Shop Local: Hubbard Music Plays Right Notes for Customers
HUBBARD, Ohio – Rob McFarland took a big leap when he bought Hubbard Music in December 2020.
“I bought a business in the middle of a pandemic,” he says, laughing.
Still, the bigger leap probably came 15 years earlier, when McFarland, who has degrees in sociology and legal studies, abruptly quit his job in social work.
“I noticed my mom hated her job and my co-workers, who had worked there much longer than I, hated their job,” McFarland says. “I quit with no plan or other job lined up. I wanted to force myself to find something that I enjoyed doing.”
So he took a job at Hubbard Music in Hubbard as “a placeholder” until he could find something else.
“I told the previous owner that I would probably work here a month or two and then was here for 15 years,” McFarland says.
The previous owner, Mark Tirabassi, started Hubbard Music in 1990 and expanded with a second site inside the Eastwood Mall in Niles, in 2014.
McFarland, who spent time playing guitar in the Robbie J Band, says he knew right away that he wanted to stay. “I graduated college. I have a degree and I think it’s awesome that I can come to work in a T-shirt and a baseball hat everyday,” he says.
So in 2020, when Tirabassi’s son decided to go to medical school instead of work at the family business, Tirabassi offered to sell Hubbard Music to McFarland.
“I like the customers, the relationships we build. Our customers become our friends. They become our employees,” McFarland says.
One of those customers-turned-employees is TJ Rusk, a sales associate who has been coming to Hubbard Music since he began playing the drum during his freshman year at Ursuline High School.
Rusk says he always wanted to work at the store and applied for a job as soon as he graduated. “We have a lot of expertise and know where to steer people to get the sound that they’re looking for,” he says.
Rusk and McFarland are also focusing on increasing the store’s social media presence with creative videos that feature their irreverent senses of humor. “People love them. It makes people watch the videos and makes them want to come in and see the store and what we get in,” Rusk says.
Lately, McFarland says, the hot items at the store are guitars, keyboards and beginner drum kits.
“Guitar is still very much king,” he says.
But one item that has surprised McFarland with its popularity is the ukulele. Hubbard music has about 25 ukuleles at its Eastwood Mall site. McFarland describes the number as “low inventory.”
“Ukulele is hot. I keep thinking it’s going to slow down but it has not slowed down whatsoever,” he says.
The popularity of people picking up instruments to begin a hobby or rediscover an old one only grew during the pandemic McFarland says.
Hubbard Music was forced to close for two months when the mall shut down. But it saw huge demand for instruments as soon as it reopened.
“It makes sense if you think about it,” McFarland says. “People were stuck at home; so people picked up hobbies or they went back to hobbies.”
Hubbard Music began to offer curbside pickup but found customers didn’t want it, preferring to come into the store to get a feel for the instruments.
Guitars, keyboards, “anything you could play by yourself,” flew off the shelves, McFarland says.
“It was one of our best years ever,” although he says business has cooled off recently. “But I would say it’s only cooled off because gas is $4.50 a gallon and groceries are more expensive.”
Another challenge the pandemic left in its wake was a severely disrupted supply chain, which is making it hard for McFarland to procure instruments. “What we have now is probably stuff we ordered last year,” he says.
Most instruments are made overseas while those made domestically are “vastly more expensive,” he says.
For those not ready to buy, Hubbard Music also offers instrument rentals. The store rents just about any instrument students need for school bands.
The store also offers lessons for people just starting to play an instrument, something McFarland recommends. “That one on one experience can’t be replaced,” he says.
The only lessons that are not available are for violin and voice, McFarland says.
Hubbard Music offers repairs for all instruments and equipment. The store also installs sound equipment for area schools, churches and theaters.
Hubbard Music employs five sales associates. Subcontractors are used for repairs, lessons and installations. “I always want people to come in and see something new and give them a reason to come back in,” McFarland says, which is why he plans to expand his inventory as soon as possible.
“Guys want what they want. Just because we have pieces of wood with six strings on them over there doesn’t mean that’s the one someone wants. They want options,” he says.
McFarland says it was common 10 years ago for customers to come in to special order an instrument that would arrive in seven to 10 days.
The rise of Amazon and overnight shipping has all but erased that part of the business. He’s confident, however, he can serve his customers even faster if he has what they want on his shelves.
“I think inventory is king now. If you have it you’ll sell it,” McFarland says. “There’s the guitar I want. You can touch it, take it home. Nothing will ever beat that.”
Pictured at top: Rob McFarland says sales increased at the height of the pandemic when “people were stuck at home.”
Shop Local is sponsored by PNC and the Eastwood Mall Complex.
Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.