Holiday For Strings: Online store puts customer service and entrepreneurial spirit together to play a sweet tune.

    By Michael Goodwin | Small Business

    Need a set of J86 Phospor Bronze D’Addario strings for your bajo sexto? (That's a huge Mexican 12-string guitar so hefty that traditionally the guy who makes it jumps up and down on it a few times to make sure it's strong enough before putting it up for sale. Great in a bar fight!)

    Need those strings in time for your gig next weekend?

    How about a clip-on tuner? (With a 12-string something is always going out of tune.) Perhaps a couple of Jim Dunlop Tortex guitar picks. (Your choice of color and shape: standard, teardrop, triangle, triple-sided or sharkfin.) Or maybe just a set of C.F. Martin acoustic guitar strings for your 000-18—available in Phosphor Bronze, 80/20 Bronze or Performance SP Phosphor Bronze. Buy the Martin strings in bulk if you want to save some money—or resell 'em to the customers at your instrument shop.

    Oh, and you can buy all this swag at the same site. Factor in free shipping and you're looking at the dead-lowest prices anywhere.

    Too good to be true? Not. Welcome to Strings and Beyond, an online store that claims to be the world's biggest internet resource for, well, strings and beyond. If you play a string instrument, just think of yourself as a kid and Strings and Beyond as a candy shop.

    Your Guitar Can’t Live By Strings Alone

    For starters, Strings and Beyond carries hundreds of kinds of strings. Get on the site, click the kind of instrument you play, and you’ll see all the brands and styles available for your axe. There are over 300 electric strings from makers like D’Addario, Fender, Rotosound and others. Play acoustic? Classical? There are more than 200 sets of strings for acoustic guitars from Cleartone, Elixir and others, and hundreds of choices specifically for classical guitar. Choose from 100 options for bass guitars, too, in four- and five-string sets. Most of these strings come in different gauges to give you just the feel and sound you want.

    But hey, don't stop with the guitar, man. If you play banjo, mandolin, fiddle, ukulele, cuatro, dulcimer, oud, cavaquinho, tenor guitar, bajo sexto, requinto guitar, guilele or bouzouki…they've got your strings in stock!

    And that's just the beginning. As President and co-founder Mike Griggs says, "We’re called Strings and Beyond for a reason. After all, your guitar can’t live by strings alone." The Beyond section consists of picks, capos, tuners, amps, slides, stands, cables…and more.

    I Spent the Weekend Building the Web Site

    In 2002, Griggs was living in Switzerland, happily plying his trade as a mechanical engineer. Only one problem: Griggs was a devoted amateur guitar picker, and strings for his guitar were expensive to buy where he was living. He thought to himself, "Well, if I start a hobby selling guitar strings on the internet I should be able to get strings for myself at a reasonable price." So he called his pal Bob Cowan back in the States; Cowan was a semi-retired businessman.

    "I said, 'Hey, do you wanna sell guitar strings online?'" Griggs recalls. "'You ship, I'll do the sales.' Bob said, 'Sure, let's do it!' I spent the weekend building the web site. On Monday morning I requested dealer applications from three of the top string suppliers. I told 'em, 'Hey, I'm selling guitar strings online, can I buy your strings and resell them?' Of course I hadn't sold any yet. They said, 'Sure.'"

    Bob and Mike started out with an investment of $3000 each. Their arrangement at the beginning was that Mike would do all the marketing and technical development while Bob handled the inventory and shipping.

    "We bought $6000 worth of product in November, 2002," Mike remembers, "and for the first month we received one order a day. The second month it was two orders a day. By February, 2003, three months after we started, we had made enough profit that we could pay ourselves back that initial investment. The next profit-share we distributed to ourselves I bought a nice new Taylor guitar to go along with my beat-up Fender."

    It helped that the partners put in plenty of sweat equity. "We were doing the development ourselves," says Griggs, "and I didn't need to outsource the web site. That allowed us to move into profitability early."

    A Smile On Their Faces

    One big factor that kept customers coming back was Griggs' and Cowan's commitment to exceptional customer service. "Actually," says Griggs, "we look at ourselves as being in the service business more than a typical retail operation. We want to put every customer who comes through the door in a position where they will have to fight against their conscience not to come back to Strings and Beyond—because they had such a great experience. There are several ways we do that. We provide fast, friendly service. We provide competitive pricing. We try to make our interactions with customers humorous and casual. We give away a few goodies. And we personalize the packages our customers receive so it's fun to open the box. We try to put a smile on their faces when they unpack the shipment."

    Whether it's the goodies or the smiles, something is definitely working in Strings and Beyond's favor. This year the online string store is expecting business to expand 25 percent—and they've seen similar numbers over the last four or five years. Growth was even faster in the early days, but of course the operation was a lot smaller.

    Yahoo Was the Easiest

    Considering how important an easy-to-use web interface is to generating online sales, you'd expect that Griggs' one-weekend site design would have been the bomb. But that's not how he remembers it.

    "Initially, I really didn't know what we needed," he says. "I just knew I wanted to list products so people could buy them. Fortunately, we started out with Yahoo! I looked at different shopping cart platforms and the Yahoo! option was the easiest to get up and running in one weekend. A couple of days later we were selling product. Over the years we learned about our customers, we learned what their needs were, and today the site looks very different from the way it started. But from the beginning we wanted something that would make it easy for the customer to shop, easy to check out quickly. Being on the Yahoo! platform really helped us create a powerful, professional online business."

    One of the biggest problems Griggs and Cowan faced in the early days was getting the Strings and Beyond name out there. "People have to find you before you can sell them something," Griggs laughs. "So once we got the web site going one of our  highest priorities was search engine optimization. If someone is typing in these brands they gotta find us!

    "Today our business is successful, but we're still looking over our shoulder—especially at the big-box stores like Amazon, Guitar Center, and Musicians' Friend. They don't carry all the products we do, but I always have this sense that at some point the big guys might just bully us out of the way. Our best defense is to continue to carry the broad range of products that we do, and we're making an effort to acquire new customers faster. Because once we have customers we can hang onto them. And we're expanding further into the electronic space with accessories like pickups and small pedals."

    And Beyond

    Griggs admits that he and Cowan have been lucky in many ways, but he makes a point of adding that, "As a child of God I definitely feel that we've been blessed, over the years, to have this much success with Strings and Beyond."

    Amen to that.

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