On commissioned staff in record stores

2011 note: Today’s announcement of the closure of the HMV store at Robson and Burrard in Vancouver sparked a bunch of Twitter commentary, including me giving a short version of this soapbox rant. Basically, it comes down to the chains ceased to be relevant years ago when instead of maintaining a broad stock they became more and more specialized to Top 40 when the reality is music fans who actually buy CDs have always tended to be into more niche stuff while Top 40 is disposible and a vicious cycle emerged as soon as Amazon allowed people to do their own special orders for far cheaper. Why pay $30 for an import at HMV when you can get it from Amazon for $13? Etc.

Anyway, figured I’d repost this from my old blog from 2010 since it kind of relates to chain stores and the death thereof. And it goes with my other re-post today, the Age of the Import.

What happened was a friend emailed me asking my thoughts regarding something she had read.

A singer in Quebec apparently is convinced that the way to combat declining record sales is to put clerks on commission. His complaints were that in regular chain record stores he feels that the “kids” know nothing about music beyond the basic ability to file CDs alphabetically, and gave an example of traveling to a smaller town to do an in-store where he was incensed that the clerks hadn’t bothered to listen to his record and promote it beforehand.

He asked how a customer was supposed to know to buy his record if no clerk told them to do so, and compared going into a record shop with walking onto a car dealership’s lot.

This post is based on my response to the story [don’t have a link handy and it was in French anyway], and was written as much from a business perspective as I worked for an indie record label at the time, so it’s pretty different from what I usually post here, but still relevant.


Not sure I agree with the assertion that music store sales staff need to be commissioned and that would solve the music industry’s woes. He has a point in that commissioned staff make more energetic efforts, but on the other hand, a lot of car salesmen will gladly sell you a lemon because what difference does it make to him whether the car’s any good or not?

They care about the commission, not your consumer needs or wants.

Personally, I loathe stores with commission sales staff. I feel hassled by them. The nanosecond I walk in the door it’s “Hi how are you what are you looking for today? We don’t stock that – can I interest you in this other thing that isn’t what you want but which is more expensive and gets me a better commission?” I can’t browse and make up my mind in peace. And if I go in and they don’t have what I want they will try to sell me some useless hunk of crap instead. My solution is to avoid such stores, or if I must go in, I’ll use their website to make a plan of attack, march straight to the item I want and get out as fast as possible and try to avoid making eye contact with the staff. If it was music I was buying, and I have the choice of get it now but deal with pushy sales staff or buy it in peace from Amazon, which is probably cheaper anyway, and have to wait a couple weeks, I’ll likely buy it online.

Generally speaking, commissions don’t help salesmen to actually find what the customer wants and give them that. In every sales situation I’ve heard of, they are given scripts to work from and a list of what the store is pushing today and a lot is dependent on what the company wants to sell that week and manipulating customers into taking that instead.

I don’t think I’m alone there. There’s a reason why a lot of stores make it a selling point in their commercials that their sales staff are NOT commissioned.

I can only say that the odd time I have had a record store clerk chatting me up about an artist I hadn’t asked them about, if I hadn’t previously heard of them, I was probably going to tune them out anyway unless I heard the music and it blew me away, and even then, if I had $40 to spend and a list of stuff I already liked that I wanted more than this new band, probably that was what I was going to buy anyway.

Off the top of my head, buying on a clerk’s recommendation for a band I’d never previously heard of has happened only once in my life. It was one of the Seymour Street import shops in ’94 or ’95, the sales guy was cute, and I do think actually that he played the CD for me before I actually bought it and it was genuinely great music. So even then it’s not just a recommendation that made the sale.

Also, humans are relatively clever critters despite appearances. We can tell the difference between a genuinely enthusiastic authentic recommendation and a scripted sales pitch.

Thing is, with music it’s not just bands you love and like, there are bands you actively despise – what happens if one of those is the one the commissioned staff have been told to push you to buy today? Will you be able to set that aside in order to have trust in their other recommendations or will you decide they don’t know their ass from their elbow?


Majors and Indies: Cui bono?


Think of current major label releases and tell me if you think it’s a benefit to the customer if the sales staff would push them. Do you want to walk into a chain store and some pushy kid is trying to tell you how great the new album by today’s annoying dumb skank pop tart is?

