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‘There is Truly No End in Sight:’ Ukulele Market Holding Strong in 2019

Christian Wissmuller • RoundtableSeptember 2019 • August 30, 2019

When the “ukulele craze” began about a decade ago, plenty of theories were floated: In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, people were drawn to the ukulele due to its low price and relatively gentle learning curve as an affordable entertainment and social option; hit songs from the likes of Jason Mraz, Train, and others that were charting in the late aughts upped the profile of the diminutive four-string (usually four-string…); ukulele performers on television programs such as “American Idol” brought the instrument into folks’ living rooms.

Most “crazes” – fads, manias, however you’d like to describe the phenomena – fade eventually, of course. So how is it that in 2019 these little fretted instruments are still prominent on the pop charts, in movies and on television, and still flying off of MI retailers’ shelves?

Part of it all comes down to the fact that many of those who first picked up a uke in 2009 or so have stuck with it and now are looking to upgrade to a nicer instrument or to buy additional models with different features. Another component is that those same appealing attributes that at least in part kicked off this movement – affordability, relative ease of learning, and straight-up fun – remain as true as ever.

MMR recently touched base with reps from five major suppliers of ukuleles to get their take on this still-going-strong phenomenon.

How do you feel sales of ukuleles at the moment compare with this same time last summer?

Rock Clouser: With an extensive revamp and refocus of our entire line over the past two years, Lanikai sales are consistently trending up, month over month and year over year. Currently Lanikai is up 35 percent over the previous year. Additionally, our dealer base continues to develop rapidly, incorporating uke-specific dealers and full line dealers that previously did not stock ukuleles.

Nainoa Gibson: This summer has been great! Compared to last year, we have seen a slight rise in our summer performance. With the higher demand, we are now taking “monthly standing orders,” along with giving the option to our dealers to see what’s currently being built in production. This allows them the opportunity to plan ahead when deciding what they wish to offer their customers, and not waiting six-to-eight weeks to receive their order.

Mitchell Nollman: Martin’s ukulele sales are stable. We are about flat with last year and up in ukulele string sales, mostly due to our new premium ukulele strings.

Michael Schear: Sales have been good compared with this time last year. We are up 19 percent. We believe this could be a result of many new models we introduced at the Winter NAMM show.

Adam Gomes: Sales have remained steady and haven’t really fluctuated much since last summer as the landscape stays the same. Beginner ukulele players keep the demand up for inexpensive ukes and mid to pro level players are willing to spend a little bit more for a ukulele that has some upgraded features. At this point, many mid to pro ukulele players have moved past the beginner stages so they begin shopping brands that stay true to their strengths, continue innovating, and can provide them with a quality ukulele that meets their needs.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s the current “hot” uke model for your brand?

NG: The KSR model, introduced in January 2019, boasts features that are unique to Kanile`a. The Traditional Thin Slotted headstock with its flat-top has a profile that is about half the width of the industry standard. Outfitted with Kanile`a exclusive Gotoh Stealth tuners, this headstock has become a design favorite since its introduction on the 2016 Kanile`a Platinum Limited Edition ukulele. There is also a 45-degree armrest that allows for hours of comfortable playing time. And like every Kanile`a built, the KSR is supported by the TRU-R (Total Resonating Ukulele-Redesigned) bracing system, created by master luthier Joe Souza. It offers relief to the soundboard, allowing for vibration on three different axes (X, Y, Z) thus producing a rich and beautiful sound. Add to it a gorgeous UV-cured polyester high gloss finish and you’ve got a world-class ukulele for any player. Available in Super Concert, Tenor, and Super Tenor. Starts at $1,740 USD MAP.

AG: Our High Tide Zebrawood ukuleles have been catching all the buzz with mid to pro level ukulele players. We offer a variety of sizes including Soprano, Concert, Tenor, and Baritones, and most with a preamp option. The High Tide Series takes its inspiration from the waves gravitating towards the moon’s pull. If you look at the fretboard, the abalone waves beginning around the upper frets at low tide. As the waves move toward the moon’s pull (pearl moon at first fret) or the lower frets they get increasingly higher, eventually hitting high tide’s highest peak. Hopefully, you can absorb the energy from the waves as you play!

