Local shops are bolstering their online presence, which may put them in a better position once the pandemic passes
Summer is usually a slow time for Downtown vinyl shop Spoonful Records. Co-owner Amy Kesting said most people tend to spend their money on music experiences, like concerts and festivals, in the warmer months. But as the temperature drops, sales of physical music tend to rise.
“In winter, when they're holed up inside, they spend their money on vinyl and stuff they can listen to,” Kesting said. “And right now, it's like winter all over. Everybody's holed up, and they need music. Music feeds your soul.”
That winter-in-April mentality is one thing working in favor of local record stores, which have been shuttered since late March due to Gov. Mike DeWine’s “stay at home” order. But Columbus shops have adapted to this new era, offering a mix of online ordering, curbside pickups, mail orders and even same-day home deliveries. In fact, in interviews with owners of Spoonful, Used Kids in North Campus and Lost Weekend and Elizabeth’s in Clintonville, all expressed confidence their stores would weather the coronavirus pandemic. Spoonful, for one, might even emerge in a better position.
That’s not to say the last few weeks have been easy. Used Kids owner Greg Hall said his store’s revenue is down about 80 percent from what it was pre-pandemic. “Even the week before we had to shut down, revenue dropped dramatically,” said Hall, who spoke by phone from the shop, where he was kicking up dust from a store reorganization and washing it down with a can of Jackie O’s Mystic Mama. “But this is not the first catastrophic thing the store's been through.”
At Lost Weekend, March 2020 sales were about half of what they were a year ago, and March sales were down at Spoonful, too. But so far, in April, Spoonful is on track to have a normal month, and that’s mostly thanks to a new online ordering system.Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
“I started working on building a website, thinking, well, if we're closed, we have a ton of inventory, and I should be able to just keep selling stuff and mailing it off,” Kesting said. “We never wanted to have a website. It was never part of our game plan. I remember our accountant asked us a year or two ago when we met for taxes, ‘So, how are you guys going to get to the next level?’ And we were like, ‘What next level? We're good. We have enough income for two people and a couple part-timers. We're doing great.’ But now I'm like, ‘Oh, this is the next level.’ … And it really took this shutdown for me to have time to even get my head around it and set it up. I couldn't have done it otherwise.”
Launching an online store has also helped streamline other parts of Spoonful’s business, like taking preorders for forthcoming releases. “The website takes care of the preorder,” Kesting said. “Before, we just kept a handwritten list of who wants this record, and then we’d scratch our heads when the inventory actually showed up, like, ‘This Sara without an “h” — is that somebody on Facebook or Instagram or what? How do we get ahold of this person?’”
Used Kids has sold records online for a while, but moving almost the entire business online is no small task. “We’ve been in business since 1986 as a brick and mortar store primarily, and then the market says, ‘OK, you've got to stop and completely redefine yourself as an online business,” said Hall, who previously reserved website sales mostly for rare, high-dollar items. “So we're putting up our existing stock online. We’re putting it out there to a much larger group of people that are sitting at home. … The only way I can make my business survive is to get a much, much bigger net. And that much, much bigger net is the Internet."
Lost Weekend is also beefing up its stock on eBay, which is currently waiving seller fees for “Buy Now” auctions, and Elizabeth’s Records is busy putting records on its Discogs store. Both Clintonville stores and Used Kids are making use of local curbside pickup orders, as well, which is particularly easy for Lost Weekend owner Kyle Siegrist, who lives in the same building as his store.
Siegrist has also developed a contact-free payment system for pickups. “If they pay by cash or credit card, I have a glass jar I put outside, and they put the money or credit card in the jar, and I put the records outside, and then I bring the jar inside and ring it up. Then I have the disinfectant wipes to wipe down the jar,” he said.
Local shops are also making use of USPS to mail orders to customers, though Kesting and Brett Ruland at Spoonful are making the experience even more personal by delivering records themselves. “We've been delivering records that are inside the 270 outerbelt, and then shipping everything else off using media mail. People really, really love getting their records within three or four hours of when they place their order. They're just blown away by that. We live in Olde Towne East, so if you place an order in Olde Towne, up to 7 o'clock at night, you're still going to get it that day,” Kesting said. “People are getting the same experience online from us as they do in the store, and that is meaningful to them. That's why you would shop from us as opposed to Amoeba or Amazon, because you're still getting personal service.”
This month is usually a huge financial boon for independent record stores nationwide, since the annual Record Store Day normally falls in April; participating stores like Used Kids, Lost Weekend and Spoonful can often do a month’s worth of sales or more in one day. This year, RSD has been postponed to June 20, though most store owners predict the date will be pushed back even further. [Update, 4/29: Record Store Day announced that the titles on the RSD 2020 official list, which launched on March 5th, will be released at participating record stores on one of three RSD Drop dates: Aug. 29, Sept. 26 and Oct. 24. A new version of the official list, with newly assigned RSD Drop dates, will launch on June 1.]
All the owners expressed gratitude for the support of Columbus music fans, who have continued to place orders and buy gift certificates. Both Lost Weekend and Elizabeth’s also benefited from a recent T-shirt promotion from Alison Rose. And while Gov. DeWine has set May 12 as the date that retail outlets can reopen (albeit with certain restrictions), most record stores are taking a wait-and-see approach in regards to opening their doors again. Hall said he would follow the governor’s guidelines while still offering online and curbside options (“I anticipate it to be a slow recovery,” he said), and Spoonful may open with limited hours, pending the availability of wipes, sanitizer and other safety measures.
Siegrist, for one, had hoped DeWine would wait a little longer to reopen retail (“I'm not saying for sure we want to open on the 12th; we'll pay attention to the science and the numbers and see how things are going,” he said), and David Lewis at Elizabeth’s Records is similarly in no hurry to reopen. “We have been considering the 15th, but it might be closer to the end of May,” Lewis said via email. “We also want to keep ourselves safe and healthy. We don’t share the view that our priority is to hurry up and open; our priority is protecting our sensitive immune systems.”
Most stores have temporarily halted buying used records for now. “That used inventory is a big lifeblood of this business,” said Hall, who employs a staff of nine and has had to prioritize not only the safety of his staff, but the livelihood of his employees. “My big goal, frankly, is making payroll. And I'm not talking about my payroll. My private payroll is sitting in my right hand right now. It's called Mystic Mama.”
While local record stores seem able to weather this storm, they’re also eager to reestablish their shops as social hubs for music fans in Columbus. “We wanted to have a store because we like people. We enjoy people coming through our front door, and that is the downside: We haven't seen all of our friends, our customers,” Kesting said. “It makes our lives fun.”