Sweetwater’s New B&O Department Rolls into the Rental Market

Mike Lawson • FeaturesSeptember 2022 • September 5, 2022

While certainly not the first company to ever enter the B&O market via catalog or online sales, Sweetwater is certainly the biggest player to turn their attention toward it. One year into their venture, SBO catches up with David Fuhr, senior vice president B&O, customer experience, to see how things are going, and where they are heading in their second year.

How’s are things going in the B&O market for Sweetwater?
It has exceeded our expectations. I think we were a little surprised at the number of Sweetwater customers who were moms and dads with kids in band programs, and the number of people buying from us who were also musicians and in the world of band and orchestra.

Sweetwater’s new Band and Orchestra showroom in Ft. Wayne

Let’s recap the challenges we discussed a year ago because of the traditional B&O model with local retailers, partnering with school programs for sales, repairs, rentals and more compared to Sweetwater being without a local presence.
I thought it was gonna be a lot more challenging than it has been so far. What I didn’t realize a year ago was that so many band directors had built credibility with Sweetwater. When we added this category, we had a lot of band directors say, “Finally. Thank you.” It was an easier transition than I thought it would be. We also weren’t totally aware of was how many of our sales engineers have a background, at least at the high school, if not at the college level, in band and orchestra.

Have you found directors who are Sweetwater customers already are now more likely to mention your company as an option when talking to parents?
Music teachers are advocates of students. If you take good care of those music teachers, they’re going to advocate on where to shop. We’re seeing the moms and dads who shopped with us for years, saying, “Hey, you know, I might not have experience with my local music store, but I sure do with this company here, and so we’re gonna give them a shot.” Our customer feedback has been wonderful so far for band and orchestra. The hardest part is that their feedback is, “Hey, carry this. Hey, can you carry this?” Sweetwater has in mind what they want band and orchestra to be, and then our customers have in mind what they want it to be, and so we’re balancing the two.

Sweetwater came into this world with brands like Conn-Selmer, and Yamaha, and other upper-level companies. What have you done to address lower-priced but still quality instruments, from some other companies?
That’s a great question. There is a product called the BetterSax. Jay Metcalf is a YouTube influencer, very popular in the U.S. He came up with a program called the BetterSax, which is a $900 saxophone designed for beginners, and it’s a wonderful instrument. Jay was a friend of Sweetwater, and so we reached out and said, “Can we sell your saxophone?” And as a partnership with Conn-Selmer, and Jay, we are now the North American exclusive provider of BetterSax. 

We inspect every one of them. We make sure that they’re dialed and ready to go. One of the biggest challenges a kid could have when they’re struggling to play an instrument is they don’t know that the instrument is the problem because a key has bent or something else goes wrong. We make sure that with a $900 saxophone, when the child first plays a note, the instrument isn’t holding him back. It’s our top-selling instrument that Sweetwater sells for band and orchestra. 

We carry other entry-level brands. We are selling a lot of entry-level band and orchestra instruments, and a lot of the pro instruments, surprisingly so. Sweetwater is also making sure that there’s a cutoff point of the products that we’re selling, based on what we know educators want kids to have in the classroom. There’s a common term in the industry, “educator-approved brands.” We make sure that everything that we’re carrying meets that minimum standard of what band and orchestra teachers want in their classroom, and we just make sure that we’re exceeding their expectations, because the last thing we want is to sell an instrument to a mom and dad for their kid’s beginner band class, and have the band director say, “Oh, my gosh, where did you get that? That’s not the quality that I’m looking for in my program.” We make sure that we have what those educators want. 

When entering a new market, there is always something that can go sideways. What has Sweetwater learned?
One thing that we’re learning is that the orchestral market is different. Whether it’s how we’re presenting the product, or making sure that the outfits that we’re selling are exactly what today’s string educator needs, that’s been a big part of the last year of learning for us. We are working with every manufacturer of string products that we sell, to create a Sweetwater outfit for those instruments. Today’s move is in the world of carbon fiber and carbon composite bows, so if that’s what the string teachers want, that’s what we’re putting in the case. And there’s a thing now for putting certain strings like Dominant Strings, or a Wittner Tailpiece, on a violin. We went back to the manufacturers and said, “Hey, we need to hot rod this package to make it Sweetwater-like.” That was something we weren’t expecting to do right out of the gate. We have now done that, and created those specialty products that are creating an offering that string teachers will want to buy.

