Soft Cases Make for Hard Sales

by Kevin Mitchell • in
  • Special Report
• Created: June 12, 2013

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There’s no doubt that soft cases have gotten better and more affordable,” says SKB’s Dave Sanderson.

There are instrument bags – “essentially dust covers,” as Arriba’s Scott Davies calls them. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the heavy-duty ATA-compliant hard shell, suitable for your big touring act. Then there is the increasingly growing and profitable middle ground: soft but durable cases that are getting better and less expensive. The features include extra padding and pockets for everything (including tablets and smart phones).

Quality seems to be being noticed. “Musicians who have bought cheap bags that fell apart quickly are looking for quality – if something much better is $5 more, they pay it,” states Humes & Berg’s Irwin Berg.

“Our view is to listen to the consumer as much as we can to find out what they are seeking and deliver that,” says TKL’s Andy Garrigue. “There is a demand for lightweight products that makes it easy to carry your instrument but protects it well, too.”


Hybrids the Answer?

Within the soft case arena, there’s a wide variety of quality and features that can be quantified by a music store associate talking to the new instrument owner, Garrigue says. Some of the questions to ask include, “Are the handles comfortable? Do they feel secure? How solid and comfortable are the straps?”

Garrigue says TKL is excited about a new line of cases that’s essentially a hybrid between the soft and the hard. They are still tooling it and will reintroduce the newly designed line in the fall. “It’s called Zero Gravity, and while it has some wood in it, it’s extremely light,” he says. It features their Tour-Core Form, is wood reinforced, and has a contoured, thickly padded, soft plush interior. “The one for banjo weighs under six pounds. It has a back strap, so imagine the player at that bluegrass festival walking around from circle to circle. The banjo will retail around $100, and we feel that’s a good price.”

Gigging musicians (those playing a couple of times of months or at least aspiring to) are preferring these “gig bags” says Garrigue, as they are more heavy-duty and have a lot of options like straps and pockets.

But what would help is if the dealer is able to stock not just one or two of a series, but six or seven, so there are more choices readily available to the consumer. “We are always glad to help dealers who want to carry our products, or learn more about our products,” he adds. “We have a ‘can do’ approach about getting products like our new Zero Gravity soft cases into stores, so musicians can see and touch them, even if their distributor does not currently stock them.”


 Get ’em to Buy It Once

Tuxedo cases from Humes & Berg.

Humes & Berg’s Irwin Berg says the company makes three lines of soft cases, and two lines of plastic molded lines. “Obviously people are looking for something that is durable, and they are willing to pay a little more money for a better quality product,” Berg says. “The cheap inferior products means they have to buy cases two or three times, so they are figuring out it’s better to buy something of quality the first time.”

Berg says for the pure hobbyist those inexpensive bags are fine, “but if you’re on the road and someone else is handling your gear, you want the professional grade hard cases.” For the gigging musician playing out around town, a good soft case is often the best choice.

Berg also touched on one segment of musicians in particular – the drummer. At one time it was challenging for the cash -poor kit player to shell out the money necessary for hard cases. Those drummers occasionally gigging, who are banging up their $800 kit as they move them around in their 2004 Hyundai Sonata backseat and trunk, are prime targets for soft cases. “It’s ridiculous for a drummer to be scratching up his or her toms in the back of the car, when for $120 they get five bags to protect it and make it easier to haul.” More presentable, too.

Otherwise, like everything else, cases keep getting better and often the manufacturers are finding ways to make them less expensive. “It’s true [that] we are constantly trying to improve our products, whether it’s the method we employ to fix the material, the kind of needles we use, the webbing – we’re always trying to upgrade.”


  Everything Needs a Case

Arriba, once a part of the American DJ family of products, is now a separate company with a new headquarters in southern California. While Scott Davies is retired from ADJ, he now runs Arriba. “Every single product sold in this business needs a case,” he says adamantly. “Not just instruments, but things like lights. Nobody sells a guitar without a case, so why wouldn’t you sell a case for his or her lights? They get moved around, trashed, and dirty just like anything else. Think of the hundreds and thousands of lights in the mobile DJ market and for semi-professional bands that need cases for that gear.”

Davies is in the process of a re-launching Arriba’s Rolling Series, which is stackable and on wheels. The soft padded bags come in three different sizes: 16-inch, 19-inch, and 22-inch. They can carry lights, but also pretty much anything else like cables and mics. By offering these bags with a stackable component, it keeps any one from getting too heavy, Davies says. Debuting soon is a super-duty version of these called the Apache series, he adds.

Davies discusses the challenge the dealer has in trying to include the case with the sale of a piece of gear: “If I try to sell some lights with the bag included, it’ll appear over-priced to my competitor who just sells the light.”


 Not a Case, a Lifestyle

Relatively new to the scene is Fusion Bags, which is owned by four women and based in the UK. Dan Brown, executive vice president, says the team is led by designer Amanda Wheatley. “The emphasis is not in being the most inexpensive – we’re not in a race to the bottom,” he says. “The emphasis is on deluxe.”

Their flagship F1 soft cases embody the company’s “gigging is a lifestyle” philosophy. “We see players not just carrying an instrument,” he explains. “You also have your camera, iPad, laptop, and you’re likely getting around on a motorcycle or bike or using public transportation.”

Along those lines is their Fuse-On “three becomes one” ensemble. There’s the bag for the instrument, plus two other detachable bags to hold all the player’s other items. “It’s more than handy, it’s really a necessity,” he says. “You have plenty of room to even bring an extra set of clothes even.”

Upselling to their case needs a critical component, he admits: the player has to see it. “When they see the bag, they get it,” he says. “And our customers love our bags – look at our Facebook page. People don’t see it as an accessory but as a primary product.”


  Complete the Sale

Why leave money on the table?

“We constantly communicate to our accounts the importance of making the complete sale,” says Gator Cases’ Ken Fuente. “Many salespeople miss a prime profit opportunity by not recommending a case, bag, or cover with the core purchase.”

Gator has a large, diversified line and Fuente offers a bird’s eye view of what is trending. He says guitar bags are holding their own, with acoustic guitar cases and bags seeing gains, as are Gator’s 61 and 88-note keyboard products. Their market for DJ gear and cases appears to be holding steady.


  Good Enough for the Military …

A hard shell case from SKB.

Over at SKB, though, the emphasis is still the hard shell cases, and every time a dealer sells one there’s a bit of a story that goes with it: “We start with creating military grade [products], and from that we make musical instrument versions,” Sanderson says. “For example, on the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s complex, every helicopter had weapons that were kept in our cases.”

Otherwise it’s been a “flat” year for the music side of SKB’s business. “We lost our biggest customer, Fender, who decided to go with cases built in China, and that was sad,” he says. “But the high-end cases continue to do really well for us.”‚Ä©Specifically the high-end guitar shops do especially well with SKB, and the company pursues customers all the way to the top. “We have an artist relations guy in Nashville, and we have special artist accommodation pricing. Recently I was back stage with [country artist] Chris Young, and he absolutely covets his cases.” When asked if artists endorsing their cases affects the sales to those aspiring players, Sanderson says, “Absolutely! Also they for sure influence other players touring with them, like their opening acts.”

For the touring artist, SKB’s new plastic molded products pay a nice dividend: they aren’t as heavy as the wooden ones, so airlines don’t charge that extra $50 fee. “Our water-tight cases are only 28 pounds with the guitar in it, so it pays for itself if you take it on a plane a couple of times.”

But Sanderson adds that other lines – like cases for band and orchestra products – are doing well, especially for those for higher end instruments.

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