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And most of the chains, including Tower and Virgin, do employ local buyers so they can stay on top of current trends. Even though the independent stores still cover the gaps better, the chains are gaining. Now that the playing field has been leveled in some respects, it may be more difficult for independent stores to keep from being leveled along with it. If anything, say the indie buyers, the strides chains have made in terms of stock selection have only made independent stores try harder.
"One thing I've noticed is we tend to emphasize more indie and imports," says CD World's Bill Stafford. "To a degree, the chains do affect us in that we have made a conscious decision not to be a faceless, bland supermarket chain. But part of that is who works here. [Owner Mike Schoder] is not a supermarket guy. He is more than happy to let you add something if you tell him it's good and can sell, which is not the option at other places. Here we're able to pursue the indie niche that Virgin or Tower or Blockbuster can't."
Not only that, but independent stores can adapt to trends on the fly better than Tower or Virgin, whose local buyers are, for the most part, still bound to the selections available from their in-town and out-of-town distributors. If there is a demand for a certain record, the smaller stores can add it to their catalog much more simply than one of the chains, turning around orders in a matter of days instead of weeks. (Indeed, Virgin's Grapevine Mills location isn't even accepting special orders until February.) The smaller stores can gamble and take chances without getting the go-ahead from anyone at the corporate office.
"The people who work here listen to music and know what's out, and we know once people hear it they want it," Stafford says. "A couple of years ago, a guy who worked here bought a promo copy of Exit Planet Dust by the Chemical Brothers, and he listened to it and said, 'It's killer! I can sell it,' and every time someone came in and said, 'I'm looking for something new and funky,' we put it in their hands. I can't tell you how many hundreds we sold. And we added it not because anybody wanted it, but because someone heard it here and knew it would move."
Independent stores also have an ace in the hole that Virgin and Tower can't compete with: used CDs.
One look at the chart that accompanies this story reveals that for all their ability to order in mass quantities, the chain stores still sell their discs at exorbitant prices. So why does R.E.M.'s new album Up cost $13.91 at CD World, but at Tower it runs you $17.99? Because CD World can offset the paltry one-dollar profit it makes off of a new CD with the three or four bucks it gets from the sale of used discs. At Virgin or Tower, the higher markup ($3-$5) is necessary to stay afloat. In a way, CD World's price strategy is kind of the reverse of Best Buy's loss-leader tactics, getting people into the store so they'll buy several cheaper items instead of a single large one.
"If Best Buy is selling R.E.M. for $11.99 and we're selling it for $13.91, they're selling it for what they were charged for it," Stafford says. "They're a monolithic corporation, and they can cut all sorts of back-room deals and can also charge you $1,500 for a refrigerator that costs them $600. Honestly, most used-CD stores like us sell new releases at a low margin to entice you to buy used stuff, because we make more money on used CDs. We don't hide that fact. But we still get people a good deal."
Still, these days, the Internet may be the best record store around. A week ago, the Dallas Observer received a missive from Anthony Wilson, an Abilene resident who disapproved of several of the picks on our list of the best albums of 1998 ("Listen Up," December 24), including Jets to Brazil's Orange Rhyming Dictionary, Rufus Wainwright's self-titled debut, and Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. He insisted that "these are performers [that] most of your readers, particularly those who live in cultural meccas such as Abilene, will never have the opportunity to hear or purchase." But even people who live in Abilene have access to the Internet, as Wilson--who found the story on our Web site, then complained about it via e-mail--so ably pointed out.
All of the albums on our year-end lists are available through CDNow (cdnow.com) or Music Boulevard (musicblvd.com), and both sites have downloadable sound clips (in Real Audio format) as well. People used to drive from Oklahoma to catch the new wave at VVV Records, but with the advent of the Internet, there's no need for anyone to do that anymore. Of course, the cheap prices aren't so cheap once you factor in shipping and handling, and it takes a few days to receive your order, but basically every record you want or need is a point and click away.
No store is safe anymore.
Additional research provided by Jessica Parker.