by Steven Wright
It takes a lot of risks, hard work and a little bit of luck to start a business. For Joe Leach, his online marketing and business background provided him the essential tools to find success in a very competitive retail market.
When Leach opened Riff City Guitar and Music Co. in November 2012, he wasn’t entirely sure if the business was going to grow.
“We built the store because we felt there was a need and we wanted to have a community presence here in St. (Joseph),” Leach said. “The store was an addition to a great online music store.”
But it wasn’t always guitars, amplifiers and other musical instruments for the Melrose native.
Leach’s entrepreneurial spirit initially led him to create Bliss Direct Media in 2000. The direct-response marketing company is also based in St. Joseph and works to develop marketing strategies for nonprofit organizations.
Because of a struggling economy and recession, Leach eyed a completely different business venture in 2009, launching Outlet Bait and Tackle. The online shop sells overstock fishing lures and supplies and has helped to strengthen Leach’s web marketing and business expertise.
Later, his internet savvy, coupled with a passion for music, inspired him to start the online music store that became Riff City Guitar.
Riff City has established a unique employee atmosphere, often unseen in the world of retail.
When Leach decided to open his brick-and-mortar business in 2012, he reached out to his good friend and long-time band mate Al Stumpf. The timing couldn’t have been better for the two. Stumpf was facing the possibility of downsizing at his current job and Leach needed someone with the same passion he shared for music to help run his new business. It was a stroke of luck and opportunity that brought these former bandmates and good friends together to form the foundation of Riff City.
“When a customer gets their first guitar and I get to see their face light up – that’s very rewarding for me,” Stumpf said.
The business continued to grow off the goal of making customers smile and keeping a strong team spirit at Riff City.
Four years and a dozen employees later, and the guitar shop has an even stronger family feel. Leach’s daughter, Ellen, as well as his sons Sam, Will and nephew John are all lending a hand in what has become a thriving family business. Ellen says working in the business has been a thrilling and rewarding experience.
“I’m motivated to come to work in the morning because you’re not just working – you’re hanging out with your friends and family,” Leach said. “I’ve learned so much about music and about business.”
Because of the close community of friends and family, there’s no “person in charge” at Riff City. In fact, Joe Leach feels everyone is equal at the store, even though team members wear multiple hats.
“We don’t ever use the word manager or boss here,” Leach said.
The “teamwork-friendly” work environment has helped to keep morale high and has served to maintain a very laid-back, friendly shopping experience for customers. It’s serious business, but nobody takes anybody too seriously.
It’s easy to judge the success of a retail store by its foot traffic, sales or expansions – all of which have been contributing factors to Riff City’s success since 2012, but the exceptional customer service and customer satisfaction have really struck a chord with the store’s patrons.
In the digital age, people flock to the Internet to check on customer reviews to see how people really feel about a business.
For Riff City, the tribe has spoken.
Enjoying a 4.9-star rating on both Google and Facebook, there are certainly some very happy “Riff” customers.
One such reviewer gushed, “This is the first time I have ever written a review for anything. Doesn’t get any better than these guys. Fantastic service, great people, lightning-fast shipping, and awesome selection. I can’t recommend them highly enough! Yup, they’re really that good.”
Competing with Amazon
In the early days of Riff City, there simply wasn’t enough data from online sales to predict buyer trends and make accurate projections. The store was developing a great customer base and increased store traffic, but it was still difficult to predict what products were the most attractive to customers on their website.
“The next five years are going to be a crazy ride for retail,” Leach said.
Roughly 70 percent of Riff City’s business comes from online sales, where competing against large online companies like Amazon, has inspired Leach to offer free shipping and competitive prices. But unlike some online music retailers, Riff City takes the time to inspect each guitar it sells, making sure when a guitar arrives on a customer’s doorstep, it’s ready to play.
It’s this personal touch and superior customer service that keep musicians coming back to their hometown friends in St. Joseph, instead of browsing the digital shelves of Amazon or other big-box stores.
For the first time publicly, Riff City announced last week to the Newsleaders they are planning to open a new location in New Hope. Set to open by July of this year, the new store will give the company exposure to hundreds of thousands of new customers. Leach hopes to offer a somewhat different, eclectic inventory compared to the St. Joseph location and knows there’s plenty to be excited about.
“The new store is going to have a very profound effect on our current store,” Leach said.
With close to 950,000 people living within 10 miles of the proposed New Hope location, there will certainly be an influx of new traffic to both the brick-and-mortar location and the online store.
Leslie Rich, a talented musician and guitar expert from Minneapolis, who was brought on to work at Riff City about a year ago, will run the new location. Rich, who is originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, emigrated to Minneapolis in 2004 and has had a strong relationship with the Minneapolis music scene, playing alongside his band, Rocket Soul Choir. Rich wants to maintain the same inviting atmosphere at the New Hope store that has made the St. Joseph location a big success.
“We’re so open and friendly, we’re not guitar snobs or brand snobs,” Rich said. “We’re just into having a good time with our customers so they enjoy being in the store and they feel our employees are looking after them.”
There’s plenty to look forward to at Riff City and with so many projects on the horizon, Leach still maintains a level-headed, carefree attitude about his thriving business.
“I’m always on vacation and I’m always working at the same time,” he said.
For more information on Riff City Guitars and to view its complete inventory, visit riffcityguitar.com.
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