When the first Sam Ash Music store opened in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1924, the stock consisted mostly of the era’s most popular musical instruments: banjos and mandolins. Although the stores’ stock today is vastly different, the business philosophy and ethics established by its founders continue to live on 90 years later.
“My grandparents believed in doing all the right things with regard to honesty, opening early and closing late, making deliveries and doing everything they could to make sure their customers were taken care of,” says COO Sammy Ash, who was named after his grandfather, the store’s founder. “They believed in running a clean house – no lying, no cheating, no nonsense.”
Ash never had the opportunity to meet his namesake, who died six months before he was born, but learned many important business and personal lessons from his grandmother Rose. “She taught me about doing the right thing, including paying our bills on time and in full in good times and in bad,” he says. “Because of this, the Sam Ash name has remained spotless and impeccable, and we continue to work with many of the same manufacturers as we have for 90 years. I’ve personally worked with many companies for literally my entire life.”
The company’s founding principles were also passed down to the rest of the Ash family, which is now in its fourth generation of business. “Most companies don’t make it past the second generation in this industry,” Ash adds. “We are the only fourth-generation music entity in the industry and the largest family owned and operated music retailer in the world.”
The members of the Ash family aren’t the only people involved in the company who believe in the company’s philosophy of honesty and integrity. “There are dozens of `lifers’ in this company – people who have been here for 20, 30 or 40 years who have the same sort of vibe and feel the same passion as we do,” Ash says.
Employee recognition and promotion are important to the company’s retention efforts. Many of the company’s upper managers started on the retail level, including several of its instrument buyers. “Our job is to find the best people and make sure they stay,” Ash says. “If you’ve got the goods and we see talent in you, we will find a way for you to stay. We’re not looking to churn up employees and spit them out, we want them to stay as long as possible.”
The company is streamlining its training process to ensure consistent practices are followed across its locations. “We have many different store managers, all of whom have their own individual styles. If you are hired by a manager, you will likely learn their style and not necessarily the company’s,” Ash says. “Now, we’re using online videos and presentations to send a single message about how employees survive and thrive at Sam Ash Music.”
A Wide Selection
Employees at Sam Ash Music’s 47 locations nationwide offer a level of customer service unmatched in the retail music industry. “One of the reasons people shop here is because they know they will get a straight story and they can always go to an Ash with a problem,” says Ash, who personally handles customer concerns via phone and e-mail. “It’s not a common practice in the business world for one of the owners of a company of our size to do that, but it’s been a common practice here for the last nine decades.”
The store’s employees share their customers’ enthusiasm for music. “We are all musicians, and music is something that we all love, enjoy and found a commonality in,” adds Ash, who calls himself a “guitar guy.”
Guitars are just one of the things Sam Ash Music customers can find in abundance. “Our goal is to clear our warehouse and get as much gear on the floor as we can,” Ash says. “You don’t see 20 or 30 guitars here – you see 700. We are very complete, and don’t dabble in anything. If we carry an instrument, we carry every brand and every accessory for it.”
In addition to keeping stores well-stocked, locations are brightly lit and regularly maintained inside and out. “We make sure our locations don’t look shoddy and tired, so we keep our carpets, lights and storefronts in good shape,” Ash says. “We need to have visually exciting stores that are for the most part bigger, brighter and more inviting than our competition, with more inventory and more variety.” Sam Ash stores range in size from 7,000 to 42,000 square feet.
Several of Sam Ash’s store locations are recognized by industry organizations and publications as being the best of their kind in the country. “I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do here,” Ash says. “We’re constantly evolving the look of our stores and making improvements to stay ahead of the curve.”
Taking to the Stage
Sam Ash Music takes a multi-faceted approach to merchandising in its stores. Stores feature areas dedicated to specific instruments where customers can try them out before buying, including a closed, insulated room for acoustic guitars.
Customers also have the opportunity to demonstrate their chops on stage in each store. Stages vary in size from 9-foot by 9-foot areas to full-size stages complete with lighting and PA systems. “When you walk into a music store, you don’t really expect to see a stage, but you will here,“ Ash says.
Stores host “jam nights” almost every night of the week, with themes including blues, drums, keyboards, jazz and “shred” guitar. Customers can earn $10 gift cards for participating in these events.
Customers who are not quite stage-ready can learn their craft in one of the 26 Sam Ash stores that include a music school. The Sam Ash Learning Centers offer private and group lessons on every kind of instrument the stores carry, Ash says.
Instruments and gear that are not available in a Sam Ash store are likely available online. The company’s website offers thousands of products that can be shipped to customers’ homes as well as to store locations. “If we don’t have a guitar a customer wants on the wall, we can have it here the next day,” Ash says.
Integrating the website into the company’s brick-and-mortar operations is a high priority for Sam Ash Music. The company recently invested in upgrading its T-1 lines and web servers, and added six dedicated Internet terminals to each store. These terminals include point-of-sale systems that allow electronic payments.
“We’ve made the website more prevalent on the store level to the customer; people still want to touch and try instruments before they buy, but want access to items that may not be in stock,” he adds.
Sam Ash Music’s website recently added an area spotlighting “Guitars of Distinction” – rare, limited-edition and high-end guitars ranging in price from $2,500 to $12,000. Each guitar is photographed several times in the company’s Hicksville, N.Y., central office and given a unique SKU serial number. “The guitar you see on the site is the exact one you can order and buy – not a replica,” Ash says.
A similar showcase section is in the works for other types of instruments such as saxophones and other woodwinds. In the meantime, the “Guitars of Distinction” program has been embraced both by customers and by Ash himself. “There’s not a guitar there I don’t want, and I have a lot of guitars,” he says.