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A Tale of Two Record Stores

18 June 2013

I don’t usually write about the trivial incidents in life, but something kinda funny happened to me the other day that I think warrants an article and/or further discussion. I happened to walk into two record stores here in Denver this week, the first is an independent DIY run store called Wax Trax (something of a mix between Bleeker Bob’s and Generation, I suppose) and a big box retailer. I hesitate to call the latter a record store, but technically it is. They sell records. Sure those records are stuffed into tiny gift boxes with oversized t-shirts, but they sell them. Most of us have experienced these big box stores and we pretty much know what to expect.

When I write about the business of music and how the declining industry is flailing, I try to present multiple angles. This is yet another angle of that continuing story. The record store itself is almost a fading relic of American life, with independent retailers holding on for dear life while the big box stores become vacancies in otherwise healthy shopping centers. We could debate why this is happening, but really it doesn’t matter. Sales are slow everywhere because we have a demand crisis. We have a demand crisis because of rapidly changing technology. It’s as simple as that. Both mom-and-pop record stores AND big box stores are hit particularly hard by the great recession and the greater economic slowdown (whichever terminology you like). Independent stores are seeing some rebound, both from the new mediums of internet advertising and social media as well as from their own ingenuity, ie; Instore performances, Record Store Day, things like that.

The other day, I went into Wax Trax. It was a weekday. The door swung open. A cloud of familiar sights and sounds greeted me. Ah, the smell of dusty vinyl. There’s nothing like it. I received a polite nod from the clerk and nobody said anything to me. Believe it or not, this is exactly what I want in a retail experience. I worked at a record store for several years (not this one); I think that qualifies me to speak honestly about things that happen on both sides of the counter. I don’t want the clerk to be all up in my grill. No thank you. Don’t need it. I wandered over to the new releases and instantly saw like ten titles I wanted to check out, in addition to their great selection of zines, used vinyl and CD’s.

After browsing for a few minutes I found what I was looking for and went up to the counter. The clerks were all super nice, each one was attentive and assertive. We wrapped up and I asked them some questions. Specifically about a remastered double-disc Avengers thing that I’ve been looking for and they knew off the top of their heads what I was referring to. Imagine that. Somebody looked it up in the inventory system and they asked me if I wanted to put in a special order it.

I would describe this as a near-perfect retail experience for buying music. When I hear that record stores like this are closing their doors, it makes me depressed. I hope we have record stores forever. Hell, maybe it’s time to bring back the old-style listening booths. I’m all for it. Ultimately I feel fortunate that I live close enough to a place this decent, and that their decision to stay open is supported by the community they helped create. Like most independent stores, the people that work there day in and day out truly love music and many of them will go out of their way to please their customers. This makes me want to come back. It’s as simple as that.

Contrast that experience with the second record store, which happened yesterday. On Monday evening, I found myself standing in front of one of these big box stores (you know, the colossal blue and yellow one) and I wondered – should I go in? Is there anything I need here? I hadn’t planned on going in. My wife was picking through clothes next door at Nordstrom Rack and I had twenty minutes to kill. When you go into stores like that, it’s easy to spot the husbands. They are slumped over on threadbare benches or playing with their cell phones in some darkened corner. I opted out of that ritual and took my chances at the big box retailer.

So I walked over and along the way, tried to remember the last time I came into one of these stores. Ah yes. It came to me. It was 2010 and one of my work PC’s had recently crashed. The fan had burned out, which was causing the whole shebang to overheat. That day I went into this same location and headed right for the computer repair aisle. Much to my surprise, there was no computer repair aisle anymore. Their entire stock of diodes, fans and accessories was gone. So I grabbed a sales associate and asked them.

“Hey, where are your computer parts?” I asked.
“Parts?” The kid said.
“Yeah. I need to get an 80mm fan and maybe a cooling kit.” I said.
“A what?” He responded.
“A fan.” I said. “…For a computer. It’s a small little square plastic fan.” I said, making the shape of a square with my hands.
“Uh..” He responded. “We don’t stock any parts, except for what’s in that corner.” He said, pointing to a small end cap that had nothing but old memory cards and compressed air-in-a-can.

