Indie Corner: Bonners Musical Instrument Store

Bonner's Tony White speaks to Retail Gazette on the highlights of running an indie music store, the surprise of trading amid Covid-19 and the importance of expansion.

Indie Corner: Bonners eastbourne tony white music small business retailer independent
The team at Bonners.

Eastbourne’s well known music store is marking 45 years of trading after first opening its doors as a small shop in Ivy Terrace in 1976.

Initially founded by the musician Peter Bonner, Bonners became a success and moved to a larger space next door before opening its second shop in Grove Road in the 1980s.

Over the years, Bonners has gone from strength to strength with a further move to Langney Road in 2005 to accommodate the ever-expanding independent musical instrument retail business.

After a stint of work experience at the business as a teenager and a Saturday job, Tony White took over Bonners in 2000 along with his business partner Myke Edwards.

He spoke to Retail Gazette about running Bonners and what inspired him to get involved.

“At the age of 15, students at my school were tasked with finding themselves a two-week work placement in a local business to get a taste of what life was like in the ‘real world’,” he reflected.

“My friend applied to Bonners and was offered a placement, but he then declined the offer because his parents wanted him to do something more academic than work in a shop.

“I jumped in and took his place because I was a regular visitor to Bonners music store throughout my childhood and loved musical instruments – especially pianos and keyboards.

“I absolutely loved working at Bonners from day one of my work experience and now I’m running the company I still do.”

He explained that everyday is fast paced at Bonners, and that after more than 30 years in independent retailer he still finds it exciting.

Over the years there have been countless highlights to running the business and Tony said that best part was that “we are operating in a lively, creative industry.”

“Musicians are always searching for new inspiration which means new products are regularly introduced by the manufacturers we represent,” he explained.

“It’s really exciting for our team to learn about and work with these new innovations, as well as very satisfying to see the smile on the faces of our customers when they are making a purchase which will give them and their family so much pleasure.”

A standout moment was when Bonners won the Best Music Retailer Award back in 2006.

“This is quite a big thing in our industry and was historically always won by two or three very well-established businesses,” he said.

“Although we had been in business since 1976, we had recently moved to new premises and this certainly elevated us to being one of the bigger players in the UK music industry.”

Over a year ago, the Covid-19 pandemic led to multiple nationwide lockdowns. Small and independent retailers in particular suffered during this time, as non-essential stores were forced to close for months. Many are still recovering from the effects of Covid-19 but Bonners managed to see success during those unsettling times.

The retailer saw piano and guitar sales soar during lockdown with parents buying them for children stuck indoors and Brits taking up instruments as a new pastime.

“The rise in sales during the pandemic took us all by complete surprise,” Tony recalled.

“We’ve steered the business through two difficult recessions, and the leisure industry is often the first to suffer when times are difficult.

“When the prime minister announced the lockdown, I was scared that the good work and cash reserves we’d built up over the past few years would all be diminished.

“Then, within seven days it became very apparent that we were experiencing a surge in internet orders because people were stuck at home and wanted to find things to occupy their time.”

Tony said he was aware many of Bonners’ competitors had simply shut-up shop and cancelled all their outstanding orders with the suppliers. But his team went on a buying spree and mopped up as much of the stock floating around the system as possible so that they could service the huge increase in both piano and guitar sales online.

Since reopening, there are now three Bonners stores with one store located in Reigate, Surrey, and in Milton Keynes. The team is also overseeing the latest move of the flagship Eastbourne store to an 11,000sq ft, two-storey building in Faraday Close, near Morrisons Hampden Park.

Tony explained that expansion and the need for new premises was important because while there are people who are happy to take a chance and buy online, he’s a firm believer that people will always want to get their hands on musical instruments before making a purchase.

“It is so important to us that we have a group of excellent quality, accessible, retail stores that support our online presence,” he explained.

“With this in mind, we have opened stores in strategic locations which are easy to reach from the major roads network, have lots of showroom space and parking.”

Tony added that he ensured the locations were local enough that he can still visit the stores personally to oversee their development.

“Bonners is one of Eastbourne’s great success stories and I am delighted this well-established business has continued to thrive and adapt despite the difficulties posed by Covid-19,” he said.

Hailed as one of Eastbourne’s great success stories by Christina Ewbank, chief executive of Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce, Tony said the secret to running and maintain a successful independent retailer is always being on the lookout for new opportunities and looking for ways to improve.

“I have always had a policy of continual development of the company,” he said.

“Notwithstanding my day-to-day role at Bonners, I am still a working musician at the weekends which I think is very important as it keeps me in touch with the real-world experiences of our customers.

“I use this experience to ensure we have an empathy with our customers on all levels.”

Tony also has his own YouTube channel where he demonstrates all the new piano and keyboard instruments on offer, attracting a following of more than 30,000 subscribers.

Bonners prides itself on being independent. For that reason, Tony said indie retailers were so important because they can offer “a more balanced view on products and ensure that customers purchase the right item for their specific needs”.

“We offer a less corporate, and perhaps more personal approach, which customers have been missing during the early years of internet shopping,” he added.

“Customers seem to appreciate the knowledge and sincerity of dealing with independent firms, and I believe that we are seeing a rise in popularity of specialist independent stores who will thrive alongside the corporate giants.”

As Bonners looks to the future, Tony said the current focus was on the new head office and showroom in Eastbourne.

“Our short-term plans are to consolidate after a period of immense growth, but looking into the future, we are talking to major manufacturers about how we can represent their brands on even higher levels, whilst maintaining the benefits to both parties of being an independent retailer,” he said.

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