Recently, a very good friend complained to me about a record store here in town. He’d won a $15 gift certificate and happily took a trip over to the shop to score some vinyl on for free. Things did not go as planned, however.
Almost immediately upon walking in, my buddy noticed that much of the store’s inventory was labelled as “hard to find” or ultra rare” and the prices seemed high - really high. In some cases, this might be a good omen. This could be a place where the owner has a sweet connection that allows shoppers to get to sample physical product of truly rare records before laying down big bucks. Sadly, in this instance, instead of finding first pressings and special editions of rare records, what he found was just a pile of average vinyl that a shop owner had severely over-valued.
While it’s crucial to remember that we all want a great deal, shop owners do have to make a living to keep their doors open. However, the above scenario is an all too common tale in the world of small record shops. Most successful shops manage to strike a balance between affordability and profit margin. Another key strategy to keeping your business running is not running off your customers who scoff at your pricing. So, how do you tell if a shop you’re checking out has a good idea of what’s going on?
Well, here are a few quick signs that a record store knows what it’s doing . . .
Price Compare Common Items
Virtually every store under the sun is going to have a handful of the same records. From Neil Young’s Harvest to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours to Deja Vu by CSN&Y. There were millions of these records pressed and they’re usually incredibly easy to come by. Simple economics tells you that if you see an item for sale in every record store - and most resale shops - you visit, that it’s not a rare item, nor is it “collectible”. Records like these should almost always go for less than $5 USD.
Another tool for price comparisons is a site like Discogs.com. The trick with this one is that you’ll have to factor in the cost of shipping - sort of. For example, on a straight sale, if a record is $2.50 and the shipping is an additional $4, it would cost you $6.50 all told. However, to be fair, you can’t really judge that number in a vacuum. For one thing, you’re unlikely to buy just one record that way and for another if several stores all have a record set at a fairly low price, then this is probably the correct price range within a brick and mortar store. I generally give the store a $1 to $2 cushion since they have to pay rent and employees. But you get the idea.
Is There Inventory Turnover?
If this is a store that you’ve shopped at a few times, take a look at the racks and make sure the stock keep changing, at least to some degree. Don’t expect a new haul of cherry vinyl every week, but if you’re visiting a handful of times throughout the year, you should see newly arrived used stock showing up. Lots of record hounds will unload their lesser used vinyl as an avenue to pick up new stuff. If they’re shopping at a store they like, they’re likely to trade/sell the stuff they want to use for credit/cash.
Maybe the guy who really likes Norwegian Death Metal wasn’t in to the Cure record his girlfriend got him for his birthday, but it could wind up being your lucky day. A healthy and diverse customer base leads to a healthy and diverse inventory. And, the more diverse and rotating that inventory is, the more likely you’ll enjoy successful trips to that particular store.
Is There A Bargain Bin?
This one is a sort of combination of the previous two posts, but in one handy location. Most good stores have some sort of Dollar or 50 Cent bin where they can unload duplicate copies of titles that seem to appear through sheer osmosis (see Carole King’s Tapestry here). Even if the bin is small, it clues you into a couple of key things about the shop’s owners and managers: 1.) They understand that some records are so plentiful they have very little economic value, but there will always be someone who doesn’t have a copy of Seals & Croft’s Diamond Girl, but would like to plunk down fifty cents to have the pleasure. 2.) The store is designating a portion of it’s space to offer excellent deals to appease customers, while maintaining a turnover in inventory.
When a customer brings a box of records to a store to sell them off, they inevitably bring a series of records that have little to no resale value. The chunk of vinyl they make money on seems like found money and they’re often more than happy to leave behind several titles that the store wasn’t interested in buying. So, the customer isn’t forced to trudge home with a slew of unwanted records and the store gets a chance to make a few bucks. The new customer who wants that $1 buy is happy and everybody wins. It’s not a windfall for the shop, but it’s free money and it does add up at least a little bit. And customers love the chance to get a bargain.
Have A Conversation. You know, with a real, live human being.
Crate digging can often be a solitary pursuit. Flipping through bins and checking lists can induce a trance-like state that’s often hard to break out of. But the best way to know what the shop is all about is to ask the people who run it. Seems to simple, right?
Listen to the music they play in the store. Take a look around at what posters are up. Notice what other customers are looking for, asking about and carrying around in their hands before they make their purchases. It’s okay to snoop a little. Don’t be a creep, but be sociable. If someone next to you is pondering a record you own and have an educated - and kind/thoughtful - opinion about, try to strike up a conversation.
A great record shop is a community gathering place as much as it is a hall of commerce. Be a part of that community by getting involved. The more involved you are in that community, the more likely the store will be the sort of place you want to spend your hard earned money.
Do you have any cues you look for in a store? We’d love to hear the things you look for in a shop that’s new to you. Hit us up in the comments below.