How a record store is beating the odds
New England chain Bull Moose is growing — despite offering goods widely available through digital streaming — by focusing on experience.
In 1989, when Bull Moose first launched as a record store in a small city in Maine, it didn't seem disruptive. Compact disc sales were brisk then even at fairly high prices, the store was in a college town that provided a steady stream of customers, and streaming and file sharing were still years away.
A decade later, however, along came Napster, and then iTunes, the kinds of services now getting disrupted in turn by streaming sites like Spotify that are destroying the very idea of owning music. After nearly 50 years in business, record store chain Tower Records shuttered in 2006, at a time when the number of independent record stores was dwindling to some 2,000 in the U.S.
But in the past five years or so their numbers have grown again to more than 2,400, staging a comeback much like that of independent booksellers. And Bull Moose, now a small chain of 12 stores throughout New England, is bigger than ever, opening more — and larger — stores.
"That is the direction we've been heading in for the last 10 years, either building new stores that are bigger, in the 8,000- to 13,000-foot range or expanding stores," Chris Brown, a co-founder of the national event Record Store Day and CFO of Bull Moose, told Retail Dive in an interview. "There was a time when our largest store was 4,200 square feet."
Those days are gone. Its latest store remodel, in the inland Maine city of Lewiston, at 8,000 square feet, will be three times larger than the original location and remain at, of all places, the mall it's in now.
"Here you have a regional entertainment retailer that sells books, games, CDs and movies, most of which is available by streaming — and that Amazon sells," Michael Stefanakos, VP of lean retail partnerships at retail software company FieldStack, told Retail Dive in an interview. "The question is: 'What do they know that nobody else knows?'"
Bricks and data
Stefanakos has a clue to the answer, mainly because his company is an off-shoot of Bull Moose itself, born of the algorithms that geeky Bull Moose founder Brett Wickard devised to help him stock his first stores. He went on to found FieldStack, too, to meet demand from other retailers interested in having him help them compile and, more importantly, apply their sales data.
FieldStack's analytics are able to tease out meaning from not just what retailers sell, but also when and to whom. Bull Moose fulfills e-commerce orders from stores, rather than warehousing items, in order to ensure that store customers are more likely to find what they're looking for on shelves.
"What we look at is a global inventory — the items that you have to carry in every store," Stefanakos said. "Then regional items, then there are local items that you might need to have — and then we drill it down to the individual. You do surgery and take out the low-sellers, although, if you have an important customer who buys that from you, you may not want to. Those kinds of decisions are made really well by computers and not so well by people."
Yet the essential reason for the expansion of Bull Moose's physical footprint will be familiar to the most old-fashioned of merchants. "We know sales will go up if we can fit more in a store," said Brown, who is also CFO of FieldStack. "We need to have more records in there, we need to have more board games, we need more of everything, and our analytics at FieldStack show that."
"Customer experience" has become a retail industry buzzword, shorthand for the brick-and-mortar imperative of the e-commerce era, that stores must dazzle shoppers in order to draw them away from their devices and the experiences they prefer to spend their money on.
But Bull Moose is laser-focused on what (and how much) it sells, in order to know what it should sell. That has meant that the record store, inevitably, has expanded into toys, games, gaming hardware, collectibles and books (and is probably poised to profit from the demise of Toys R Us and even the struggles of GameStop). Bull Moose still sells records, movies and gaming software, and vinyl has emerged as a vital sub-category of music, but the revamped Lewiston store will stock books for the first time at that location, a decision reached using a mix of art and science, Brown said.
To inform its decisions in Lewiston, the retailer looked at the area's demographics, compared book sales at its other stores, learned from their data that people who buy blu rays (a bestseller at that store) also buy books and saw that loyalty members living in the area were searching for book titles on their website. But it was also important that the nearest bookstore is 20 miles away.
"The value of the data has a diminishing return — like a Doppler effect — so the system is constantly looking at that," Stefanakos said of FieldStack's analytics. "It's not just saying 'We sold 20 last year,' it's also looking at recent purchases as forward looking. But also important is 'Hey, this town doesn't have a bookstore.' Maybe it's old-fashioned, but part of this was about — what does this town need?"
And that, says Doug Stephens, founder and president of Retail Prophet and author of Reengineering Retail: The Future of Selling in a Post-Digital World, is a key feature of experiential retail for companies like Bull Moose. "There's a really strong trend toward small (what I call craft retail) now, whereby a local retailer sells a unique assortment of goods that are very tailored to a specific and known community of customers," he told Retail Dive in an email. "I'm seeing it in almost every country and city I visit."
The customer experience
Bull Moose may not be employing the latest gadgetry or upscale interior design to showcase its goods, but the retailer places the same value on its dedication to community as it does on its tech.
"When you go to a Bull Moose store, I'm always blown away that in 2018 you can go to a store that is 12,000 square feet big and it's filled with people who are searching for things, and they're happy," Stefanakos said. "It's not that it's a singles bar where people go to meet each other, but it's still a community."
It also helps that it doesn't depend on commodity goods for sales, even if its categories are being challenged by digital alternatives, according to retail analyst Nick Egelanian, president of retail development consultants SiteWorks International.
"They are not selling essentials, but rather selling products appealing to their customers' discretionary time and discretionary income," Egelanian told Retail Dive in an email. "More importantly, they are selling something well beyond media and accessories. They are selling a combination of unique products, throwback experiences and personal service that amounts to an entire experience in itself."
Successful specialty retail stores like Bull Moose make emotional connections with their customers, he said. "There is a real opportunity for retailers like these, but they must be very careful in market and site selection."
Bull Moose isn't alone in eschewing that dazzling emporium effect, Stephens noted. "Many emerging brands (Glossier, Allbirds, Outdoor Voices etc.) are going very minimalist on their store designs, but at the same time creating a very strong sense of community among their customers, either through events, subscriptions or ambassadorships," he said.
That includes store staff — Brown says Bull Moose now hires applicants who can connect with customers, replacing a previous strategy of taking on experts in music and movies. "There's a lot of considerations there, but we've found that nice people do a better job of selling media than people who aren't," he said.
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