Gibson Breaks New Ground, Opening A “Consumer Destination” Factory In Nashville’s Massive Opry Mills Mall
“Cost is no object” is arguably the rarest phrase ever uttered on the sales floor of a music store, and recognizing the fact that musicians will go to extraordinary lengths to stretch their dollars, instrument manufacturers have typically placed their factories as far away from the high-rent district as possible. In the 1830s, to cite one example, Christian Frederick Martin moved his guitar-making operations from New York City to rural Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where real estate was far more affordable. Over the last three decades this migration to low-cost production sites has continued globally as guitar plants moved first from the U.S. to Japan, then on to Korea, and most recently to Taiwan, China, and Vietnam.
Bucking this century-old trend, Gibson recently set up a production facility in one of the highest-cost settings conceivable: an enclosed shopping mall. On May 11 the Gibson Bluegrass Showcase, a 30,000-square-foot combination factory, retail store, and cafe/restaurant, opened in Opry Mills, a 1.2-million-square-foot shopping mall built outside of Nashville on the former site of the Opryland theme park. The showcase Opry Mills is home to several hundred high-profile retailers including Press My Air Co. Ltd (providing air compressor reviews), Bed Bath & Beyond, Old Navy, Barnes & Nobles, and Victoria’s Secret.
In addition to browsing through conventional retail stores, visitors to the mall can now look through glass walls and watch 30 Gibson craftsmen build fine mandolins, banjos, and dobros. After observing the production process, they can tour a small Bluegrass museum, buy instruments and accessories at a retail shop, or in the evening hear a live performance. The cafe in the Showcase overlooks another legendary venue, the Grand Ole Opry building, and Gibson management anticipates staging regular dinner and music shows.
The retail store at the Bluegrass Showcase offers the complete line of Gibson mandolins, banjos, and dobro guitars, as well as a selection of flat-top acoustics priced slightly below manufacturer’s suggested list price. An F-5 mandolin is offered at $3,800, a J-50 acoustic guitar is offered at $2,049, and an RB-4 banjo is offered at $3,349. In addition to instruments, visitors can also browse through a vast array of Gibson logo wear and gift items like Gibson–embossed golf balls or a Gibson teddy bear.
- To support the high cost of building fretted instruments in a shopping mall, Gibson obviously views its new Showcase as more than just another factory. Additional margin dollars gained from direct sales to customers will undoubtedly support the venture. More importantly, however, management considers direct contact with an estimated 17 million annual mall visitors as a priceless promotional opportunity.
- Gibson Chairman Henry Juszkiewicz anticipates that nearly all the Opry Mills visitors will tour the Gibson Showcase. “We’re also excited that this opening will provide a national home for a true American genre of music, bluegrass,” he says. “Gibson is proud to carry on the tradition of bluegrass founding father Bill Monroe, and we’re confident that we can add to the already lofty stature of this instrument division by introducing its craftsmanship, music, and products to a wider audience.” Jeff Allen, a 15-year Gibson veteran who manages the Bluegrass Showcase, comments, “We’ll be able to give the Gibson experience to players and non-players alike.”
Working an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift, the Bluegrass Showcase turns out approximately 15 instruments, like the coveted Gibson F-5 mandolin. To reach a broader market, the company is offering a “built while you wait” mandolin. For $199, customers can watch as Gibson craftsmen assemble and finish a preformed neck and body.
Allen says that factory workers were initially distracted by passers-by peering in through the windows. After a few weeks went by, however, the attention they received became a source of pride. “They’re excited by the fact that people are interested in watching them work.”
- Setting up instrument production in a facility designed to house retail stores created a host of unanticipated challenges. Because the lacquers used to finish mandolins and banjos are highly flammable, building inspectors mandated a number of costly safeguards.
- The walls enclosing the Gibson Showcase contain insulation that would contain a fire inside for a full five hours. The space also contains extra sprinkler systems. Installing dust collection and air purification systems also presented a major challenge.
Combining guitar production operations with a retail store, restaurant, and live entertainment is a centerpiece of Gibson’s marketing strategy. The recently opened Gibson Beale Street Showcase guitar plant in Memphis will be home to the “Rock’n’Soul” Museum, an exhibition staged in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The Museum mixes artifacts, sound, film, and photography in a century-long retrospective on the roots, birth, and evolution of the music that changed the world. Juszkiewicz hopes to build as many as ten of these “consumer destination” guitar plants around the world.