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Mike McAfee of Maxwell’s House of Music

Christian Wissmuller • November 2020Upfront Q&A • October 30, 2020

In mid-August of this year, I got a message from Mike McAfee, buyer for Indiana’s Maxwell’s House of Music (featured in the April 2020 issue of MMR): “I know times are weird all over, but if you’re looking for content talking about succeeding during a pandemic I’d love to talk. We’ve had record months, bought a second location, and are thriving while some around us are on the brink of closing.”

While we had already covered Maxwell’s fairly extensively – NAMM Top 100 Dealer, multiple teaching rooms, two performance halls, over 12,000 square-foot facility, et cetera – the fact was (and is) that I did want to hear from an MI retailer that’s not just managing to “hang in there” during these times, but is doing better than ever.

We’re pretty up to speed on the Maxwell’s House of Music story via Victoria Wasylak’s conversation with Jeff McNicol earlier this year, but just as a refresher, can you briefly go over the very early days and, importantly, your own history in MI?

Maxwell’s House of Music used to be the Indiana satellite location of Mom’s Music in Louisville, Kentucky. Seven years ago Mark Maxwell, son of Mom’s owner Marvin Maxwell, bought this location outright. Ironically, we bought Mom’s Music outright four months ago. In the early days, our store was primarily a 3,600 square-foot music school inside an unused movie theater with two employees. We were open 3pm to 9pm for lessons and stocked accessories. I’d known Mark and the family since I was a kid, and we had made several attempts at teaming up before – it just never worked out. Five years ago he called and we met to discuss what we saw as the opportunity to create a one-of-a-kind music store experience.

Every team member contributed to the realization of that vision, and I started ordering gear! I’d run another store in Louisville for 25 years, but to contribute at this level and be the sole buyer was a challenge I was very excited about. A year ago Jeff McNicol came in as a full partner to the store and we’ve upped our game and presence even more since that happened.

We first started talking because you reached out to share that Maxwell’s is one of the fortunate businesses that has actually been thriving during this pandemic. Can you provide specifics and also provide insight into why you think this has been the case?

When it looked like things were going to get crazy with COVID, we set up 29 teachers and nearly 440 students with an online platform to segue into online learning. The format change cost us less than 100 students and that bolstered us to use this time to seriously upgrade our presentation, merchandise, and website, as well. Three of us created our new website from scratch and jumped into the deep end of and eBay.

We’ve always used social media more to highlight the fun aspect of our staff and store than to push gear, and we went into overdrive doing live postings on every format, every two hours. We acted as if nothing had changed except we’d added delivery and curbside pickup. We barely mentioned COVID – it was all [about] entertainment and the fun music adds to our lives. Our sales went through the roof, even being open three hours less a day during the worst of it. Lessons stayed strong, but having our education director being so accommodating with older teachers and students who had questions about the new format made a huge difference. By April our same month sales were up over 70 percent from 2019. We were all floored, and we kept doing what we were doing.

Let’s revisit the expansion, just because it would seem incongruous that the timing would have worked out, given everything. When did you acquire the second location? Where is it? How big is it? Additional employees?

Mom’s Music is located just across the bridge in Louisville, Kentucky. We felt the city was being underserved, and that the legendary heritage of Mom’s wasn’t as top of mind as it should be. In early March we bought it and took our “big box” approach in and re-configured the layout, selection and experience without losing the great local aspect. We’ve integrated a few of our ideas into the store, but we’d be crazy not to let the staff there run wild building new relationships their way versus pushing ours onto them. Our greatest success at Maxwell’s has been allowing each crew member to shine in their strengths because that gives our stores five, six, eight faces versus a single – or corporate – one. Mom’s is also over 12,000 square-feet and features a new performance hall that’s already getting great use. As here, I brought in past co-workers who shared the ‘big picture’ thinking that has driven success. Adding that to the Mom’s staff has been great.

You mentioned curbside pickup. What other steps have you been taking to ensure the safety of employees and customers and, as importantly, how are you spreading the word about those precautions and reassuring your customers that it’s safe to do business during COVID?

No matter what, we’ve got to provide a safe environment for staff, students, and shoppers. We’ve installed foam hand sanitizer stations throughout our building, offer masks to all entering that need them, and we have digital thermometers we use to make sure nobody brings fevers into the store. We have a video message on our sites detailing COVID procedures and we make sure we start all videos masked before pulling them to make speaking clear on camera. We have a two-wipe cleaning system for our instruments that works great and use Clorox wipes over all surfaces multiple times a day.

What other tactics has Maxwell’s been taking to reimagine MI retail during pandemic?

Early on I became concerned that when people returned to our store we wouldn’t live up to their memory of it. Being closed to the public for a few months sometimes leads to an enhanced memory versus reality. To make sure that didn’t happen we re-painted some, rearranged a lot, added new signage/point of purchase, and completely changed our student lobby. Everyone has commented on how great the shop looks, feels, and flows. It was the right move.

At this point are lessons strictly or mostly streaming/ZOOM/online?

We’ve got 80 percent of our students back in store. The others are staying online and we’ve now added that option into our mix and are getting new registrations daily. Both formats are working, so both formats stay.

Any words of advice or encouragement for MI dealers who may not be weathering this weird, messy storm so well?

Sell the fun of music. The face of your business is your staff; use them constantly, so everyone watching develops a familiarity with them. It’s tripled our business.

Expectations for the coming months and next year?

We’ll have our best year ever in 2020 – and I know how insane that sounds. I can’t wait for the holiday season and I’m so excited about offering this selection of gear, this level of service, and such unique shopping experiences to musicians on both sides of the river. No matter how much we’ve grown, we’re not slowing down one bit on trying to improve ourselves and what we do.

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