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Small Wonders: With No End in Sight for the ‘Ukulele Craze,’ Higher End Models Increasing in Popularity

by Christian Wissmuller • in
  • March 2018
  • Roundtable
• Created: March 12, 2018

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A few years ago, many dealers and other industry insiders predicted that the booming “Uke craze” would cool off soon.

Well, here we are in 2018 and there’s no sign of the public losing interest in these diminutive fretted wonders. In fact, to cater to the many players who picked up their first ukuleles a decade ago and have stuck with it, suppliers are now capitalizing on the trend, offering more step-up/high-end or “alternative” (electric ukes, banjo-ukuleles, bass-ukes) models. MMR recently reached out to a handful of key brands in this growing market segment.

For your brand, how are sales of higher end, step-up and/or “alternative” ukuleles so far in 2018, compared to this same time last year?

Michael Schear: It turns out sales of intermediate and step-up ukuleles are up around 30 percent over the same time last year. In the previous year, our sales of intermediate and step-ups were flat.

Billy Martinez: We have definitely seen an increase in sales of our higher-end ukuleles. Our California Coast Series Ukuleles offer a great step-up option, especially for those who need to amplify their sound.

Gil Soucy: Depending on model, we have been averaging 20%- 30% year over year increase across all Ukuleles over $500 MSRP. This rate is about double the growth we’ve seen in the past year on the lower priced models, but to be fair when reviewing the overall business, I think on the growth numbers of the lower-end models we need to consider the impact CITES had to availability in the past year.

Rock Clouser: Our sales have dramatically increased in these categories. In fact, last year we revamped, refreshed, and enhanced our full line-up purposely for a greater focus for this expanding market segment.

Adam Gomes: You would think that a trend that has been going on for over a decade would eventually die off, but that clearly isn’t the case with ukuleles. It’s here to stay. Year after year, Luna has been seeing a steady increase in sales from both our top-shelf models as well as our mid-range priced ukes. Specifically, from 2017 to 2018, we focused on developing more mid-level priced ukuleles that are affordable to enthusiasts and visually appealing.

Kristen Souza: Our sales for 2018 have been phenomenal. We have found that sales on instruments like our 2018 Platinum Tenor, Uncle Willie K 5-string Super Tenor, Aldrine Guerrero Tenor, and custom orders have increased by at least 30 percent.

Joy Cafiero: We’ve noticed a trend going from entry-level to midrange to higher end over the past year. Because we are a brand that is diverse in offerings – with the U•Bass®, baritones, USA-made Elites, and specialty ukulele – we tend to do well across all markets but there has definitely been a shift in people moving to more variety.

What do you think it driving consumer interest in these types of models?

BM: As more musicians record with ukes now, there is a real need for upgraded tonal qualities, as well as electronics.

JC: A ukulele player never has just one ukulele!

AG: 2. The key is keeping it fresh. From ukulele models with exotic woods to detail-oriented design work, Luna keeps consumer interest by sticking to our creative roots. We offer a wide variety of ukulele body shapes, with an assortment of different designs, ranging from laser-etched engravings & tribal tattoo designs to historic paintings and more. It has received very well in the ukulele community.

KS: Our ukulele community has matured as players have embraced the instrument. The ukulele has been accepted in “mainstream music” and is covering nearly every music genre.

RC: Basically, it is truly unique that a single instrument has such popularity across such a wide demographic range. The ukulele market continues to expand in multiple directions through middle school programs, among teens and young adults as dedicated players, and all through up to senior hobbyists. This phenomenon is precisely what is driving popularity of higher end and alternative ukes.

GS: There seems to be a continuing phenomenon around the ukulele in social media and especially on YouTube. We are seeing more and more players posting videos of their ukulele arrangements of hit songs and many are re-done with great musical proficiency and are very entertaining to watch. For higher end models of ukulele, we are also seeing sales increases to many seasoned guitar players looking to pick up the ukulele and recognizing that the quality difference between the lower end and higher end is very meaningful to the playability and tone. Many of our dealers are holding “group classes” for the ukulele and we feel this is also fueling the desire to own these nicer instruments.

 

 

MS: This is what’s different about this past year. In 2016 we had Grace VanderWaal winning “America’s Got Talent” with the ukulele, and that made the ukulele the “Tickle Me Elmo” gift for Christmas that year. Basically everybody had to have a ukulele as a gift. It was so hot that in January of 2017 we had a record month because everybody’s shelves were empty at the end of December. What dealers found for 2017 was that we didn’t have that same “Tickle Me Elmo experience” with entry-level ukuleles at Christmastime. Sales of ukuleles for Christmas for the year were consistent or up, but we didn’t have an explosion in December. I imagine some of those beginner players, a year or so later, are looking for a better instrument than their first ukulele.

Of ukuleles that fit into this larger category for your brand, what model is your hottest seller?

