March 20, 2023 I In the Trenches I by Cyph Shah

The Secret to Brick-and-Mortar Wealth

If you’re one of the many who share the opinion that brick-and-mortar business is dead, you’d be dead wrong. Granted, the traditional formula for retail may have become antiquated — alongside the Blockbusters, Toys R Us’ and Radio Shacks of the day — but like most things in life, evolution, adaptability and versatility defines the strategy for moving from surviving to thriving. If you’re not a believer, let me share with you how our Los Angeles-based dealership, Astro Audio Video Lighting, which has been a landmark for close to 50 years, managed to not only retained all its employees throughout the pandemic years, but has augmented its staff, inventory, marketing campaigns and IT initiatives to accommodate business growth.

First, I’d like to call out the Goliaths in the room: supply chain issues, increased freight costs and transport delays. The trickle down of increased manufacturer price lists hasn’t made things easy for a business already competing with low overhead establishments like the exclusively e-commerce based B2C warehouse business model. However I’m here to tell you that Astro AVL has not only been the exception, but also the proof that there’s real tangible value in retail that converts to actual dollars worth paying attention to as we look for data to predict market trends that are already being woven into the fabric of today and to find the viable opportunities of tomorrow. Instead of drowning in the rip tide of a shifting marketplace by trying to copy already existing conglomerates, Astro AVL swam to the top by differentiating itself and staying true to its long-standing culture of doing what the competition can’t.

Let’s start with the small things by putting yourself in your customer’s shoes. Do you remember what it’s like to call a store and speak to a live rep within seconds? How about wanting to purchase a new product that doesn’t have enough — or any — online reviews? What about searching for specific advice from a professional who actually uses the gear (i.e. not a drummer pitching selling DJ equipment)? Tired of seeing “backordered, more on the way” notifications when you try to place an order online?

As a shopper, you may not be standing in a checkout line at the store, but you’re still on the bottom of a list that doesn’t show you how long it takes to get to the top. These are all very real pain points consumers are facing, and frankly, they’re starting to miss the good ol’ days of walking out of a shop with product in hand feeling assured they made the right purchase. From a search result analysis, this has led to an increase in customers asking Google for a “DJ equipment store near me” to get a real-time, reliable answer.

Consumers who were once content shopping from the comfort of their couch are making more of an effort to find a source that can provide them with a convenient purchasing option that doesn’t sacrifice the quality of the overall buying experience. It may not mean they want to be in a retail store, but they want the option to interact IRL.

So, what are we doing right at Astro AVL? I’ve been the store manager for the better half of a decade. I’ve been able to navigate the waters, trying new approaches to our outreach campaigns, surveying our marketing tactics, gauging customer interest in the trenches, as well as pouring over Google analytics and the SEO methodology for our e-comm — all the while always looking at our bottom line and ROI. After the dry spell we all saw in walk-in traffic during the pandemic, I’ve seen our business go from a slow rumble in 2021 to a full roar in 2022. I attribute this to three factors:

1. Customer Reviews. Customers are going the extra mile to find new suppliers that offer both the product and the shopping experience they want. Backorders are forcing them to go on the hunt for what they need and expand their search radius. They’re checking Google and Yelp reviews to validate both the legitimacy of their findings and their decision to place their trust in something new over the usual. When I ask a new customer who has called us from across the country “How did you hear about us?” The answer is always the same: Google. In fact, if your employees aren’t asking customers to leave reviews, you’re shooting yourself in the foot and missing out on a solid data metric. Sure, seems like common sense, but quietly observe how many of your staff are following this practice. The results may surprise you.

2. A Positive First Impression. Astro AVL specializes in a specific array of products ranging from DJ controllers and lighting to pro-audio gear and music production hardware — along with all the things in between that a customers might need to craft their perfect DJ bundles. We don’t sell instruments like guitars. We stay in our lane as Los Angeles’ first and original DJ store. As a result, we have a staff full of DJs who are trained on the gear and incorporate it into all aspects of their personal journeys. All the chefs in our kitchen can speak knowledgeably about what’s on the menu. We don’t spread ourselves too thin, so we can keep our expertise sharp, focused and dialed in. We understand our target demographic deeply, and we also present the interior and exterior of our shop to speak to that demographic. Our showrooms are designed like a nightclub, boasting interactive stations at every turn like the rides at Disneyland, while staying informative like a museum of awesomeness. The outside of our shop lights up with black lights and psychedelic art that makes cars slow down when they pass by and people on the sidewalk stop to take selfies. Don’t believe me? Go to our website and you will get a drone tour of the facility. Then ask yourself, if you were a customer trying to decide where to purchase your next piece of equipment, would seeing that video make a lasting impression? You bet your bottom dollar it does. Every time a customer walks into the showroom for the first time, they say “Woah.” Manufacturers like Pioneer DJ bring their top executives who are visiting town from Japan to Astro AVL to see what a “real” DJ shop looks like. l get validation that what we do works on so many levels. The endorphins kick when you take in the Astro experience and that’s what drives positive impressions, retention and a lasting memory.

3. Being a Turnkey Solution. Our services don’t stop at sales. Astro AVL has a rental department, repair center, DJ school and installation services. It’s this diverse ecosystem that has kept us alive when hit with setbacks that could tank our business. During the pandemic, we saw equipment rental companies fall all around us because their revenue was solely dependent on live events. Now, those production clients with approved vendor lists have been finding out that their list has gotten a lot shorter and Astro AVL is standing out as a stronger option to pick up that market share. When we need to liquidate used DJ gear from our rentals department, we have the infrastructure to do so. When our rental department needs to acquire more equipment for a job, we have the sales inventory to supply it at the turn of a dime. When a venue is looking not just to purchase, but to commission an audio, lighting, or video system, they can come to us for all of the above, making us a turnkey solution. This is how we keep the ship stable when rocky waves come from different directions.

So how is Astro AVL moving into 2023? As crazy as it might sound, Astro AVL has primarily thrived on in-store sales as the majority of its business for many years. With the pandemic, it became ever more critical that we fast track change to our business model to capture that online market. Outside of having dedicated representatives for our third-party marketplaces like eBay, Reverb, Amazon and Wal-mart, we also launched a new website that makes shopping directly with us easier. It required a complete overhaul — from mass CRM data migration to strategically choosing plug-ins to customizing the most convenient shopping experience, create effective DJ bundles with multiple products, and more. I will talk more about that in a following column.

As we continue into 2023, I can say that Astro AVL has a bright future that has been built off a long legacy and foundation of brick-and-mortar business. We’re not an endangered species, we’re the next evolutionary step as things come full circle. MI

Cyph Shah is the manager of Astro Audio Video and Lighting in Glendale, California. He is also the lead instructor of the DJ School (Astro Mix Lab) and designs/commissions AVL systems for nightlife, art exhibits, corporate showrooms, sports facilities and live performance venues as Astro’s installation foreman. He has performed across the country for more than 20 years as a club DJ and releases electronic music productions amongst international record labels.

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