Kris Perdew knows what it takes to run a successful record store. In just five short years, Perdew applied his knowledge to make Sonic Boom, which specializes in the latest hip-hop and dance music, one of the more successful independent record stores in Orlando. What he learned didn't come from a book or a class; it came from years of paying his dues, working at record stores and actively buying music.
Before setting up shop in Central Florida, Perdew spent eight years learning the ropes from a prominent Dallas-based indie chain that specialized in left-of-center fare. Not wanting to compete against his mentor, he headed to Orlando.
"I had saved up a bunch of money. I had a huge music collection. I thought I could start the store with my collection." So he started small, selling used CDs out of a cardboard box at the University of Central Florida before finding his current home in a nearby strip mall.
Perdew will be the first to tell you: Not everybody's cut out to be an independent record-store owner. The hours are long, and the competition is fierce; the phone book lists more than 30 mom-and-pop music stores in town. Add in the ever-growing Internet retailers vying for the same entertainment dollars. At the end of the day, the payoff is usually meager but enough to put food on the table.
The trials over the past years have only served to resolve Perdew's passion and grit, which he shares with other thriving indie owners. It was only four years ago that megaretailers Best Buy and Circuit City swept into town, offering cut-rate prices on new CDs -- many below suggested retail -- simply as loss leaders to get customers into the store to buy big-ticket electronics. The result? Many indie outlets were forced to change the way they do business, now focusing on niche marketing and customer service.
"Best Buy opened up about a year after I opened this store up," recalls Perdew. "I was selling new stuff for $13.99, Best Buy was selling it for $10.99." Surprisingly, the overall effect on his bottom line was minimal: His customers didn't drive the several extra miles to save a few dollars.
"We definitely felt the hit, big time," remembers Sandy Bittman, who was then the manager but is now the owner of popular Park Ave CDs in Winter Park. "We saw what they were carrying ... so we went deeper into the independent stuff, more obscure stuff -- focused on special orders and customer service."
While Perdew and Bittman feel that they have emerged stronger and wiser from the Great Price War, they admit that the Internet, and more specifically digital distribution, is a bigger threat to bricks-and-mortar music stores, large and small, than anything Best Buy could dream up.
"The thing that is the most competition for any kind of store is being able to download music and burn your own CDs," says Perdew. "The labels selling direct [via the Internet]," says Bittman, "they are all partnering to sell each other's stuff ... cutting out the middle man, the stores. People who supply you are becoming your competitors."
Both owners have entered the digital arena, each with a different but not sales-intensive approach. Sonic Boom's bare-bones website offers hard-to-find and out-of-print items. Park Ave's site serves as more of an info center for the store's many promotions and activities. Neither plans to offer general stock on their sites anytime soon.
Unlike most chain retailers who champion new goods, the independents do have a secret weapon: the used CD. Profit margins are so low on new releases that used compact discs have become the meat and potatoes for the underdogs. Bittman says that previously sampled product "definitely helps to keep us in business. It turns over pretty quickly."
Another way the independents are battling the big boys is by sticking together. Industry associations can strengthen the little guys' bargaining power, much like a labor union, and facilitate communication. Member stores share ideas and work together to promote bands. Park Ave CDs joined the 30-store-strong Coalition of Independent Record Stores last year. The decision to join the five-year-old organization has been paying dividends ever since. "We get coalition-only promotions," says Bittman. "Things like EPs and bonus songs that are only available at Coalition stores."
Those Coalition perks, along with co-op dollars for print, radio and cable advertising, have played a big part in Park Ave's success. Most customers walk out with a freebie CD sampler, cassette single, poster or sticker. These little extras bring people back. The store also serves as a ticket outlet, and Bittman sponsors the occasional free show at nightclubs like Sapphire. His latest marketing triumph, however, is the every-other-Sunday "Afternoon Delight" series of DJ sets (next date: March 19, with Chushen & Cugin).
"We bring a DJ into the store, set them up in the front corner and let them spin from 2 to 5 p.m.," says Bittman. "It gives the DJ a chance to spin some new sounds ... [and] helps take down the barriers that people normally associate with DJs."
Most independents count special orders and extensive searches for out-of-print titles among their customer services. It also helps that the atmosphere tends to be loose, and potential buyers can listen to almost everything on the shelf, something most of the chains can't offer.
Another absolute for successful indie retailers is learning to work their niche. "You gotta listen to the people, give them what they want," says Perdew. Though his personal tastes run toward the eclectic realm, like John Zorn, he stocks Sonic Boom with electronic dance and hip-hop because anything else gathers dust. "I wish it wasn't so, but it is," he says.
Ray Ehmen of Rock & Roll Heaven is all too familiar with this approach. His Orange Avenue storefront is stocked with his bread and butter: vintage vinyl from the '50s, '60s and '70s. "Most of what we've concentrated on is older music that tends to get overlooked and ignored," says Ehmen, who took over the now 23-year-old store back in 1987.
"We must sell 500 pieces of vinyl to every one CD. Sometimes it's even double that. Vinyl is our niche. We love it. We prefer to listen to it at home. ... We've got some regular customers that come in every single week and drop their paychecks -- I love those people."
Underground Record Source, situated near downtown on Mills Avenue, caters to DJs and dance music junkies. Jeff Hogan's d.i.y. records, on University Boulevard, is a paradise for the youth brigade. His shelves are loaded with indie-label ska, punk and hardcore.
At dancehall boutique Caribcraft Reggae & Soca, owner Trevor Myers' strategy is a grass-roots one. "Whatever [the big stores] carry, I try not to carry their stuff. I carry stuff they can't get or don't know how to go about getting. ... That's the only way I can survive."
Personalization is not limited to stock. Perdew says that owners and employees must have ultimate appreciation for any customer walking through the door.
"I've been at a ton of indie stores where the person behind the counter is too cool to help you," explains Perdew. "If someone walks in and says, 'Can you help me find an old Air Supply CD?' I won't make fun of it. And I tell all the people that work for me, 'Don't make fun of that.' They are just a human being liking something that you don't like. If I tried to make a living off of what I liked, I'd be out of business already."
"Older folks -- they go into a mainstream store and ask for something from their era and all they get a blank stare. Thank goodness they send them to us," says Ehmen.
But at the root of all successful indie stores lies passion. "It's strictly a labor of love," admits Ehmen.
"I just love music ... collecting records," says Perdew. "I started buying records when I was 10 years old. I haven't stopped since."
"You have to really be active," says Bittman of his go-go-go approach. "If you sit back and wait for things to happen, it's not going to happen. You've got to do it for yourself."