As sales for music gear skyrocket during quarantine, Sweetwater's sales hit 'Black Friday' levels

Sweetwater's campus is known around town for its in-house slide.

If you live in the Fort Wayne area, you probably know the Sweetwater name.

From the projects and events it sponsors around town, to its sprawling campus off US-30 and its larger-than-life “Welcome to Fort Wayne” sign, its presence is difficult to miss. Adam Crampton is the retail store manager at Sweetwater.

But unless you’ve purchased a product from Sweetwater yourself, you might not fully understand what the business does or what sets it apart as a global leader in the $8-billion music and technology retail industry. It’s these same factors that are helping Sweetwater stay ahead of the competition, and even thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Retail Store Manager Adam Crampton.

In some ways, the uncertain times have challenged their staff to step up their game.

“We shut our store and campus down until May 6,” Crampton explains. “During that time, our staff worked from home, in our distribution center, helped other departments, and also did a lot of maintenance within the store. Fortunately, we had a strong team that was able to work together to make the adjustments necessary to be as effective as possible wherever they were.”

While global stay-home orders have been challenging for businesses of all sizes, they’ve also presented an unprecedented opportunity for music retailers, like Sweetwater, as the sale of instruments and music gear nationwide has gone through the roof during the pandemic. According to Senior Vice President of Human Resources Jeff McDonald, Sweetwater’s sales are no exception as people stuck at home take up music and audio projects in their spare time.

He says that business the past few weeks has hit "Black Friday" levels.

“You know, here we are in the middle of this unique pandemic, and I am going to be really surprised if we don't have the best week in our history," McDonald says, referring to a period in late-April 2020. “Because everybody else is closed, we have literally thousands of new customers coming to us every single day. They say things like, ‘I've heard about you guys, but I've never experienced this. You guys are awesome.’”

While the internet has exponentially increased customers’ options for buying music and audio equipment online, and services like Amazon have streamlined the home delivery process, there’s still the question of how do you know you’re getting quality gear? And how do you know what gear is going to work best for you, specifically?

That’s where Adam Crampton and his staff at Sweetwater enter the equation. A longtime team member, Crampton is charged with overseeing the Midwest's most comprehensive selection of music equipment and instruments. He has been with the company for 14 years, cutting his teeth in sales and working his way up to management. In his opinion, it’s the special little touches at Sweetwater that keep people coming back for more.

“With most everything that we sell, there's an emotional context there,” he says. “I think more so than in other industries, people wish to get their hands on the products we sell. They want to see them, feel them, smell them.”

Sweetwater's campus music store gives guests a way to experience music and audio gear up close and personal.

Under normal conditions, Crampton’s team helps customers do just that at the campus retail store, where the equipment is on-site to test. But with online or phone orders where the equipment is not readily available, Sweetwater’s role navigating these sometimes-difficult decision points is what some have come to call “The Sweetwater difference.”

But don’t let the intrigue fool you, says Director of Customer Service Justin Dunbar. Sweetwater’s “secret sauce” isn’t so secret after all, he explains. It comes down to one simple and timeless word: Relationships.

“From the very beginning when Sweetwater started, it's always been about building long-term relationships with our customers,” Dunbar says. “It’s getting to know them and what they want to do musically. As we get to know them, then we can start to get a sense on what's important to them and make product recommendations based on that.”

Justin Dunbar is Director of Customer Service at Sweetwater

With its sales engineers, Sweetwater takes an approach that blends the convenience of Amazon with the quality and personal touch of yesteryear. And while many companies pride themselves in a nebulous form of “customer service,” Sweetwater’s sales team doesn’t really consider its work to be customer service at all, McDonald says.

“It’s not a mere transaction,” he explains. “It means having a long-term relationship with a customer where the relationship feels genuine from the very first time.”

McDonald likens the experience of shopping with Sweetwater to shopping at a department store of the 1950s, where the salesclerk is not only highly educated in their products but also develops personal, ongoing relationships with customers that deepen over time and repeat interactions.

These relationships help sales engineers be more educated in their customers’ interests and needs, making them more insightful to offer recommendations on products that will genuinely grow their customers’ skillsets or deepen their appreciation for their craft. It’s also just about being a good friend to the customer, McDonald says.

“It's about forming this friendship type of relationship where, if you become my customer, I become ‘your guy,’” he explains. “In the case of our sales engineers, it calls for thinking, ‘How do I make this person's musical dreams come true?’”

Another important part of the equation is that Sweetwater makes it a point to hire sales engineers who are often musicians themselves, so they have a lot in common with their customers and are genuinely interested in the conversations and products they’re sharing.

McDonald says that when sales engineers acquire customers, after three or four conversations, they likely know that customer’s significant other’s name, the types of music they play, the range of instruments they own, their favorite bands, and ultimately, where they want to take their music.

“It gets to the heart of one critical question: Why is music important to this person?” McDonald says. “Nobody else in our space does that.”

Dunbar says this approach bears fruit in that customers end up recommending Sweetwater to friends and family, and the business grows exponentially through the power of referrals.

After all, the relationship between a customer and employee don’t end with one sale, he says. Instead of a one-time call center with a “next person up” mentality, Sweetwater’s sales engineers are proactively reaching out to their customers to see how they are doing and how their gear is working out.

