There's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on in the world of record retailing. The merchants of music ballyhoo their sale prices. The record condumers don't believe they're getting much of a bargain. But those who regard records and tapes as more necessity than luxury are buying anyway.
In Washington, storeowners agree that the record scene is as hot as thelatest platinum seller. Increased competition has yielded a broader supply of vinyl around town and induced retailers to undercut competitors' prices. D.C. shoppers have a better chance to find that out-of-print Toscanini or that second-hand Laura Nyro, that New Wave smash or folksy import - and to find them discounted.
"This is a funny business. You take your prime product and put a sales price on it." Now if you're dealing in widgets, it makes sense to slash prices on lesser merchandise while sticking fancy price tags on the newest, hottest items. But not in the record business, says Bob Bialek, owner of the three Discount Record stores here, who's seen 27 years of stiff competition among Washington record retailers.
Record album costs are no joke nowadays. With LPs leaving the warehouses priced at $7.98 or more, local shops must trim prices to unload today's hits before they become tomorrow's stale inventory. "The competition is as intense as it's ever been," says Kenny Dobin, buyer for the 15-store Waxie Maxie chain.
Other retailers agree the selection has improved dramatically in recent years and the D.C. area's buying habits are keeping step.
Besides being in a funny business, retailers here say they're in a funny market. Washington is interesting, they say, because it's broken into well-defined segments. "In the city," says Kenny Dobin, "there's a huge black buying public, very radio conscious, who buy what's hot. There's a rapid turnover of black product. Among whites, there's a big classical audience, the lunchtime crowd who leave their law offices and shop. Also, there's a great number of teen of young adult buyers of rock."
Stereotypes aside, white lawyers have been know to shell out some bucks for Chaka Khan funk. Certainly soul, salsa and reggae have won fans across and ethnic lines. With Dolly Parton's "Baby I'm Burning" currently riding high on the disco charts, a growing number of crossover artists ahve scrambled the old format divisions.
This isn't a good town for the more outrageous acts like Elvis Costello, who's big in Boston. Punk and comedy sell only fairly in Washington, Although sales figures show that Richard Pryor, the black comedian, is taken very seriously here.
Walk into Peaches in Rockville and survey endless rows of peach crates, full of LPs and tapes of every musical ilk. This is the store that touched off a minor panic among locak store owners when it opened with an advertising blitz a year ago. The size of the place - at 20,000 square feet, two-to-three-time larger than any other record shop in town - was matched by imaginative promotion devices.
At the time, Joe Goldberg, owner of Variety Records, vowed to take on the new kid on the block. "Peaches' pull is gimmicks, not necessarily prices," he claimed. "I'll make an attempt to fight them off in the beginning. I hope there won't be price wars, but if it happens, it happens." Nowadays, he breathes easier. Goldberg says Peaches' impact was minimal, and that D.C. remains a "clean" competitive market - not that it's all sweet harmony, but that it could be worse if owners succumbed to cutthroat games. From the customer's point of view, however, a pricing free-for-all wouldn't be so bad.
Washington hasn't seen the king of "low-balling" that sent shock waves through the record industry when Jimmy's Music World in New York sold $6.98 list LPs for $2.99. Jimmy's later went bankrupt, much to the public's chagrin, prompting cries of "I told you so" from competitors. But before it folded, New Yorkers mobbed the store for the basement prices and fattended their record collections.
For record and tape buffs, here, though, the price-cutting has been tasteful and subdued - Washington-style. Waxie Maxie's Kenny Dobin said last year, "It would take a major upheaval for us to change our prices . . . I don't know if Peaches will eventually cause that." This year he's singing a different tune, and browsers will notice that Waxie Maxie has lowered its prices to get in line with discount-minded Korvettes, Kemp Mill and Peaches. Down from $6.79 in 1978, the current shelf price, after initial release and promotion, is $5.98; the sale price on $7.98 list albums is $4.99. From Donna Summer to Beverly Sills, the beat goes on and goes on sale.
The bad news is that there's nothing stopping the $7.98 list price from inching ever upward, even as the quality of the disc declines. This spring's releases are slated to list for $8.98. Already at the top of the trade charts are $8.98 list albums by name artists such as Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand and Steve Martin, although those are often sold at prices comparable to the $7.98 albums.
Meanwhile, smaller shops forego the shotgun approach, targeting instead on particular audiences.
Orpheus Records and Sabin's Discount Records both concentrate on jazz; Discount Records and Record & tape Ltd. are strong on classical; Serenade is best on international music.
And there are other angles: Kemp Mill sticks to rock, soul and blues and occasionally sells at $3.99 (below cost) to draw people to the store. Harmony Hunt offers a full line of music types plus stereos, musical instruments and CBs.The Penguin Feather stocks a complete selection of mainstream music in addition to many out-of-print and catalog records and used LPs for $1.99. The management claims that more people flock to The Penguin Feather's three Virginia store for New Wave artists than to any other outlet in town.
Jeff Zepp, manager of one of six Harmony Hut stores in the area, says that competition is especially tough on F Street, with several chains doing battle on the same block. The result, he says, is severe discounting, but the retailers have no complaints. More and more people converge on downtown's Record Row and everyone's getting a larger share of the profit pie.
Meanwhile, there may be encouraging news for LP hounds who are willing to trek out to Rockville Pike for good buys. The latest twist to the the record retail scene involves a foreign firm and the drawing power of Korvetts. Trade sources report that a French retail corporation bought out Korvettes' 50-store chain and an influx of some $30 million is expected to rescue the flagging record division. The buzz among area record retailers: Korvettes again may become as exciting for selection and prices as it was in the mid-'60s. At the same time, Peaches is planning a Virginia store.
The sales strategy, no matter the store, is simple. Once a customer starts buying, he's likely to be attracted by other items - so that a customer drawn to the store for $4.79 sale album will leave with a couple of $6 purchases as well.
At mall stores it's even simpler, because one-stop shopping is a great convenience. Customers drawn to the mall by department stores wander into a record shop and plunk down $6.99 for an album almost without thinking. Already parked and in a spending mood, they drift through the Muzak to the music.