Only the majors will have the ability to entice the chain stores into pushing their albums. This is the case now in regards to postering, promotions, getting the album played in the store, and listening post spots and it would not be any different under a commission system. Their sales are slumping as badly as anyone’s, and they’d be the ones most likely to have a chance to benefit from such a push. If people don’t want the music they’re selling for whatever reason [a whole other topic of discussion], why would commissioned sales staff be able to override those reasons?

Make no mistake, small labels will not have the clout to make the sales push happen in a commission-based system. A large number of the smaller indie labels are already abandoning chain stores in their sales plans, or if they push to get their stock there it’s an afterthought beyond niche stores, online music vendors [either for CDs or MP3s] and offstage sales. The notion is that it’s cool if a fan just happens to walk into that chain shop wanting your CD and it’s there, but you expect it’s far more likely the fan will order it from the band’s website or from iTunes or from some other source.


How Did We Get Here?


In the early to mid ’90s, I was able to go to the little HMV in my local mall and find all but the most obscure releases that I wanted, and the downtown HMV was a wonderland. I could find moderately obscure stuff downtown at Sam the Record Man or A&B Sound and those were the good old days of Track Records and Odyssey Imports and they had me covered for everything else.

Those are gone now.

While the internet and piracy often gets blamed for the disruption in the industry, I can’t help but notice that the import shops I remember being so vibrant in my teenaged years had disappeared before I ever had so much as an email account. The internet was in its infancy with no real bandwidth to speak of and it was still a few years before Napster.

For a little while in the mid ’90s I seem to recall being able to get more of the specialty records at the bigger chain stores for prices that undercut the import shops. I suspect that was a major contribution to their demise, probably along with various details associated with each specific store and what was going on in the lives of the owners and the scene they supplied at that moment in time and generational shifts in customers. I’d have to go ask friends of mine who used to work at the import shops what they remember of what killed the import shops on Seymour Street, but hey, the singer wasn’t bitching about a Mom and Pop sort of record shop anyway.

I don’t pretend to have the complete answer, but from my own recollections, a lot of the reason why I stopped buying at chain stores was the growing inability to find what I wanted as the stock in the chain stores became less and less diverse. It was a slow process over a number of years of not being able to get anything there and having to order it and wait. Eventually I was able to just order things myself online for less money and a shorter delay.

While things would hopefully be better at the downtown location, the little mall HMV now stocks only the most mainstream shit, with a teeny section of “mainstream” metal releases, but hey – I don’t listen to metal, so I’m still out of luck. I sometimes fare better at Best Buy, but usually not. And Future Shop at Lansdowne Mall used to be not too terrible overall, but the last time I was there their music section was reduced to just a couple of racks, maybe a third of the floor space previously used in this section and pretty much stocking only the most mainstream and safest of albums. I walked out in disgust and the only thing I’ve bought there since is a new printer.

A chain like HMV – not to keep harping on them, it just seems that they’re the only one left here in Canada – that used to be almost all music is now envisioning itself as a general entertainment source with movies, TV on DVDs, and video games that continually take up more and more rack space. It amounts to less and less corporate interest in music sales and less and less rack space for music equals less and less selection in music choices. This in turn makes for more and more consumer frustration at not being able to find what we want, which leads to fewer music sales, which leads to more rack space given over to other entertainment products as music consumers seek other solutions. It’s a bad scene and a major violation of one of the fundamental laws of branding: do one thing and do it well.

This is one of the more fundamental problems with music retailing and commissioning the sales staff does nothing to address it. As such it’s a band-aid solution at best and at worst it could further decimate sales – is the commission only on music sales or also on all the other products sold in-store? Does the staff actually receive an incentive to sell more music or are they equally inclined to sell more XBox games?

These days when I think of buying music it doesn’t usually occur to me to visit any of the chain stores. If it’s old music I want, I either hit ebay.ca or one of the local used vinyl shops. If it’s new music I want, I hit the band or the label’s website.


The Future of Chain Stores


I do think the chain stores are doomed just like Tower Records in the USA – they can’t compete with the prices, convenience, or selection of ordering CDs online, and if their staff were to suddenly get pushy and annoying because of commissions, that would only put more money in Amazon’s coffers and further the downward spiral.