Both he and McDonald agree that the key piece of the company’s approach that makes it all jive is not only the quality of their relationships with customers, but also the quality of the people they hire.

“We really hire great, smart, talented people,” Dunbar says. “I think so much of what we do starts with the people that we bring into the building and being very specific on who we bring in.”

Hiring great people and offering a highly personalized approach to sales has taken Sweetwater’s company and campus to the next level, too. The homegrown behemoth recently completed its third major expansion to its 163-acre Fort Wayne campus since 2012.

Sweetwater's 163-acre campus is located at 5501 US-30 in Fort Wayne.

Earlier this year, Sweetwater began production in its new $52.5 million-dollar state-of-the-art distribution center. The facility has 480,000 square feet of usable space—nearly quadrupling the size of its previous warehouse. In addition to more room for inventory, systems developed in-house will allow orders to be processed and filled faster, resulting in shorter delivery times.

Yet, despite a rapidly evolving technological world, Sweetwater has not abandoned its physical storefront either. Staff made their return in early May and has stayed busy since, Crampton says.

Having worked for Sweetwater in various capacities, he explains that the goal of the store is offering the best possible representation of what the website shows.

“The store is a unique space for sure,” Crampton says. “From a retail standpoint, one of the things that's similar to other retail establishments is that everybody gets to own the store. You want to take pride and ownership and your displays and what you're selling and be able to talk about stuff that you enjoy talking about, or believe in. So, I felt like I've always, to some extent, been doing what I'm doing now. Now, I have a more formal title, which is just simply making sure the store is a great representation of what people are accustomed to seeing online.”

In normal times, Crampton says it’s a team effort to ensure that guests leave the campus wowed. His department employs about 60 people, and about half of them are salespeople. The rest make up the Music Store Guest Services team. In his words, “they’re the first and the last people” you see in the music store.

Sweetwater’s growth has added another dimension to their jobs, too.

“We have an incredible distribution center, where the majority of our products that we sell in the store come from,” Crampton explains. “And now we have a group of people that are focused on fulfilling orders for the people in the store from the distribution center. It’s been an awesome addition.”

While the majority of orders are placed online, Crampton says that makes in-person visits from customers all the sweeter—pun aside.

“Job number one is to figure out the best ways to service the people that visit our store, and we're fortunate to have lots of people that visit us from within town or regionally, but we have people that travel great distances and actually plan vacations around coming to see our store,” Crampton explains.

Whatever the reason for a visit, he says the key to his job is determining a customers’ goals and responding accordingly. While some guests just be stopping by to pick up some guitar strings, others may want to spend hours in the store browsing inventory.

As Crampton puts it, “The flexibility to do that and to be constantly reinventing processes for our ever-changing business is what makes Sweetwater special.”

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Jeff McDonald
Jeff McDonald
Senior Vice President
Human Resources

IFW: Sweetwater has been highly successful since it grew out of Chuck Surack’s VW bus in the late-70s. To what do you attribute to the company’s success?

JM: The culture. I can't tell you how many really well-qualified people over the years I have not hired because I didn't think they would fit our culture. There are many different ways you could describe the company culture. But at the end of the day, I think the most important thing is that the person has a servant's heart and has integrity. And we spent 40 plus years building this incredible reputation for ourselves within our industry. And one person can blow that up in five minutes.

I know that sounds very altruistic and philosophical, but it’s truly how we operate. It’s the secret sauce. It’s why we keep growing at such a fast rate.

IFW: Tell us about the company’s approach to innovation as it relates to better customer service?

JM: So, we do a ton of things. We have 44 people in our IT department and probably another 30 in our digital marketing department. So that's over 70 people who are just making sure that everything under the hood, in terms of systems, all works really well and seamlessly.

Also, I don't want to say that the innovation and all of the engineering behind you having a great customer experience aren't there. We pay tremendous attention to all of those details. But at the end of the day, what keeps you there If you're doing your job right, as a sales engineer, the customer should not feel like they're calling Sweetwater. I don't want you to call Sweetwater. I want you to call me, Jeff, because I'm your guy.

And that literally happens with customers. We get hundreds of letters from customers every week, hundreds of emails, comment cards, phone calls, and so many of those start with, “I've never written a letter like this before, but I just felt like I had to tell you about this great experience.” I mean, I've never seen anything like it in my career. It's amazing.

IFW: What can companies in other industries learn from your success?

JM: The company’s success is 100 percent based upon the fact that I am not your salesperson. I am your trusted friend. If you asked Chuck Surack, who founded the company, why he did so, he would tell you the same thing that he told me 38 years ago: “I just want to help my friends make better music. “And as simplistic as that sounds, it’s true. Think about it. Who else does that? You know, not a lot of companies do that. It's usually all about how I streamline a new transaction and get you out the door so we can get the next person in.

IFW: What’s next for Sweetwater?

JM: I love Chuck’s answer, which is that we’re always more than just the industry we're in. So, music retail and what's called pro audio combine to form an $8-billion industry. And within the next couple of years, we'll probably become a billion-dollar company. So that's only an eighth of that industry. So, what Chuck likes to say is, “We have all kinds of room to grow doing what we're really, really good at.”