Roundtable
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MMR: In a survey of retailers that appeared in our March 2014 issue, many retailers expressed a belief that the “uke craze” had leveled off somewhat. Nonetheless, over 50 percent of dealers who participated in that poll reported that their ukulele sales were up from the same time last year. What’s your take on the ukulele market: slowing down? Level? Stronger than ever? Down?

Mike Upton: For Kala, the magnetism of the ukulele is still stronger than ever. I estimate that 75 percent of the people discovering the instrument are first-time musicians of all ages. This is very exciting to me. It is a boon for the whole MI Industry.

Naomi Con: Our ukuleles are as popular as ever, and show no signs of slowing down!

Michael Schear: When they say that the craze has cooled down, maybe it’s just a general comment on the market.  Most people tell me, including others in this industry, that the first quarter of 2014 was off.  If you’re flat, you’re actually up. My guess is when you asked dealers about the “ukulele craze” and whether it’s over, their response was based on the fact that business, in general, is soft. More specifically, I have dealers telling me, “The only thing that’s selling is ukuleles!” For us, sales are up compared to last year. Last year my most popular model was the Pink Flower, the second most popular was the Orange Flower, and third most popular was the Blue Bird.  In the last 12 months, sales of the Snail Ukulele Ebony have taken off.  The second most popular model we’ve got is the Snail Rosewood. These are more expensive instruments and it shows you that people are starting to explore beyond the norm.

Hitomi Kato: Here in this country, the inexpensive ukuleles are selling, but ours are generally more high-end ukuleles. We sell more to countries other than the U.S. Sales are kind of slow for us due to price point.

Leon Lewis: The ukulele market is strong. New players continue to purchase their first ukes, and more customers are returning for upgrades than ever before.  However, retailers face the same challenges as brands [do], as the typical ukulele consumer becomes wiser and more discerning.  If you think you’ll continue to see success by purchasing the next ukulele blowout from a generic uke brand and throwing them on your wall, I’m afraid it’s just not going to happen.  Focused, relevant, and exciting ukulele assortments are the key to driving new customers to explore this fun, easy-to-learn instrument, as well as earning your place as the “hot spot” to buy ukes for hobbyist and pro players in your area. 

Louis Wu: The market is strong, but slowing down. In addition, supply is plentiful these days and more stores are carrying the instruments.   Hence stores may see lower or slower sales due to availability, but the interest is still there.

 

Another observation that came to light in our retailer survey was that mid-level and high end ukes are doing well now, because folks who may have purchased an entry level instrument a few years ago have stuck with the instrument and they now want something nicer. What are you doing to target and effectively reach the “step-up” ukulele customers out there?

LL: Our Lanikai brand has often been regarded as a “good beginner” ukulele brand that many will recommend as a first or second ukulele for the casual player.  However, as we have seeded the world markets with hundreds of thousands of ukes, we have seen an increased call for finer products which we have met head on.  Our exclusive TunaUke Technology elevates our basic ukuleles above all of the competition by offering a never-before-seen advancement in ukulele production. 

Furthermore, we are the only major mainland ukulele brand with our own production of Hawaiian-made ukuleles. Being 100 percent made in the USA using the finest materials and meticulously developed construction methods, the Lanikai brand now offers a complete and innovative solution to anyone’s ukulele needs from top to bottom. 

LW: Our focus has always been on quality mid- to high-end range of instruments, so it is a bit easier for Ohana to target sales with our existing customer base.   We have also strengthened our step-up models to reach to end-users who are ready for their upgrade.

HK: Little by little, we’re noticing that. Still most U.S. [customers] are beginners. In this country, for the mid-level market I can’t really say.  We make ukuleles that are over $1,000, so it’s difficult for me to say. Our best-selling model is just under $600, so if you consider that to be “mid-level,” then yes, those sales are strong.

NC: We agree and have addressed this with our 30 Series ukuleles. Designed by renowned luthier Pepe Romero, Jr., these ukuleles are built like small guitars, incorporating features often found on nylon string guitars such as a Spanish heel neck joint and all-solid woods. We offer four acoustic models and four cutaway electric versions of each featuring the L.R. Baggs Five.O pickup.