The last time I bought anything at a chain record store was last fall when I had Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” stuck in my brain and finally relented to buy the album. I figured that while the vast majority of the stuff I like is not available in chain stores, there was a good chance Nickelback might be. Even then, for a major selling hit record on a major label, I had to go to a couple different locations before finally finding a copy. (!!!)

I finally found it at London Drugs of all places.

That may sound like a whole other issue from whether or not sales staff should be on commission, but I hope it all illustrates my point that the motivation of the sales staff is hardly the major factor in why sales overall have dropped and why chain stores in particular are struggling or dying.

From the consumer perspective, in a lot of niche audiences, chain stores stopped being part of the music distribution chain back in the late 1990s and throughout this decade as the range of stocked titles shrunk further and further, either through the high prices [ie, why would a fan buy the new Front Line Assembly CD for $20 from HMV when they can order it directly from their label, Metropolis Records, for $13? Or if they happen to tour soon, directly from their merch table and then hang around and get it autographed maybe?] or just plain getting sick of hearing “Nope, we don’t have it, but we could order it for you and in three months you might be able to get it if you’re lucky” a thousand times whenever I would ask if a given CD was in stock? Eventually you learn to go to where you can get what you want rather than run around to all the places which never have it.

Once those patterns of checking for new music at the local chain stores are broken, they will likely never be repaired.


Niche Stores


However, it’s quite possible and realistic for more niche record stores to survive and maybe even thrive, but they’re selling a few things that neither the chains nor the online retailers can match, including access to rare music that the chains don’t want to bother with anymore and genuinely knowledgeable and passionate staff. They’re selling a relationship with the store and a community of like-minded music fans and you can’t fake that with commission-driven staff. They’re selling discovery, as when I go to Zulu on a hunting expedition with a list of obscure industrial vinyl that I want and I will spend an hour digging through the bins seeing what I can find – can I find that old Moev 12″? When I do, it’s a victory, something related to our oldest hunter-gatherer instincts. When I go to one of the chains, I know none of this is possible even if the kids are trying to be helpful, therefore I don’t bother.


Expectations About Clerks


Generally speaking, I haven’t had too many experienced with music store clerks who were as completely blasé and useless as was described.

I’m not overly impressed that this singer is whining about clerks not having listened to his record first. Is this someone who’s moving enough units to actually expect that? I get the impression he’s probably not – he sounds fairly frustrated at being unable to get ahead in the way that he desires. Which is certainly valid, I know how frustrating it is. Even so, hate to tell him, but really record store clerks have the job of ringing up the sales because of how we buy music. You can’t expect them to know every release in a store – even in a teeny mall record shop in the suburbs or a small town with really shitty selection there will still be thousands of albums on offer. Why should they push yours instead of another one?

Take the matter up with the promo rep on your label. (And if you don’t have one… well, then there’s a whole other facet to the issue of why you’re not high up on the priority list of the kids at the chain record store.)

As for the comparison to car dealerships, the average car lot may have many cars, but mostly they’re different colors of perhaps five or six main models, each with a few different options packages [eg. you can buy a Mazda 3 Sedan, a Mazda 3 Sport or a Mazda Speed 3]. This makes it far simpler to have in-depth knowledge of all the available models, whereas in a record shop, even a small one in a mall with limited selection, there may still be a thousand different titles on the shelves and many more available for order. It’s not humanly possible to know everything about all of them.

I know a few guys who work at the HMV downtown here in Vancouver. All of them are hardcore music freaks with a deep knowledge of many different artists and at least casual knowledge of several genres, but let’s be blunt – the guy who loves industrial and metal who can recite details of every single Ministry side project that ever existed or was even thought about is not going to bother to be too knowledgeable about country-pop beyond the barest necessities. Is he really sure that the kids don’t know anything about music period? Or is it just that they didn’t know anything about him?


Music as an Identity Product


It still seems weird to think of music as a product to me, probably because the way we interact with music is different than any other product. Music becomes a part of you and your identity. It shores up your image of yourself, realistic or not. It gets under your skin.

