What can you learn from independent record shops?

Independent record shops have seen their sales grow for the first time in a decade.

The shops saw an increase in sales of 44 per cent during the first six months of the year, thanks to a hike in the popularity of vinyl, according to new figures from the Entertainment Retailers’ Association.

The upswing demonstrates to all independent retailers that it is still possible to thrive in this perpetually difficult economic climate. So what can we learn from the independent record shops?

1. Know your market

Independent record shop owners are not just financially invested in their market - they are emotionally invested too. You won’t find a independent record shop owner who does not have a real, personal connection with the products they are selling. They are music fans - and this helps to ensure that they are entirely immersed in their market.

This is vital, because it enables independent record shops to align themselves with their customer base. They know what their customers want, because they are also customers of the independent music sector. They know their markets back to front, and this informs every business decision they make, whether consciously or unconsciously.

2. Innovate with the internet

The internet is undoubtedly one of the most significant threats facing independent retailers. Record shops, having been hit by the lower prices offered online, have had to think about innovative ways in which to combat that threat.

One of the most important of these has been to self-consciously market themselves as an alternative to online shopping. Independent record shops have long thrived on an ‘outsider’ mentality and, in some ways, the rise of internet shopping has helped to foster this. Indie record shops exist in opposition to the internet, and the most intelligently marketed of them have played this factor up.

Successful stores have also invested a lot of time into working out exactly what bricks and mortar retailers can offer that the online sphere cannot. These factors include knowledgeable, approachable customer service, and ‘real world’ events, both of which are explored below.

But many independent record shops are flirting with the internet themselves. Many already take online orders, either through their own site or through a marketplace platform like Discogs. Rough Trade, though, one of the country’s biggest independent record shops, has taken things one step further and launched its own download subscription service.

3. Give great service

The cliche of the record shop staff member (aloof, indier-than-thou, snobby) no longer applies in most cases. Rather, sales assistants in these shops tend to get their jobs because of their extraordinarily in-depth knowledge of their products. The people who work in independent record shops tend to be music lovers first and foremost, and they are therefore able to answer the broadest possible range of questions from potential customers. A combination of this knowledge and a friendly, approachable nature makes independent record shops an enjoyable place to visit.

4. Add value

Many of the country’s most successful record shops don’t just sell records. Instead, they have come up with new ways to add value to their offering, through complementary products and services.

Live events are a particularly common value-adding activity in record shops. Many stores also run gigs, either after work or during lunchbreaks, at which they invite bands with records to promote to play. This has a number of important advantages: it boosts footfall; it encourages sales of the promoted artist’s record; and it helps to position the record shop as a cultural hub rather than ‘just’ a retailer.

5. Pick your battles

Finally, independent record shops have gradually learned when to recognise a fight that they cannot win. The most important of these fights is that of price. Small, independent retailers simply cannot compete with the discounting that is the norm in supermarkets or on Amazon. So, in most cases, they simply haven’t attempted it. Instead they have concentrated on the things that they can do well - knowledgeable service, community building, and so on. By determining which fights they stand the best chance in, independent record shops have been able to allocate resources where they can be most efficiently used.

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