MS: There is no question that sales of our step-up ukuleles have gone up dramatically. As I said in response to your first question, higher priced instruments are doing really well for us this year. One of the things I’ve done is to run a promotion where with every intermediate or advanced Amahi ukulele purchased the customer receives a free Amahi t-shirt.

MU: I have seen a definite jump in the demand of step-up ukes. Since we started in 2005, Kala has always had mid-level solid wood ukuleles in the mix. Now there are a ton of players out there that are sophisticated and savvy and they are looking to get the best instrument they can for their money. Kala will introduce a ukulele handmade in the U.S. at our Petaluma, California shop at the 2015 NAMM Show. This is a great market situation for everyone.

 

What models are hottest for you right now – both specific model type, and price-range?

MS: The Snail Ebony, the Snail Rosewood Concert, Snail Mahogany, Snail Zebrawood Concert, and the Amahi Classic Koa are all doing really well.

MU: Our Solid Cedar Top/Acacia ukes are super sellers right now. They run from $250-$370. Our Solid Spruce/Ovangkol models are hitting the streets now and doing great. They range from $299-349. Our Solid Acacia Tenor is always a big seller at around $399.  Although we are seeing a surge of high-end uke sales, the KA-15S is a hot model that continues to be a top seller for us. New players are entering the market every month and the KA-15S is a great entry-level uke in the $50 range.

LW: Our best-selling models are in the $250 to $300 street-price range.  Models with solid-top and all-solid mahogany are still the hottest.

NC: Aside from the 30 Series, we’re really excited about the success of our newly launched 22 Series. The spruce/rosewood combination is often found on nylon string guitars, and lends a really clear, bright sound. The sleek look and high gloss finish also stand out in a retail space.

HK: Our top selling model is the Kiwaya KTS-4. It’s similar to old, vintage Martins.  It has a reasonable price for that degree of quality – MSRP: $585.

LL: Our LUTU-21S Mahogany Soprano TunaUkes are absolutely flying off the shelves, but really our entire line of TunaUke equipped ukes are doing great.  Why?  Because our TunaUkes are the only uke product in the market now with a truly innovative and differential feature – not just a rework of generic attributes available at any overseas factory.

 

What are your expectations for the ukulele market in the coming months?

NC: As summer approaches, we always notice an increase in interest in ukulele sales, across the board. In the coming months/years, I expect to see a lot of new ukulele-hybrid models as manufacturers diversify this category. We’ve created our own guitar-ukulele hybrid (the Guilele and Guilele CE) and I’ve seen other combinations like the ukulele-banjo that are interesting.

MS: I already project that our sales for this year will be 250 percent of what we sold last year. We have already put into production orders that represent two and a half times last year’s sales.  There are some items we cannot keep in stock.  Right now I am well stocked in everything, but in 40 days that could change. We don’t sell a lot of advanced ukuleles, but intermediate – those that are MAPing at between $100 and $200 – represent our strongest market right now, whereas in the past the customer was looking for something under $100.

We’re trying to find additional factories in China and getting them up to speed so they can match the quality. The biggest issue is that production capacity has a hard time keeping up with demand. I had one factory tell me, “If we match your standards, we could only produce 30 ukuleles a day.” I’d rather produce less at a higher quality than lower my standards and fill the orders faster.

MU: I see the uke enthusiasm and excitement continuing to build with no let-up. I have been in it since 1998, so after 16 years, I think the ukulele has established itself as a go-to instrument that is here to stay. It is definitely not a “one hit wonder,” but a modern cultural phenomenon.

LW: Sales will level off just because availability and selections are lot more these days than in the past.  But player interest will still be strong, and so sales in ukulele will continue to sustain.

HK: I think it’s stable. It’s not going to go up, necessarily; it’s going to stay about the same.

LL: We look forward to a few hands coming back out of the ukulele “honey jar” and a shift of focus away from price and towards quality and innovation.  This, combined with sustained efforts by artists, groups, and educators to spread the word of the ukulele should bring about continued growth and the stabilization of the market as it continues to mature.  



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