Even in similar artists, people can be very polarized in their preferences for one or the other. Why do I have one friend who absolutely adores Stabbing Westward and others who love similar music who insist Stabbing Westward were hacks? Well, because the friend who likes them obviously connected strongly with something about how they write and their sound and the others didn’t. In a very real way, Stabbing Westward is a part of him, and the product of the CDs is incidental to that.

Music is such a personal taste thing and there are so many thousands of products available that I think a hard push strategy would simply turn even more people off of buying music in stores.


Getting Your Album Noticed


As an artist, the cold hard reality of life in the music industry in the 21st century is that you are the number one salesman for your music. If your stuff is really good and happens to line up with the personal preferences of the guy working in the record shop and he gets the sense that the customer walking in the door might have similar tastes, perhaps he will throw it out there that “hey, you should check out _____ – they’re really cool and you might dig ’em!” But you can’t expect the universe to serve that up for you. You need to create the desire for your music such that the customer will enter the store already thinking that they’d like to pick up your disc.

How is the customer going to know to buy your record? Because they’ve heard of you already through media buzz. Because they checked out your website and liked it. Because they heard you on the radio and liked you. Because their buddy was playing it at his house the last time they were over there or was telling them “ya gotta check out this band, it’s fucking awesome!” Because they saw you play a show with for another band they liked and they liked your set [I have many CDs I’ve bought under such circumstances and tend to think offstage sales are far more important than store sales for new talent]. Because you remixed a song for a band they already like and they liked your remixing work. Because your album cover interests them and they were able to check the disc out at a listening booth in the store. Because they read an interview with their favorite artist who mentioned liking your stuff [some of my favorite bands now I first heard of through interviews with Trent Reznor]. Because they were already exposed to you in some other way. Because they already like you. Because they connect with you and your music.

Salesmen in general can’t help you because, unless it’s a small indie shop where the customers have built a relationship with the staff and trust their opinion [which is pretty much the same as “a friend recommended it”], most people have had enough dealings with sales staff foisting crap on them from all manner of different industries that people shut them out. It’s not a wise marketing strategy for an identity-related product.

Most of the music sales I’ve seen lately are like this: you hear about a band, you check them out, if you like them, you go on a purposeful mission to find that CD or LP [if you want a physical copy] or you punch that band’s name into iTunes and get it that way. Browsing may still happen in specialty shops, but even there, I can’t recall ever in my 20 years as a music consumer going and asking the sales guy to tell me what I should spend my money on. The closest I ever came to that was back in the 1990s at Odyssey Imports [probably back when Phil Western worked there!] or Track Records and liking the album playing in the store, asking what it was and buying it.


In-Store Appearances


It sounds to me that his expectations for the in-store were rather unrealistic.

The point of an in-store appearance is not to get random people in the store who don’t know you to suddenly become rabid fans. The point of an in-store is for there to be a chance for your already existing fans in the area to get to meet you and to forge a stronger bond with them by doing so.

Or as so many marketing books will tell you: it’s much cheaper and more profitable to sell to an existing client than to go find a new one. In-store appearances are a tool to sell to “existing clients” and also to turn casual fans into bigger fans. If Lady Gaga does an in-store appearance, it’s probably only going to be her dedicated fans who come and wait in line to talk to her. And they’re probably bringing stuff for her to sign that they already had, the benefit to the store is more in long-term good will on the part of the fan who might be more inclined to shop at the store where she met her idol, though they may indeed sell a few units at the in-store.

To look at a less-famous example, when iVardensphere did an in-store at a shop in Winnipeg a couple of months ago, the label promoted it, the band did, the store did, but it wasn’t anyone totally new to iVardensphere who came out to it. It was fans who already loved their work and people who had heard a few tracks and thought they were cool who came out to get CDs signed and buy t-shirts and get their pics taken with the guys.

Also, it was the afternoon of a day they were playing a show in Winnipeg. They didn’t head out there just for the in-store. An in-store is best thought of, I think, as a daytime version of the time-honoured post-concert autograph line-up by the tour bus ritual.

I’d have to question what the fellow hoped to accomplish with an in-store in the small town – if he didn’t already have a fan-base there, did he seriously think it would have been different if the clerks were on commission and had been chatting up his record? And if they were on commission, again: is he really sure that it would be his record they would have chatted up?