I am sure many manufacturers are happy to have Sweetwater in the B&O market. Has there been collaboration with other companies?
Sweetwater is about being the products for tomorrow’s musicians, not yesterday’s musicians. Gator has been a wonderful partner of Sweetwater. We’re working together, giving them feedback on how can we together provide the best cases for school music classrooms. 

Here’s another example. I have a son who’s in band, he’s a mallet player, playing marimba. We have a marimba at home, we’re buying mallets, and I come to find out that it’s really hard to find a good mallet for synthetic marimba. Everybody builds mallets for wood marimbas.

Most school classrooms use synthetic marimbas. With a wood marimba mallet on a synthetic marimba, it doesn’t have the right tone to it that it does on a nice wood marimba that they might see in high school or college. We found this company called Blue Haus. We sat down with them and said, “We would like you to make a line of marimba mallets for synthetic marimbas, specific to that instrument, that pulls the tone out of that instrument that is different,” because a lot of people say, “I went and played that synthetic marimba and it sounds tinny.” Well, it sounds tinny because you’re using wood mallets on it. You need different material to strike it with.

We created a line of mallets for synthetic marimba. Then, I look at my son’s mallet bag, part of the challenge that he might have is the medium soft and the hard mallets are both the same color of gray. And so, we said, “Let’s make the soft ones dark blue and let’s make the hard ones a lighter blue, so that as you move across the spectrum, you go from light color to dark color in the mallet yarn, and so I can look down at my bag and tell whether I’m playing on a soft mallet or a hard mallet, or which ones I need to grab out of my bag.” 

We are listening to our customers to solve some of today’s problems they’re finding, and then go back to our manufacturer and say, “Here’s what we’re hearing. Let’s get on the cutting edge of innovation here, and let’s do this.

Sweetwater is getting into rentals. How will that work, and where and when will that be available?
We’ve launched the rental program in the Midwest, and that is a first-year test to see how that’ll work. Most people rent from a local music store that has a repair shop in the back room, and it’s 10 minutes from their house. And here we might be a state or two away, sending a rental instrument to someone, and wanting to provide the Sweetwater level of support for that instrument that we provide with everything.

What are the states?
Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and South Carolina.

We have a model for our online rental system that creates great quality outfits, and provides superior service. Someone will rent an instrument that we will ship out of Fort Wayne, Indiana to their home. If it’s a flute and that flute breaks, then we will replace it the minute they notify us, and then they ship us back the broken one in the box that we send them with the new one. We call that an advanced replacement.

Our hope is that if the customer lets us know the day that instrument breaks, we can ship it out that same day, and within a day or two, their replacement is in their hands. They might miss band class for maybe two days, and they’re right back to playing again. We send them a return shipping label for that instrument, they ship it right back to us. If you asked us for a certain brand, we’re gonna replace that certain brand with the same brand. Sweetwater will take care of you and follow what the band director wants you to have. We apply all that rental credit right towards the one we switch out.We always will do the right thing, and do it very quickly.”

How will the economics work?
Our rent-to-own program is low down payment, so, it could be as low as $30 down to rent for the first month, and then $30 a month after that, and then all your rental payments go towards purchase. If your child quits, you can return it at any time. If your child goes into band class and started on the clarinet, and then one day, the band director said, “Dave, I want you to play the saxophone.” You can just switch it right out with the saxophone, and we’ll apply all your rental payments right towards that saxophone.

It is rent-to-own. All payments apply towards the purchase of an instrument at the end of that period of time where you’ve rented to the ownership price. We don’t do credit checks. We don’t do big deposits. You put in your information as if you were renting a car, simply put a credit card on file we will charge automatically once a month until you return the instrument. 

We’re not doing one rate nationally for everybody, because in different parts of the country, the rental programs work differently. Some parts want you to rent for nine months. Others, a one-month starting period. We’re trying to conform to that to have market-based pricing competitive for each market. We get that the price in a more rural market may need to be more affordable than in a market that’s more affluent. 

We’re not renting just beginner instruments. I know that having a Rovner ligature is better than the standard metal ligature. Over the course of the next year, we’re upgrading all of our rental outfits to having upgraded mouthpieces, upgraded ligatures. We’re not there for this fall, but next fall, a year from now, every string rental outfit will have a carbon fiber or carbon composite bow. Every clarinet and saxophone will have an upgraded mouthpiece and a Rovner ligature. We are not changing the rental monthly rate to do that. 

The Sweetwater B&O philosophy is, “What creates the best chance for a child, regardless of what their parent earns for a living, to be successful on their instrument? That’s what we’re gonna do.”


The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!