This past Saturday I sat down with Aaron Barbarics, the owner the The Laboratory Music Store in Deptford, New Jersey.
For reasons that are explained by Mr. Barbarics in the interview below, he is closing his “Brick and Mortar” store to pursue a greater online presence for selling musical gear. Since part of my interview regards how “Mom and Pop Guitar Shops” are staying relevant these days I wanted to make a point to visit Mr. Barbarics before his doors closed. He provided valuable insight into the logistical and marketing troubles faced by shop owners today. Mr. Barbarics was a fantastic interviewee and his entire staff made the entire experience a blast! Here’s what we talked about.
Me: Let’s talk about your first guitar and how old you were when you got it.
Aaron: I was 16 when I got my first guitar. I bought a crappy Epiphone acoustic guitar that didn’t really play well. I persevered with that for a little bit somehow. Then I bought my first electric guitar with my paper rout money from Sunset Music in Cherry Hill, which hasn’t existed for years (2004). That was an Ibanez Roadstar II. Which I learned to work on, and I put EMG pickups in it.
Me: Didn’t the RG series replace the Roadstars?
Aaron: They probably did. The Roadstar was a little different.
Me: So, what did you do before this?
Aaron: I worked at Disc Makers for ten years, which is a CD and DVD manufacturer that’s in Pennsauken. So, it was like music business, and before that I worked in retail for other people in music. I worked at Sam Ash for a while, I worked at Old Town Music in Turnersville. When the CD business was starting to slow down and I was looking for something else to do after that. I remembered I had a lot of fun working in music retail so that’s what I decided to go back to.
Me: So, what really got you to where you were opening this place?
Aaron: I went to college, I went to Rutgers in New Brunswick. I went for philosophy so, ya know, I didn’t have a business background or anything. But I managed a couple retail places so I learned the ins and outs of working in it. Then when I worked at Disc Makers I learned a lot about sales and marketing stuff. Ya know, I learned how the big companies do it, and got some valuable lessons from that. And then when I came here I was armed with a lot of knowledge before I started from all my work experience.
Me: So, why guitar? Why did you start a business around it?
Aaron: I just loved it. And I wanted to keep working in a music field because it’s basically the only field I’ve really ever worked in. So, when I was leavin’ Disc Makers I had some money saved and I decided that’s what I’m gonna do. It seemed like the most logical thing to do.
Me: Do you think these Mom and Pop guitar stores are still relevant today?
Aaron: Well you know it’s interesting, since you know I’m closing my “Brick and Mortar” store I feel like it depends a lot on your geographical location and what your emphasis is. But as a retailer, selling and servicing guitars and stuff, I’m gonna say not really. People just don’t shop in stores. Everyone is always like “Ah, I’d never buy a guitar online, I gotta feel it first.” But the reality has proven otherwise.\
Me: The shop owner I spoke to prior to this interview said that he doesn’t get how someone can buy a guitar without touching it.
Aaron: Yeah. And I sort of agree with him, but then again, I’ve bought and sold guitars online myself. And almost every person that walks in here has also done that. People are getting more and more comfortable doing that every day. Look, that reality is that with internet shopping you can return something if you don’t like it. So why not get something and you can try it out in your home for a week or two and if it doesn’t work you send it back. That’s how people expect to be able to shop. It’s convenient. And the big part of the business that helps you make money is the accessories like strings, and picks, and straps, and stuff like that. But then again, if you live in the suburbs, why get in your car, drive ten minutes, to pick up a five-dollar pack of strings? Where if you just think ahead you can order them from Amazon or wherever else and they can have it in two days and you didn’t have to spend any time or energy to do it. So, it’s no surprise that that’s the way things are going. So, that’s where all the growth is for our business.
Me: So, is having that online presence what you’re trying to do to stay relevant? Won’t you lose out on a lot now that you can’t to repairs or lessons?
Aaron: Not really in my experience, which I’m sure is different from others. I’ve been selling online since we’ve opened ten years ago, and basically every year our online business has grown and our walk-in business has become a little less. Maybe not in the first couple years, in our middle years our retail was pretty solid. But, from about five or six years in the online thing has grown every year. To the point, like in the past year it was bigger than the walk-in business was. And also, lessons, which used to be a big part of it, they’re harder and harder to get. You have to spend more money on marketing to get those customers than you used to. And I think that is largely is because of Youtube and people’s willingness to try something online first.
Me: It’s just easier to sit there and watch what they’re doing in the video?
Aaron: Yeah, it may not have as much success, but the idea is that there is probably a Youtube video that’ll show you how to do it, so they’ll just look at that. It’s like that with anything. If you wanna fix your car, they first thing you do is go look at Youtube and see if someone will show you how to do it. Just like with guitar or drums or whatever. So, our lesson business slowed, and the combination of that and the walk in sales slowing, we’ll probably do better online because it just doesn’t cost us as much.
Me: How do you guys think you’re going to compete with Guitar Center or Reverb? Or do you also have a Reverb shop?
Aaron: Well that’s what we do now. 90% of our business is through third party sites. We have a Reverb store, an eBay store, an Amazon store; we’re on Wal-Mart, we’re on Sears, and a bunch of other sites. So, we just sell through ever channel that we possibly can and we have a lot of automation set up to make that work, like back end computer inventory control stuff. So, we do that and a lot of that is competing on price. Even though there are so many people out there there’s still lots of little products you can find a little niche with and do well. We have our core products like that that there are not a lot of sellers for, and we do well at that. And that’s what it’s about. You gotta find your little corner, or your little nook and carve it out.
Me: What did you love the most about doing this?
Aaron: You get to talk to all the guitar players and musicians every day. You get to talk with people that understand what you love and what they love. You get to work and talk about pedals and talking about tone and stuff.
Me: That “never ending search” kind of conversation.
Aaron: Yeah, it could be worse!
Me: Alright, last question. Every have and unique experiences?
Aaron: We had some pretty interesting times when the space next to us, some guys were running a recording studio, and also turned it into, like, a part time music venue. They called it the “Test Tube”, which was funny because they obviously picked the name because they were right next to the Laboratory. And we thought it was pretty clever and though it would be really fun, and it was, at times. But, it also got insanely out of control. There would be like, kids moshing and stuff in the space next to us and they’d be hitting the wall and guitars and stuff were shaking and falling off the wall and stuff. There were a couple situations where the police had to come. So, yeah, that was probably some of the most crazy stuff to happen here.
A huge thank you to Mr. Barbarics, Stefan, and the entire Laboratory staff for being so friendly and accommodating. The Laboratory will officially close it’s doors on February 28th, 2017.