Music retailer strikes a chord with smartglasses and AI customer innovation


Blicks, clicks and remix. Chris Middleton talks to head of ecommerce, Nicola Tibbs, on how music retailer Dawsons has found the missing link between bricks and clicks, with an innovative mix of smartglasses and AI.

Eyes and ears
Eyes and ears

British musical instrument retailer Dawsons  has struck the right note with an innovative system that mixes bricks-and-mortar retail with AI- and rich-media-enhanced browsing.

Customers hitting ‘Chat’ on Dawsons’ online shop are not directed to an anonymous text-based support person. Instead, they are sent to an in-store specialist, who wears a pair of smartglasses, acting as the remote eyes and ears for putative purchasers.

If an online customer wants, for example, to try some guitars, they can ask the in-store specialist to try each model in the physical store on their behalf, while the buyer can see onscreen and hear whatever the assistant does, thanks to the assistant’s smartglasses. It’s a one-way video link with two-way audio, so they can chat to their helper as on any voice call.

Mark Taylor, MD at Dawsons Music, says:

This allows our most valuable sales asset – our staff – to engage with customers far beyond the typical catchment areas of our stores and has unleashed their potential across the web.

The system was provided by a 2014 UK startup, GoInStore, whose hardware-agnostic platform currently uses smartglasses from Epson, but will be available for Android devices too.

The service is supported by GoInStore’s server infrastructure and artificial intelligence so that the system can ensure that online shoppers are connected to the representative best placed to serve them for their individual needs and interests.

The aim is to match online conversion rates with those of in-store buying – typically, online conversions are one-tenth of in-store rates.

GoInStore co-founder Andre Hordagoda says:

The service has demonstrated not only a dramatic improvement in online conversion rates, but other hugely valuable benefits for retailers, ranging from increased Average Order Value to improved customer satisfaction and a reduction in the rate of returns.

It’s potentially a big step forward, suggests Global Retail Technology  Research Director Miya Knights at Planet Retail, in a briefing note:

Retailers have used click-to-talk, augmented or virtual reality, 3D rendering, and even Google Maps to try and tackle the same issue, with varying degrees of success. But often the problem lies in the need for specialist equipment or software required, both on the part of the customer and the retailer.

Wherever a consultative or ‘high touch’ sale is involved, perhaps the startup has finally provided the industry with a practical digital link between the store and online that it has been looking for all this time.

But is there a danger that this is seen as an over-engineered solution that nixes the unique value of either channel? Not at all, says Dawsons’ head of e-commerce Nicola Tibbs:

It’s a very immersive online experience for a very considered purchase, and people like the security of talking to a human being.

We sell all kinds of instruments, from pianos all the way to rock and roll guitars, drums, and hi-tech DJ equipment.

Less than five years ago, the web was in its infancy for us, we were a bricks-and-mortar retailer, then we recruited an MD, who is ex-Shop Direct. I joined two years ago, and we started looking for the web to be a much bigger proportion of our business.

The aim now is to raise Dawsons’ brand, not only within its market but also as a household name. The retailer has already made great strides in upping the contributions that online sales have made to its business. Tibbs says:

Conversion from browsing to sale has doubled in the past two years. The web business has also more than doubled over the past two years, and we are looking to continue on this growth path.

Highly personal

Few purchases are as personal, high-value, and considered as musical instruments or high-tech music production equipment (which Dawsons also sells). For musicians, their instruments are an emotional extension of themselves while parents want the best choices for their children. As a result, nearly all potential buyers value expertise, advice, and insight from their in-store helpers – not least because they may be about to part with hundreds, or thousands, of dollars.

This poses a challenge to pure-play digital retailers while the many large bricks-and-mortar instrument shops have typically provided warehouse-style websites that rely on buyers having already made their choices. For the millions of potential buyers that don’t live anywhere near a large outlet or who make do with a tiny local store, bridging the chasm between desire and purchase can be a problem.

Dawsons and GoInStore’s innovation is a clever one because it does that rare thing in e-commerce: it establishes a real human relationship while still offering all the advantages of purchasing with a click. And it turns out that the in-store assistant benefits too: GoInStore has an attribution model so that the adviser will be getting credit both for the sale. This incentivises them to acquire more knowledge.


Novice buyers want to know why one Fender Stratocaster might cost $500, and another $5,000, or whether a Yamaha, Gibson, Gretsch, or Dean might offer them the tone they’re after. Tibbs explains:

These are niche products. In some cases, there might only be two in the country, so there won’t be a broad spectrum of reviews. The consultative process is a very important at the high end.

This is why musical instrument shops remain a rare, and much appreciated anomaly in retail: they’re staffed by genuine experts and enthusiasts, who join young and stay for years. In a world in which so many pro or ‘prosumer’ items – cameras, for example – are sold by non-experts who neither know about the equipment nor care about the customer’s needs, real-world music shops simply can’t be replaced. Tibbs concurs:

I went into one retailer to buy a high-tech item, and the guy in the shop wasn’t knowledgable at all. It made me think that I won’t spend money in their store because I can help myself better online. So for us it’s not just about digital or offline, it’s about added value.

But while other niche retailers – jewelry, professional equipment, or couture clothing, perhaps – could be potential customers for GoInStore’s system, its application to more mass-market goods is less clear. Tibbs muses:

For us, it seemed to sit right with our audience. I don’t know how it would work in a mass consumer market, but for any considered purchase it has a very wide scope.

We want to convey this consultative approach; we want to be seen as the authority within the music industry. We want to be able to give the knowledge that we have in store online. The GoInStore system allows us to leverage that specialism online. Plus there’s an aspirational element: it brings the product to life.

My take

A retailer that wants to be an aficionado, not just to pile it high and sell it cheap? Hear hear to that.