A new string to Dr Twang's bow

Dr Hyram Ballard is making ''house calls'' in the musical instrument trade. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Dr Hyram Ballard is making ''house calls'' in the musical instrument trade. Photo by Peter McIntosh.

Dunedin musician and instrument salesman ''Dr Twang'' might have closed his shopfront, but now he has restrung his business model, Shawn McAvinue reports.

Twenty years ago, a Dunedin musician with a post-doctoral qualification in anthropology decided to go into business.

Dr Hyram Ballard - with the apt nickname Dr Twang - wasn't happy with the city's musical instrument shops, so he opened his own.

Early this year his shop, Twang Town, closed.

The ''good run'' was over.

Dr Ballard said several musical instrument shops came and went over the years, under pressure from small sales volumes and profit margins.

While his shop was open, three established musical instrument stores in Dunedin had closed and two others tried to start and survived briefly.

''It was getting to the point where there was less fat in the system, where any other negative stimulus would have tipped it over the edge and I would have been out of control of the situation,'' Dr Ballard said.

''This way I could control the exit.''

Until then, his shop had survived through a ''frugal'' existence.

''Other people would have left because they weren't willing to work so cheaply, but it's what I love doing.''

He never considered selling the store as a going concern.

''I don't think anybody in their right mind would have bought it.''

In January, he closed the store doors and changed his business model to Dr Twang, making ''house calls'' to the client base he had built over 20 years.

He said the change had made the business more cost-effective and allowed him more time to perform music.

He planned to erect ''pop-up shops'' at music festivals in smaller towns.

The business would buy fewer, more expensive instruments and the larger profit margins would give him the time needed to ensure every instrument sold was perfect.

''It could be a $300 guitar or a $3000 guitar, both could have a small inattention to detail that would make them almost worthless.

''My job is to take those that are imperfect and make them perfect and if they're impossible to make perfect, send them back.''

With musical instrument stores closing, some children could miss opportunities to be inspired, he said.

''During the school holidays, kids would walk by and they'd have to come in just to look or just to smell. There's a smell about wooden instruments.

''Maybe that's being too nostalgic but it's a beautiful thing and we're losing it.''

New Zealand retailers were competing against overseas websites whose customers could evade paying GST, Dr Ballard said.

Customs set a $60 duty limit on goods but he said he knew of consumers bringing in musical instruments ''to the tune of thousands of dollars'' who avoided paying GST.

The Government needed ''to level the playing field'' and set the threshold at Customs to $0 so every item bought included GST, he said.

A government review that concluded it was not cost-effective for Customs to collect GST had been misguided.

An easy solution was for Customs to bill the import company and not the individual.

''Overnight, the playing field will level and New Zealand will become a lot more competitive.''

The change would stop the New Zealand economy losing money to overseas companies and put millions of dollars in the public purse, he said.

Dr Ballard, a former United States resident, said New Zealanders should be thankful for the benefits available to them because of taxes, such as GST.

''In New Zealand, we have a different social contract and it requires prices to be higher.

''I think most people in New Zealand should just suck it up and be really grateful they're paying a few bucks more on all the stuff coming in GST-free and realise they can go to the hospital for nothing.''

Minister of Revenue Todd McClay said a 2011 review revealed it was not cost-effective to collect GST when the duty owing was $60 or less.

Customs was reliant on the self-declaration that the importer made on the goods, he said.

More expensive goods were avoiding GST because the onus was on the importer to declare the true value of the goods.

Mr McLay said some high-value goods were not accurately described and were undervalued to speed up border clearance and evade duty.

''I am advised that Customs are keeping a close watch and working with the freight industry to find a solution.''

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was working on guidelines to assist countries in collecting GST on online purchases.

New Zealand was ''heavily involved'' in the project, Mr McClay said.

Mr Ballard said the high New Zealand dollar, more accessible, faster internet

and aggressive marketing by offshore online retailers was making independent retail difficult.

''Those three things working in concert are going to kill us and if we don't think about it New Zealand is going to become a country of primary producers and service people - there won't be anything but cafes and dairy farms.''


In the real world

OK, of course we would all love to buy local. However this is the real world we live in when the woe is me I have to pay staff argument just won't wash. The cost of living has gone up and prices for everything are through the roof. Online prices are cheap and they are still turning a profit. Even if I had to pay 15% GST on the goods they would still be cheaper. Maybe the goverment should lower GST here to 5% for all retail outlets, but then I doubt that would lower the prices for us and we would still end up with thses so called 60% off sales every week. Seriously, how thick do they think we are? Why don't they just lower the prices by 60% full time? But then again, they know kiwis love a bargain!


Things cost more in shops because showroom space and maintaining on-duty staff costs more than running an online store. I would 100 times rather buy a guitar from Hyram at twice the price that I could buy the same thing online, not simply because I would have it that day, but because of his support.

You can't try on a pair of shoes over the internet. 

GST is not the problem

If a person can buy a pair of shoes that cost $200 here in New Zealand for $100 even after they have included shipping and the fact that the item has travelled form the other side of the world then in my opinion it's the shopkeepers here who are doing the damage with such high rip-off prices. We allready have less choice for the high prices we pay and honestly, how can shops here have so many 60% off sales? Just tells me they are totally treating us like mugs and we put up with it. And don't get me started on the internet restrictions for online content!

ODT/directory - Local Businesses

CompanyLocationBusiness Type
Mayfair Pools & SpasCromwellAppliances
Campbell Park EstateOamaruWeddings
Fluid RecruitmentDunedinHuman Resources
Green Island Auto Service CentreDunedinServicing & Mechanics