Gelb Music was founded in 1939 by Sidney Gelb. A Chicago-based violinist and music teacher, Gelb briefly had an aspiring cartoonist named Walt Disney as a next-door business neighbor before both decided to head out to the west coast seeking fame and fortune. Famous musicians from Grateful Dead founder Jerry Garcia – whose good friend Norm VanMaastricht was a former manager – to legendary guitarist Jeff Beck have checked in for their gear needs.
Five years ago, however, Gelb’s ecommerce business was going nowhere and needed a serious makeover, said marketing manager Mike Craig.
“I was a product marketing manager in the Valley, and I was always talking to (Gelb owner) Kevin Jarvis about how he needed to get ecommerce going,” said Craig, a guitar player who had worked at the store as a teenager and taken lessons from Sidney Gelb. “Then I had a startup blow up on me and Kevin called me; it just worked timing-wise. I’ve been helping get them into the 21st century, moving beyond paper receipts, setting up a product database and getting computers into the store.”
Craig said at that time, Gelb had a basic “show and tell” website with a POS system tied to it; a third-party redesign was underway but it was taking longer than expected. He then suggested bulking up the company’s presence on eBay in the meantime.
“Gelb had an eBay account, but just used it to move old pickups and guitars – they didn’t see it as a valued sales channel,” he said. “They moved 10 items in two years. But I had seen some good success there with my web consulting business, helping hundreds of small businesses go online. I had to convince (Jarvis) to take a couple hundred products, put them on eBay, and see how I could help them.”
Working with the store’s drum manager, Craig created product shots and copy of drum equipment for the eBay store in 2010. Within a year, the store generated $100,000 in sales in the first year – without any marketing.
“When our own ecommerce site was ready it was obvious that eBay had become a solid sales channel,” Craig said. “So we put more time and effort into getting lots of products into our database, and at the same time growing our eBay store. We were still generating sales through our ecommerce site, but it was one-tenth of what we did on eBay.”
Since then, Gelb has been increasing its focus on ecommerce and digital marketing, Craig said. This includes loading more products into the database – now up to 5,000 SKUs out of 50,000 offered at the store – utilizing an in-house studio and team to create videos for Gelb’s YouTube channel as well product photos and content, and getting busy on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. The videos include interviews and clinics from well-known music industry figures including Santana vocalist Tony Lindsay – a Gelb vocal teacher – and guitar maker Paul Reed Smith, some of which have been featured on manufacturer’s online channels as well.
One Gelb-produced video that proved particularly successful was a demo of the programmable Stereo Talking Machine from Electro-Harmonix, posted in 2011. Within a month, it had generated 60,000 views on YouTube, giving the store terrific exposure even if it wasn’t driving a ton of direct revenue.
The 12-person store has one employee handling fulfillment of online orders, but that could change quickly should volume increase, Craig said.
He said Massoud Badakhshan, the owner of San Francisco-based Haight Ashbury Music who bought out Jarvis in February, has been all in on the digital efforts. He added some of the video content has been created by the team at Haight Ashbury Music.
Also helping with exposure and traffic has been Gelb Music’s inclusion in two PBS specials and a CNBC piece on ecommerce, through its eBay partnership. eBay also did an internal video that was shot at Gelb, telling its story.
While there were once 63 independent music stores between San Francisco and San Jose, CA, Craig said that number is down to three or four as the growth of Guitar Center has come at their expense, much as Home Depot did to local hardware businesses. Craig said Gelb has been able to survive by differentiating itself through its marketing and ecommerce efforts.
It’s also maintained a strong connection to the sizable network of professional musicians in the area – with employees that have played with the Doobie Brothers and other well-known acts – and kept its boutique approach.
“We also do lots of free events like bringing in top players when they come through town to sit down for a clinic,” Craig said. “We could’ve jumped on ecommerce faster, but now it’s really taking off. If everything goes right, it will dwarf the store business. That combined with being frugal and watching costs has led to lots of success.”