I didn’t get what I needed. I rarely do. Big Box Incorporated has decided to no longer carry parts and accessories for what that they deem to be “outdated” technology. Interestingly enough, their own internal computer system is PC, which, if we follow their logic, means that their whole operation is outdated. Which is funny. Because it is. OK, I thought. No big deal. I’ll just buy it online. But I can’t help but think that this decision is at least partially based on APPLE’s sudden appearance in the store around the same time, but I’m not going to get mad. Really don’t care. Yet how many of us have wandered into stores like this only to leave thinking, “I’ll just buy it online.” I’m guessing most of us.

So anyway on Monday evening I walked through the sliding doors, thinking about this last encounter while having a hearty chuckle. I hadn’t been in the store since that time, so imagine my surprise when I looked up and the entire store was gutted. Never mind the accessory aisle. They didn’t even have aisles anymore. Half of the store is now a cell phone sales area, complete with tiny desks and swarmy salesman of all shapes and sizes. The other half of the store is still computers, printers, vacuum cleaners and all kinds of housewares.

I looked around and spotted what I thought might be the media section. Now relegated to a small corner of the store, the media area has become something of a joke. I guess their old business model was this: stock up on major titles based on national trends. That theory is gone, because a vast majority of their music and DVD titles are now bargain bin cut outs. Even the new releases section was shabby.

I walked into the first music aisle. A sales associate walked up behind me.

“Hello. Is there anything I can help you find?” He asked.

I hate this question, mainly because, I’m an adult who can talk and read. When I need help I am not afraid to ask for it. And I’ve never really understood why they ask this question anyway, especially when all of their media titles are organized alphabetically. Unless you suddenly forgot the alphabet or need a reminder of how to spell Yngwie J. Malmsteen, it’s really kind of a dumb question. I declined, and kept browsing.

The decline of the big box stores is still happening; it’s probably not anywhere near being complete. Many of them have decided (based on numbers games and P&L sheets) that carrying a physical inventory is hard to do when Amazon and iTunes exist. Many of them have stopped competing all together. Instead of stocking hundreds of titles like they used to, now they make limited offers. Some of them have a really limited stock, this location only had three miniature aisles of CD’s and three of DVD’s. This area used to take up almost half of the retail floor space and (if I recall my college economics textbook) at one time accounted for almost half of the daily sales register.

I began picking through the stacks. Was kinda surprised that I found two items from my want list, including the expanded version of the newest Black Sabbath disc and a Blu-ray version of Jason & The Argonauts (the original 1963 Harryhausen version, not that garbage-ass remake, please don’t embarrass yourself) with all kinds of extras. So there I stood, minding my own business, when suddenly I hear this loud voice. Louder than the music.

“HELLO SIR”, a woman said from the next aisle over.

I looked up and over into the adjacent aisle, where a young woman with dirty blonde hair was talking. She had cornered a fellow husband in the next aisle, some innocent shopper who looked really confused. I listened to their forced conversation. She was giving him the hard sell, sounded like some kind of ridiculous sales pitch. I kind of laughed and kept browsing. Then I honed in on the Pink Floyd section, picked up one of those $150 Dark Side of The Moon box sets. As I stood there reading about David Gilmour’s 5.1 Dolby stereo surround mix, a weird and unexpected thing happened. The woman showed up in my aisle. Apparently thwarted by wandering husband #1, she ended up giving me the pitch. I was no longer laughing.

“HELLO SIR”, she said.
“Hi.” I responded.
“I’m here today to talk to you about cable. I’ve been invited into the store to talk to everyone about cable.” She said without smiling.
“OK.” I responded. I looked at the giant button pinned to her golf shirt, which gave no indication of what company she worked for. Not even a name tag. For all I know, this woman could have been a drifter.