AG: 3. The Tattoo Concert Mahogany Ukulele (or Uke TC MAH) is hands-down our most popular ukulele Luna has to offer. There’s a lot to love about the Tattoo Concert Mahogany. The sharp laser-etched tattoo design on the mahogany ukulele has become a staple among uke enthusiasts.

RC: Best sellers for us are designs featuring natural premium woods such as Natural Acacia, Quilted Maple, Mahogany and Flamed Maple models, trimmed with complementary wood marquetry such as inlays and wood bindings.

GS: For the higher priced models, our Oscar Schmidt Koa and Spruce baritone model OU55CE that has an MSRP of $683.90 continues to be a star performer, as well as the Spalted Mango baritone OU57, which retails for $510.90. All of our Oscar Schmidt All Solid wood models, such as the all-solid Koa wood OU280SWK and OU270TSK, and the all solid Mahogany OU240SWK and OU220SWK continue to grow in popularity. These range in price from $438.90 MSRP to $918.90 MSRP and all continue to show positive sales growth over last year.

KS: Our 2018 Platinum Tenor and our slotted headstock models are our hottest sellers.

JC: It depends on what people are looking for. Guitar players may want a baritone ukulele and bass players may be looking for a U•Bass and some people just want a travel ukulele to take with them everywhere!

MS: The most popular step-up or intermediate model for Amahi has been the UK220C. That’s our lowest priced intermediate mahogany ukulele with a MAP of $115.00. It has red tortoise binding, a bound fingerboard, sealed guitar-style tuners, and a padded bag. By sheer volume, that model outsold every other model by two to one.

BM: The California Coast Series Rincon Ukulele is our hottest seller.

Have you noticed any trends with respect to what end-users are looking for in higher end or “alternative” ukes?

BM: More and more, end users seem to be looking for ukuleles that are aesthetically appealing without sacrificing the tone. If the uke sounds really great and has a unique look, consumers tend to lean towards that.

 

 

 

MS: People have been buying intermediate ukuleles, but they weren’t necessarily splurging for the most expensive models. They wanted the sound of an intermediate but they weren’t, going to splurge for all the “extras.” The UK220C MAPs at $115 and that really seems to be the sweet spot, price-wise.

RC: The market is increasingly savvy to what step-up features can bring to sound, projection, and playability. Tonal features like solid tops and all solid models have increased in demand along with electric cutaway models. For alternative ukuleles, we are seeing more players exploring multi-string options. While there are purists, the overwhelming ukulele trend is away from tradition and stereotypes. In turn, there is progressively more exploration and creativity to how and where the ukulele is being applied in other music genres, which only serve to strengthen the instrument’s popularity.

JC: Most decisions on a ukulele purchase – especially the ones after the initial entry-level ukulele – are based on price point, looks, sound, overall quality, and name brand recognition. It may be a choice to round out a ukulele collection or be a new size or spec they don’t currently have. Or it may be as simple as an upgrade.

AG: As the ukulele market becomes more saturated, it’s important to recognize the expanding needs of uke players in an already crowded field. I am certainly seeing a trend between these two categories of ukuleles. There is a standard of expectation that consumers have when they look to purchase an alternative ukulele or high-end model. With higher end models folks are expecting intricate details from the design or the wood selection to the fret markers and more minute details. For alternative ukuleles consumers are looking for a strong instrument with at least a pop of design so they can feel like they’re part of something bigger when they perform – all at an affordable price.

KS: We have found that beautiful Koa wood is still king from a Hawaiian built instrument. Although, we have seen an increase in “alternative” tone woods as more and more players are understanding the tonal nuances that come with replacement tone wood combinations like a Torrified Spruce or a Cedar sound board.

GS: Our Oscar Schmidt ukuleles feature wider string spacing, and one trend we are seeing is this being a sought-after feature by guitar players looking to play the uke. We also pay close attention to the intonation all the way through the 15th fret, which is one feature that lacks on many low-cost instruments out of Asia. We hear from our dealers and end users that this is truly meaningful for players that record or perform with bands or in non-solo situations. Other trends we see include sought-after features like Comfort Armrest, nicer tuning machines, and figured woods such as Spalted Maple, Spalted Mango, and Flamed Koa. As these figured woods continue to become harder to source, consumers seem to be very willing to step up in price to purchase them.

Are there any particular strategies in terms of marketing and display that you’ve observed being employed by dealers who are particularly successful in selling these types of ukuleles?

AG: In any store you want to focus on the brand image. Ask yourself: How will your ukulele products stand out in the store? The uke is a unique showpiece in itself – Find something that will instantly attract brand recognition from consumers shopping their stores.

RC: As the years of the “ukulele surge” continues, dealers are recognizing the ukulele as a legitimate instrument and as a necessary and valuable contributor to their daily revenue and profitability. Stores that once thought it a “passing fad,” have gradually dedicated more prime space to the ukulele. General ukulele representation is a staple and ukulele displays are more prominently placed, rather than a few pieces haphazardly displayed in the corner with novelty instruments.

