June 3, 2013, 12:50 PM

A closer look at Sweetwater.com: Turn it up to 11

Sweetwater Sound Inc., a catalog and web retailer of musical instruments and audio products, has the ear of thousands of musicians, from children banging away on their first drum set to rockers thrilling packed arenas.

Sweetwater Sound Inc., a catalog and web retailer of musical instruments and audio products, has the ear of thousands of musicians, from children banging away on their first drum set to rockers thrilling packed arenas.

It's been selling online at Sweetwater.com since 1994, and appeared in the Top 500 Guide rankings since 2004, when it generated $11.7 million in web sales. In 2012, it brought in $97.0 million on the web—a compound annual growth rate of 30.3%. Between 2011 and 2012 Sweetwater's online sales increased 36.6%, making it the sixth-fastest growing cataloger year over year. It ranks No. 207 in this year's Top 500 Guide.

"I love the compounding nature of e-commerce," says Mike Clem, Sweetwater's vice president of e-commerce since 2003. "It creates momentum."

Sweetwater has always used the web to introduce itself and its team of music experts to consumers, Clem says. It employs more than 200 "sales engineers"—all of whom have music degrees or music industry experience and have gone through a 13-week Sweetwater University program—and each new customer gets matched with one. The customer can then call on that same engineer every time he needs help. "The Internet for is a great tool for us to meet new customers and to invite them into that experience," Clem says.

Clem says that customers often compare Sweetwater to Zappos.com—the Amazon.com Inc.-owned shoe e-retailer known for its over-the-top service. Recently, when a musician's equipment blew out hours before a big show taking place several hours away from Sweetwater's Fort Wayne, Ind., headquarters his sales engineer loaded a truck with replacement gear and met the musician halfway so he'd make his show, for example. "We want to be more than a company pushing boxes out of a warehouse," Clem says. "We want to provide value with every transaction."

To that end, Sweetwater today is updating and expanding its online content. It recently relaunched InSync, its daily Sweetwater staff-written music and industry news section. It's also adding more buying guides and videos, and improving products specs and comparison tools, Clem says. It launched a new mobile site, which it designed in-house, for smartphones before the holidays, and Clem says mobile sales doubled practically overnight. Mobile, including tablets, now accounts for about 20% of Sweetwater.com traffic.

Despite all that's happening with Sweetwater.com, the retailer continues to mail 500-page catalogs to customers three times a year; Clem says musicians call it a "gear encyclopedia." To be thought of that way would be music to any retailer's ears.

allison@verticalwebmedia.com

@AEnrightIR

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