HE’S COOKIN’: SARASOTA GUITAR OWNER SCOTT COOKIn April, Sarasota Guitar Company earned $151,000 in revenue—its best month since opening in November 2009 (excluding holiday-inflated December sales). That sales record is gratifying but not surprising. Owner Scott Cook says his stores have increased revenue every month since he started the company. In less than three years, Sarasota Guitar, situated in a little strip center south of Bee Ridge Road, has opened a second store on Cortez Road in Bradenton, has launched an online retail venue that accounts for more than half of the overall sales volume, and has become a prominent figure at community events throughout Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Cook says there is no complicated formula behind his company’s success: “We offer great service and great prices. Simple as that. If you get those two things together, people will shop with you.”

Cook can afford to keep prices lower than competitors because he accepts factory seconds from guitar distributors, meaning the product may have been blemished at some point in the manufacturing process. “They have all been repaired,” says Cook, but the distributor no longer offers a warranty, so Cook created his own one-year Certified Guitar Guarantee to ensure quality. As Sarasota Guitar grew, it started selling new, name-brand guitars like other stores, but Cook says the less expensive factory seconds still sell at about the same rate as the new ones.

Even with the popular brands and more high-end models, Cook and his staff minimize overhead costs to keep prices low—and they are not shy about trumpeting their prices. Many Sarasota Guitar Company ads list local competitors by name and give a 125 percent price guarantee, meaning if you buy an instrument from Sarasota Guitar Company and then find the same model at a different store for a lower price within 30 days, Cook will pay 125 percent of the difference.

SARASOTA GUITAR’S NEW BRADENTON STORE.Low prices alone do not make a successful business, Cook admits, which brings him to the other half of his recipe for business success: service. Unlike many retail stores, Sarasota Guitar does not pay employees based on commission. “The danger of paying on commission,” he says, is that the salesperson is “your best friend as long as they think you’re going to buy something.” Cook pays his employees by salary, offering bonuses based on the performance of the company as a whole. Customers are encouraged to wander the store, make themselves at home and play around. “How many stores do you know where you can just grab a tuner without asking?” says Cook, pointing to a familiar customer who was testing a new mandolin. “The only guideline our employees have is to make sure they’re doing the best thing for the customer. You work so hard just to get people to come to your store, there’s no reason to get anyone upset.”

The friendly service has developed an in-store sense of community, which Cook tries to extend throughout Sarasota and Bradenton. That’s where his wife, Nancy Wollin Cook, comes in.

When the two met on eHarmony, Scott was working for a large company as a retail manager and Nancy was an attorney. After his salary was cut, they decided it was time to try something brand new—something that was theirs.

SARASOTA GUITAR’S NEW BRADENTON STORE. “Aligning ourselves with community-based events is a win-win, for the community and for us.”They rented a 10-foot-by-10-foot space in Bradenton’s Red Barn Flea Market and sold an assortment of items at dollar-store prices. One day, after buying his son a new guitar, Cook brought the old guitar to the store to sell. “I was surprised at how many people would stop to play it,” he says. A musician and guitarist for 30 years, Cook realized that setting up a shop to talk about guitars and help other musicians find the right instrument was a natural fit.

Nancy jumped on the community side of the business right away. An aggressive marketer, Nancy regularly dreams up events and collaborations to spread the word about Sarasota Guitar. She liked the idea of “cause marketing,” aligning business goals with causes that benefit individuals in need, and that idea is now a driving force behind Sarasota Guitar Company. The Cooks rattle off a list of organizations they have supported with their business, including Goodwill, Giving Hunger the Blues, Florida Sheriff Youth Ranches, Mote Aquarium and more.

MARKETING SMARTS: Nancy Wollin Cook keeps Sarasota Guitar visible.Community-based cause marketing goes beyond charities, and one of the causes Scott and Nancy are most passionate about is seeing the Bradenton and Sarasota music scene thrive. “We believe this can be a big music town,” says Nancy. “Such great musicians come here and are from here, and that helps community development, the economy, everybody.” Several of the 10 Sarasota Guitar employees perform independently or in local bands, and the Cooks regularly host or sponsor concerts at area venues, including their own stores. They also sponsor events and festivals that are not directly related to music, hoping that Sarasota Guitar Company will become a familiar name throughout the two counties.

When the $6.2-million Bradenton Riverwalk, the 1.25-mile pedestrian park along the Manatee River, is completed in November, the opening will coincide with the inaugural Bradenton Blues Festival, a celebration of the city’s young and growing blues scene (the renowned Blues Revue magazine moved from California to Bradenton last year). In addition to sponsoring the main festival, Sarasota Guitar partnered with the nonprofit Realize Bradenton to coordinate Countdown to the Blues, a series of monthly talks and concerts highlighting different blues eras. “Aligning ourselves with community-based events,” says Nancy, “is a win-win, for the community and for us.”

GUITAR HERO: Scott Cook is also a musician and songwriter.All of this—the low prices, the aggressive marketing, the community involvement—has struck a chord in the local music scene, and the payoff is clear as Scott highlights monthly comparisons: from $71,460 in February 2011 to $115,731 in February 2012, from $78,102 in March 2011 to $147,746 in March 2012. He projects $2 million in revenue for 2012, and the recently launched online store (sarasotaguitarcompany.com) has expanded the company’s inventory to orchestra instruments, drums and percussion, keyboards, accessories and downloadable sheet music.

At one point, Cook says he was considering opening a third store, maybe in Tampa or St. Petersburg. He decided to expand online instead, though, because he and Nancy hope to maintain and grow the local, familiar atmosphere that has developed in the two stores instead of spreading themselves thin over a larger area. “We don’t want to lose that community,” says Nancy.

Scott adds they are still learning how to cut costs and most effectively manage their business—recently by closing a warehouse and distribution center in Sarasota and moving the inventory to the back of the 2,000-square-foot Bradenton store. “It’s easy to keep track of everything when you’re selling $200 a day at the flea market,” he says. “Now we’ve got customers all over the country.”

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