Mom and Pop Stores: How Do The Succesful Ones Survive?

There's still a spot for some kinds of local stores, but they need to be digitally savyy

Even with all of the technology we have at our disposal today, the earth still holds its fair share of mysteries. Like how come water can't be duplicated? Or how high does the sky really go?

Another earthly mystery — although more solvable — is how do mom-and-pop stores survive in today's world of big store chains and giant franchises?

This question always plagues me whenever I see a small storefront window in the midst of large shopping centers with their brightly lit windows and multitudes of people. It's baffling to me. How do they stay in business?

Remember records? Remember stores?

Take record stores for example. Between the double whammy of the Internet and big-box retailers, mom-and-pop record stores have pretty much spun their last. 

Not so long ago going to a brick-and-mortar store to thumb through rows of vinyl, cassettes and CDs was a joyful part of the music listening experience. Today consumers seek out music with the expectation that it should not only be received immediately but also for free, or close to it.

Newly-released music is treated almost as if it's disposable, which has even made large retail stores suffer. I mean think about it, when was the last time you went to Best-Buy to purchase a CD? It's probably been a while, which shows that all stores — big and small — are suffering in this particular area.

But somehow not all mom-and-pops are hurting, which brings me back to my point of being amazed whenever I see one wedged between two chain stores. I always think it's beautifully defiant.

It's like seeing an older person at a music concert full of twenty-something’s. It's like two people from completely different cultures finding common ground or even falling in love despite social norms.

It's a way of small family-owned businesses saying, "Hey, we're still here and we're providing a type of service you big guys can't."

Some mom-and-pop stores have learned through the years that a certain number of consumers just won't deviate from the way they use to purchase things. This has helped many independent store owners stay competitive, especially in the area of music sales. Others have harnessed the Internet to turn their brick-and-mortar store into a real community that exists both offline and on.

Digital hurts and helps

Although both retail chains and the Internet have hurt mom-and-pop stores, Johnson Lee, owner of  Joe's Record Paradise, a D.C.- area store, says successful stores are using the web to their advantage as a way to bring their niche consumers together for proper advertising and community-building.

“At this point digital is big for us, i.e. Facebook, emails, lists, groups. You go on the Internet you find jazz vinyl lovers [for example], where all they do all day is talk about is 1950s jazz,” says Lee.

“If you can get into that, and say, hey guys we got lots of that, then promoting has become a little bit easier. You used to have to pay a newspaper to print something for you and now you can sort of get around that a little bit,” he explains.

One of the most spectacular examples of using digital media to sell older forms of music and entertainment is Amoeba, the California stores that have expanded beyond the mom-and-pop category but are still essentially local retailers surviving in a category that's supposed to be obsolete.

Amoeba operates stores in Hollywood, Berkeley and San Francisco and sells nearly every conceivable kind of music and movies "from the top 40 to the best in underground rock and hip-hop, soul, electronica, new and classic jazz, world music, roots music and experimental music," as the stores' website proclaims.  Amoeba sells and buys mostly vinyl LPs, CDs and DVDs, both new and used, but it also stocks turntables and other gear, sells downloads of some recordings and sponsors all kinds of in-store and around-town activities.

"We're more than just a record store-- we're a 21st century music outlet, a website, a popular live performance venue, and together with our customers we're a meeting place for California's most colorful community of progressive and creative minds," Amoeba says. 

My colleague Truman Lewis, an Amoeba fan, says that Amoeba is "what Borders Books was trying to be -- a community gathering place that attracts a wide range of consumers looking for a shopping experience and social outing that amounts to a little more than sitting in front of a computer screen." 

Besides buying and selling records, CDs and DVDs, you see live performances, listen to poetry readings, go to a cookbook party, meet recording artists and even register to vote. 

At the Amoeba store on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, you also have a shot at running into some of the actors and artists whose work you admire -- not to mention bumping into actors and artists whose work you may admire a few years from now. The place is routinely packed right up until its 11 p.m. closing time each night.    

Niche market

“It's a niche market that really never went away," said Johnson Lee. “A lot of people thought vinyl died when it just hibernated for a bit. There was always the core group of people that would never switch to a different format because they're addicted to vinyl.

“They love the sound, the feel of it, the artwork,” and the liner notes he said. “Big business corporate guys, they don't want small businesses around because it challenges their supremacy.”

Lee also said that mom-and-pop's survival sometimes depends on consumer trends returning from the past and younger generations being exposed to the buying ways of yesteryear.

“For at least ten years kids thought that's all there was, [digital music]” he says. “I've got young kids now and you turn on Nickelodeon and there will be a waffle commercial and the kid is DJ'ing a waffle, so the kids are being indoctrinated again to the vinyl side of things, which may be an industry move after all.

“At least the industry is somewhat supporting this move because you can't download vinyl, he adds. “If they [the music industry] print a vinyl record, they actually get to sell it instead of having the new Britney Spears album get spread to the millions of teenage girls that have Dropbox.”

Lee notes there is practically a universe of content that has not yet made it into digital form, and perhaps never will. 

“There's so much music from the 50, 60s, 70s, 80s, that never made it to CD,” says Lee. “So you come in here and you spend two or three hours, you're going to find 150 new artists that you never heard of that may interest you and lead you to other bands that they were in.”

Original form 

Lee also says people of the older generations are bringing their kids and grandkids into mom-and-pop stores not only to introduce them to products of the past, but also to introduce them to the way things were bought in previous times. “It's a cultural point to come and check out American soul,” he says.

Lee took over the music shop, located in Silver Spring, Md. from his father Joe back in 2008, and the 36-year old says the family-owned business actually started in Los Angeles on Hollywood Boulevard, under the name Platypus Records.

After Lee's parents wanted to settle down in a more residential area, they decided to return to Joe's childhood stomping ground within the Washington, D.C., area.

Despite taking over the store around the time the current recession hit, Lee says he's been able to expand his location twice over and at the moment the store is in good financial standing.

What advice does Lee have for people starting small businesses in today's risky business climate?

“You just have to be smart, work hard, make good decisions and hopefully you'll survive, he says. “No one here is getting rich, but it’s a tradeoff. If you've got enough luck you'll make it.”

Story provided by ConsumerAffairs.
Consumer Affairs

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