We’ve found this to be super useful, because if we go with what the tool says a [particular person] is going to be most successful at, the software has proven itself to be correct.”

Grisaffi said given the current business climate she feels a temptation to hire quickly, but advises against this, adding that when looking for the perfect Ted Brown Music candidate, they search for someone who has a good mixture of both musical experience and personality.

“The candidates tend to be drawn to our company because of their music experience, for example, but the folks in our front office don’t have a ton of musical experience,” Grisaffi said. “Still, they get to understand the power of making music and a lot of them have become musicians because of it.”

Branching Out
Over the years, Ted Brown Music’s AVL department transitioned from smaller sound system installs to now completing large-scale construction. Because of an early lack of respect from building contractors, the company rebranded this arm of its business to Ted Brown AVL Services and what started with three people has now grown to a 12-person team today.

“This part of our business is busy 100 percent of the time,” Howe said. “That department will generate as much revenue, or more, than a few of our stores will.”

When it comes to the sales floor, Ted Brown Music has always been willing to stray from the tried-and-true.

“We have a history of being the company that gives boutique brands a shot,” Grisaffi said. “When Ernie Ball came to the Northwest, we were one of the first dealers. Also, with Fender, one of the things we are really proud of is we were dealer No. 60. That means a lot to us and shows that we are willing to take a chance on some of the new brands that are out there.”

Today, Grisaffi said the company is continuing to add new or boutique brands to its showrooms, especially those located in the nearby Seattle area.

“[B&O accessory manufacturer] Key Leaves is really creative, and we’ve been stocking those. Also, Lollar Pickups is based in the Tacoma area,” Grisaffi said. “Basically, we want to say ‘yes’ if we can. And the pandemic has given us an opportunity to do so without over-inventorying our showrooms.”

Turning to new product lines also helped the dealership during the current product shortages.

“We’ve done this especially with our AVL business,” Grisaffi said. “One specific installation job, we had to go to three manufacturers at one point for some speakers.

“But, [outside of Ted Brown AVL] we’ve definitely taken on new lines [in the store] because they were in stock,” Grisaffi continued. “What’s great about this is that it’s given our buyers some leeway to experiment with those smaller manufacturers who have the product available. It also obviously gives us the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we don’t have that in stock, but check out this cool new brand.’”

When suggesting a new or substitute product to a customer, Grisaffi and Howe both stressed the importance of explaining why it’ll be a good fit for the customer.

“Communication is key, and we’ve tried to be really honest,” Grisaffi said. “But, when we suggest something else, we’ll tell them, ‘This is what we think is going to work for you, and this is why.’ While we’ve been getting the word out on delays through social media and newsletters, our associates have really used this time to communicate with customers one-on-one.” MI

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