“What kind of cable do you have?” She asked, folding her hands in front of her.
“Uh..” I thought about how to answer the question without making myself sound insane. “I don’t have cable.” I said. Which is true. I don’t.
“Oh I get it.” She said. “You live out in the sticks. You have satellite TV.” She was feigning interest.
“” I said. “I just don’t have cable. I don’t watch television.”

She looked at me and glanced at the beautiful shrink-wrapped Dark Side of The Moon box set and my nerdy fantasy movie.
“But you’re holding a DVD in your hand, that means you have a television”, she smirked.
“Actually I don’t. Don’t have a TV. I have a computer in my living room that can play DVD’s and access Netflix. That’s all we have. Zero televisions in our house.” I said, thinking this would stop her sales pitch short. Alas, it did not.

“Why don’t you get cable?” she asked, tilting her head at me like I was some child. “If you sign up today I can save you one hundred dollars.”
“No thanks. I don’t want cable.” I said.
“Why can’t you get cable?” She asked. “We have terrific money saving offers.”
“Thanks anyway. Me giving you money isn’t saving anything.” I said quietly.
“What can I do to get you interested in cable television?” She asked.
“Uh…” I said. “…Nothing. Like I said, I’m not interested. Thanks.”

She moved closer to me. Now she was getting daring. Admittedly I was kind of surprised at her angle. Coloradoans are not exactly known for their forthrightness, let’s put it that way.

“So what’s the problem – can’t you swing cable?”, She asked.
“I don’t need cable and I don’t want cable. Thanks.” I responded.
“I know why…” She said. “….It’s because your wife’s not here – you have to get her permission don’t you?” She asked with a blank expression on her face.
“Yeah” I said. “Sure.” I looked at my hand. Wasn’t even wearing my wedding ring. I thought to myself, wow, she’s got a pretty good radar.

“Yeah you probably can’t afford it.” She said in a flat voice.
“No. I can afford it. I’m just not interested. Thanks anyway.” I said.
She kept talking at me, I couldn’t believe it.

“How do you get access to your favorite sports shows and movies?” She asked.
I was getting tired of the sales pitch and she wasn’t picking up any of my signals.
“How do YOU get access?” I asked. “Maybe when you’re at work bothering the shit out of people I’ll just watch your TV. How’s that sound?”
She half smiled and backed away.

It’s as if she suddenly realized she couldn’t insult me or provoke me any further. That or I confused her. Either way, success was mine. I had driven away this troll without resorting to yelling or punching. I felt like Gandhi for about 30 seconds.

Then it hit me. WOW, I thought. She was a real asshole. This is what has become of the big box stores. This is what they have to offer: insults, dwindling inventory, overpriced plastic gadgetry. Hilarious for so many reasons. This used to be a place that tried to invite your business. You know, the kind of place that would do anything to retain and recruit. Now they seem hell bent on annoying you to death and making you want to leave. After the incident with the charming cable tv rep, I left, putting the DVD and boxset back on the shelf, unpurchased. As I walked out, I saw our saleswoman of the year cornering a third husband. This innocent chap was trying to buy batteries. Poor guy.

“HELLO SIR”, she barked at him.
“Hi”, He said without looking up.

Before I could hear the rest of her prepared speech, I walked out. Wandered outside and who did I see out there but husband #1. He had left the store too, and was now headed back to whatever department store he came from. He had a look of defeat on his face just like I did. Sharing a brief glance, we had a moment. A moment of “what-the-hell-just-happened”. Nothing was spoken. But nothing had to be spoken. We knew.

Again, I’m not sure which company this young woman worked for, but it doesn’t really matter. If the big box store really did invite her in, then somebody done goofed. Up until yesterday, I was naïve enough to think that the days of the high-pressure sales pitch were over. Didn’t we all decide collectively and autonomously that the car-salesman thing doesn’t work? My bad. I thought that was understood, but apparently it’s not.

I’m from New Jersey, rude is familiar territory. Rudeness doesn’t shock me. It’s expected. When I hear people yelling, it kinda warms my heart. A old couple yelling at each other in a grocery store. Sweet marital bliss. An aggressive child who smells like a diaper is screaming while throwing meatballs. Ah, a gentle spring mist on my face in the wind.