GS: Dealers that merchandise their uke displays in a way that creates a story to show the value of stepping up in price seem to sell a lot more of the higher end models than those dealers that just lump the nicer ukes in with the lowest cost ones. Where there are so many brands and models in the market, and where ukes take up less room than a guitar or other instrument, it can be easy to overlook the opportunity for a better sale that a $500-plus uke provides. Like with any finer quality or higher priced instrument, enthusiast will be happy to pay a premium if they understand the value of the better woods and features, and if it’s presented to them in a way that helps them stand apart from the sea of lower end models. In marketing, posts to social media and YouTube at the dealer level continues to help their local sales.

KS: We have found that dealers who are showcasing Kanile‘a ‘Ukulele as the premiere Hawaiian made instrument via high quality pictures, video and sound files have helped boost sales. Also, by focusing on our integration of technology, innovative designs and being environmentally responsible while doing what we love has helped boost customer confidence.

 

MS: Our dealers have told us that the more they display the ukuleles within reach of the customer, the greater success they have. So if you have them behind the counter, where the customer has to ask an employee for access to the instruments, it’s a barrier. If it’s displayed right in front at eye-level, and the customer has the freedom of picking it up and playing it, that makes for the best sales. We offer this Ukulele Tree, manufactured by String Swing, and we offer it with some of our packages. If you buy a package that costs $599 or more, you can add the tree for an additional $100. That tree would cost the dealer over $200 if they bought it anywhere else. The tree holds 24 ukuleles. It has three tiers, with each tier holding eight ukuleles.

JC: Branding Kala with our dealers helps to sell our ukes in their stores. We have a large social media following of end users and we partner with our dealers to extend our reach. Our dealers are extremely important to us and we work with them as a team and have a collaborative relationship.

BM: Honestly, it’s more about the salesman on the floor with the customer. They have become much more aware of the specs of the instruments as well as how that fits the consumer’s needs!

What are your expectations for this market segment in the coming year?

BM: We expect continued growth in the ukulele market in the foreseeable future.

GS: With the millions of low priced ukes sold around the world in recent years, I think we have a massive opportunity to grow the higher end category this year. There is more music being created on the ukulele than ever before and like with any instrument, as players become more proficient in their playing abilities, they will want to step up to higher quality instruments and will be willing to pay for them.

MS: We’ve actually expanded our lineup of intermediate ukuleles for the coming year. We’ve added three banjo ukuleles, a soprano, concert and tenor, and we’re getting really great reviews from customers. We’ve also had customers want intermediate-level quality, but need them more affordable, so we developed a line called the Penguin Classics. In 2017, we came out with the Penguin Mahogany series, which was a ukulele that had less restrictive bracing, it produced more volume of sound. And dealers were saying to us, “This student ukulele sounds so good. Can you dress it up?” So we came out with the Penguin Classics for 2018, in which we have a model with a spruce top and a mahogany back and sides, all Zebra Wood, all Flame Maple, all Koa, all Bacote, all Ebony, all Spalted Maple, all Quilted Ash. These ukuleles MAP at a lower price than our traditional models. For example, the Spruce top, Mahogany back and sides is going to MAP at $109, the Zebra Wood model MAPs at $119, the Bacote model MAPs at $145, the Flame Maple maps at $159, the Koa maps at $179, the Spalted Maple $169, the Quilted Ash $139, and the Ebony at $159. These models sell for $20 less at map than our traditional lines, and they cost the dealer about $20 less each. We’re trying to produce more models that are less expensive but don’t give up the quality of sound, but maybe give up some of the esthetics of some of the more expensive models.

JC: We expect sales to continue to grow. As the entry-level market grows more people will become interested in upgrading their instrument. Kala is the ukulele brand from beginner to expert. We make a ukulele for every kind of player.

 

 

AG: Ukuleles will remain a popular instrument throughout 2018 and a staple of music store shelves beyond that. Many people of all ages are teaching themselves how to play the ukulele simply because of influencers such as Grace VanderWaal, Mandy Harvey and Jake Shimabukuro – all of whom enjoy the instrument and have been playing for quite some time.

RC: It is evident the ukulele has successfully carved out an authentic, ongoing, and significant portion of the music market. Due to sustained sales and enhanced dealer representation, this will be another solid year for ukuleles. However, retailers have so many ukulele brand options now, it is imperative that they carefully select their inventory wisely and train their sales staff accordingly. Sure, the entry level market will remain strong due to the ease of playability and low entry price points, but the days of stocking just any ukulele of any quality are over. As the market matures with playing skill and product knowledge, dealers will need to up their game, as well.

KS: We predict that the ‘ukulele will continue to climb as the “People’s instrument.” While our global ukulele community continues to grow, the ‘ukulele will inspire, challenge, comfort, and perpetuate the Aloha Sprit for generations to come.

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