MS: Right now, customers are loving our PGUK555 flamed maple concert with rainbow finish.

MN: Martin’s best sellers include models made in both our Nazareth facility and our Navojoa facility. Our 2K Ukulele, Iz Signature Model and, of course, our custom ukuleles all do well for us and all are made here in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Our S1, T1, and C1 ukuleles are the best sellers made in Navojoa. We do well with Concert, Soprano, and Tenor sizes.

RC: We have several popular models in our new line such as the Flame Maple series (FM) and our Quilted Maples (QM) in various colors and sizes, but recently we were honored at Summer NAMM with a “Best In Show – Gotta Stock It” award for our Thin Line electric Figured Bocote models (FB). This instrument is low-profile, yet sounds great. It can provide inspiration for songwriting, allow you to easily lay down a quick track, or deliver comfort and reliability on stage.

Have you been noticing any significant trends in the ukulele market?

MN: Ukuleles have done well for retailers as a category for some time. For consumers they are relatively easy to play, affordable, and fun. This makes for a great opportunity for dealers and manufacturers.

RC: First and foremost: the ukulele market is “maturing” in two ways. The primary ukulele demographic remains youthful, but concurrently, adults of all ages are discovering the rewarding musical social community that playing the ukulele offers. We also recognize an increasing collection of ukulele enthusiasts that are learning and advancing as musicians. They understand the features and specific level of instrument performance they require from their next ukulele. The days of “any ukulele is a ukulele” are completely over. With our step-up feature set, we readily acknowledge this level of maturing players and continually strive to be the specific brand to provide instruments worthy of their level of musicianship.

MS: We have noticed that consumers and dealers are attracted to bright colors and unique designs.

AG: Absolutely. Over the past couple of years, we have seen the ukulele trend gradually transition to its next stage which has certainly impacted the market in a good way. The good news is there continues to be a steady flow of beginner players purchasing entry-level ukuleles. So that’s not going anywhere. With regards to mid-to-pro level players, they are getting particular with their ukulele selection by honing in on brands that meet their needs at a middle-of-the-road cost. The brands that stay true to their strengths and keep improving their creative efforts will come out on top.

NG: With online video instruction, play-alongs, and uke forums so easily accessible, we are seeing more and more skilled, technical players. That shift in knowledge and ability has caused an increase in expectation when it comes to their ukulele. Players, even casual “ukulele club” strummers, are now looking for a balanced instrument that has great intonation, is lightweight, and performs consistently. They’re also wanting something that is unique… one-of-a-kind. So Kanile`a responded with an online Design Your Own `ukulele feature. Through our website, a player can choose a multitude of combinations to fit their style and budget. They can actually SEE the instrument – front, back and a side profile – for an idea of how the finished custom uke will look. Features can be added or swapped out with the click of a button.

What are some ‘best practices’ that you’ve seen dealers who are particularly successful with uke sales adopting?

MS: Many of our most successful dealers are those that are displaying ukuleles right at point of sale or high traffic areas in their store. Dealers that are offering in-stores and ukulele circles have also been successful.

 

 

 

 

NG: First: they know their products. The best dealers are the ones that have taken the time to know the company behind their products and the top features of the ukes they carry. We provide training material for our dealers that can help them close the sale in an impactful way for the customer. Second: They offer add-on options. Added services like strap button and pickup installs, humidifier re-order programs, and maintenance packages show a customer that their dealer “cares about me and my `ukulele.” Lessons and uke club gatherings in the store are awesome, but not required for success. Just being able to refer customers to trusted instructors or uke clubs in the area helps. Kanile`a does offer in-factory installs for dealers as well as information on online instruction via ukuleleunderground.com and ArtistWorks. Third: They offer exceptional service. When a dealer puts service and commitment to the customer above all else, they will not only satisfy the customer in the moment but will ensure future loyalty and repeat business. Service above all else is one of Kanile`a’s core values. Every `ukulele we build is covered by our limited lifetime warranty for the first owner. And our sales team is committed to making sure our dealers get what they need in a timely manner.