I guess my issue is this: I can’t envision how this rudeness is paying off. It certainly doesn’t make for good business. I’m kind of a bad example as a modern consumer (there are many services and technologies we don’t have, and we’re quite content to keep things that way) but let’s just say for shits and giggles that I was interested in cable. Let’s just say for a moment that I was in the market to upgrade my television service. If I needed 800 channels of home shopping, I wouldn’t want to buy it from her. Not after that conversation. Mainly because her sales approach was backwards, where success is measured by some pre-written sales pitch. Just for the record, I probably wouldn’t respond to any sales person who treated me like a deaf animal.

Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with young workers in this uber-shitty economy. I feel bad for the throngs of young people in this country (many of whom have college degrees) who have to work at thankless menial sales jobs, where they are often underpaid and underinsured. Of course I do. I really sympathize. But this incident falls into a different category. You don’t have to be an insensitive clod to people. And if for some reason, you’re being paid to be an insensitive clod, then you should look for other employment. Right after you tell your management team that their strategy is a joke. Feel free to give them the finger too, but don’t tell them I said that.

As I compared and contrasted these incidents at two different music outlets, I couldn’t help but laugh. Most of our exposure to big box stores comes from the millions of dollars they pump into advertising, both online and offline. In their commercials, they seem to be infinitely patient and pleasant. If you’ve ever been in one of these stores, you already know that this characterization is a bit off. To call them helpful would be a misstep, let’s be honest.

When you read interviews or profiles of the executives who work at these kinds of companies, it’s always the same song and dance. They give brief interviews in Fortune Magazine where they try to make sense of the changing technology of this age by using accounting systems to explain and by using antiquated catch phrases to divert attention. To them, they see declining sales and love to blame YouTube and BitTorrent. They see this sales change as a shift in tastes, not as a challenge to their (ultimately stagnant) business model. This speaks volumes about WHO they hire as well. They don’t need you to know anything about music. No sir. To them, The Avengers are a comic book movie, not a classic punk band from LA. Their only requirement seems to be lack of motivation. They only need you to pass a drug test, have no visible tattoos and the ability to stand for eight hours a day. I’m no economist, but this might have something to do with the decline in sales too. Home Depot sells food, but I wouldn’t think of buying dinner there. Same goes for the big box stores. Why would you buy music at a vacuum cleaner store?

As more and more younger men are drawn to video games and the internet (read: away from films, books and music), the corporate response has been simply to give up or to scratch their heads in disbelief. Let’s face it: some of these big box stores are too big. They’re not big enough to stock the new Bad Religion CD, but they have 28 copies of 2112 by Rush. It all makes, uh, not much sense at all.

At the same time, this new tactic of having solicitors wander the aisles bothering the customers is just absurd. In the future, the scenario I envision playing out for these big box stores is called bankruptcy. Listen big box. Here’s the thing. You don’t carry the ink I need for my printer. You no longer carry the parts for the computers you are currently selling. You no longer stock the movies that people want. You don’t even have a decent stock of cables for the accessories you sell. Which begs the question – what the hell are you selling? Pretty soon no one will be in any of your stores, and you’ll have no one to blame but yourselves.

Knowing what I know about my brain, I’ll probably never go into this big box store again. In my head I’ve already begun associating them with 1) not getting what I need and 2) being accosted by overly pushy sales people. A few months from now, the store will be dead to me and I won’t even think about it. It will cease to exist. That’s just the way my brain works.

On the other hand, I’ll be back at Wax Trax in no time. Probably next week. Oh, I’m no fool. I know the internet is impacting their sales too, but instead of crying about it and waiting to die, they are doing something about it. Something pro-active and hands on. When they have an in-store special event, it’s a Saturday matinee with bands playing, food trucks, friends. I want to be there. People want to be there. When the big box store as a special, it’s useless corporate drivel, it’s petty and it’s cruel. And nobody wants to be there. Not even the lonely husbands.