RC: We see the most success from dealers that stock a wide range of ukuleles, establishing themselves as the go-to place for ukuleles. As I mentioned, today’s players are savvy and know what they want/need in a ukulele, so it is important that dealers stock a variety of prices, models, and step-up features for the well-informed advancing market. Dealers that support the instrument’s potential are profiting. Also, we see positive results from dealers that network with their local and regional ukulele player population through lessons, teachers, instore events, or even creating a ukulele festival at their store. Ukulele is a personal instrument that can unite a loyal player community.

AG: Three major points come to mind on this topic. Dealers that go above and beyond to create their own sales angle via unique content (in addition to manufacturer-provided content), including video product reviews, creative photos and staying active on social media (most importantly Instagram), have a much higher chance at selling more ukuleles. We are happy to say we have quite a few dealers that fit the criteria, but there is always room for improvement.

MN: The places where ukuleles tend to move well are where the retailer makes them a priority. These retailers have a strong assortment of ukuleles at various price points and feature sets, have a focus on merchandising, a trained staff who can answer questions, and the ability to play the instruments for the consumer. Also, making sure there is support for accessories, like strings and cases, helps to show the consumer that this is a serious place to shop and a store that will support them. For online retailers, having a dedicated area to help consumers learn about their options and make the best selection is key.

 

 

 

Expectations for this market segment in the coming months?

RC: For Lanikai, a dedicated ukulele brand, we foresee the ukulele segment continuing to expand in several notable ways. The entry segment is still very strong for us, but the step-up market has had significant growth too, and many more pro-level players and studios are supporting the ukulele as a real instrument for a unique tonal layer. In addition, with the ongoing mainstream popularity of the ukulele, we see many more guitarists gravitating to the ukulele with the traditional soprano, concert or tenor, or our more “guitarist friendly tuned” baritone, guitelele or 5-string model. The ukulele is proving to be an instrument for any musician seeking a new way of thinking, a layer on a studio track, performance support, or songwriting inspiration. There is truly no end in sight for the vast and creative potential of the ukulele as an instrument. Lanikai is poised and focused to support the needs of the ever-evolving ukulele market.

AG: We’ve got nothing but high expectations in the coming months, especially with Q4 right around the corner! As long as ukulele performers are given platforms to showcase their talents on social media and on television, there will always be a continued interest from admirers whom would like to learn how to play uke and eventually perfect the skill. Social media apps like TikTok / Musical.ly, and TV shows like “American Idol” will keep perpetuating the ukulele love.

MN: Martin expects this segment to remain stable through 2019 and beyond. For many consumers, the approachability, affordability, and fun factor are a key part of what makes ukuleles so popular with consumers and retailers alike. We, at Martin, are dedicated to this market for both instruments and strings and we have been for more than 100 years. Our ukuleles have a solid place in our history and will remain an important part of our business. We recently launched the Konter Ukulele which is a replica of a famous ukulele found in our museum. This uke was part of the 1923 expedition to the North Pole and signed by Admiral Byrd, President Calvin Coolidge, along with the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of the navy, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, and many, many more. We expect the market to continue to be a strong part of the musical instrument category and we encourage our retailers worldwide to consider making continued investments in inventory of both ukuleles and ukulele strings. The high-end, where Martin plays, always offers retailers a chance to step consumers up and see what is possible for tone, performance, and profits.

NG: In the coming months dealers will have to make a concerted effort to connect with their customers on a deeper level. If they can make a bigger impact emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually they will have no problem reaching all of their goals. The next two to three months will be crucial as we head into the holiday season. Now is the time to dig deep and go the extra mile to make each and every customer feel unique and appreciated.

MS: We anticipate growth to be up a bit or about the same. We are marketing more to educators so we hope to see an upward trend in sales of class sets of ukuleles.

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