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What cooking taught me about running a record store

“People like to browse shops and are spontaneous buyers so having too much choice is a good thing.”
Paul Cook - Heartland Records

When Paul Cook decided to open a record store back in the early 90s there was no such thing as the internet, much less iTunes and eBay. Some things you just can’t prepare for but it’s essential you learn to adapt.

Fast forward 24 years and Heartland Records has never been more secure. You could even say it's on sound footing (geddit?) - and this despite the fact in Melbourne there are more record stores per-capita than anywhere else in the world.

How did he do it and what did he learn along the way? His answers just may prove to be music to your ears. If nothing else you’ll discover what cooking and running a record shop have in common.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What kind of businessman are you?

I'm probably not your standard businessman and tend to lead with my heart rather than my head on occasion. This may not have been the best way to start a business, but having survived and stabilised I feel I can hold my head up high knowing that I stuck by my beliefs and acted in an honest and dignified way. These things are very important to me and I have applied them to anything I have done.

Take us back to the beginning. What were you doing before this?
Before owning Heartland I was a chef. Although I enjoyed the catering industry I never really felt it was for me and had no aspirations to own my own restaurant or anything. My first love has always been music, but the thought of owing or wanting to own a record store never crossed my mind.

Back in the late 1980s I was going to every record shop and lots of record fairs and thought maybe I could do this as a sideline/hobby-type thing. I started accumulating some stock and did my first record fair around 1990. I really enjoyed the buzz I got from being a part of it all instead of just a customer.

After a year or so of doing markets and fairs in my spare time the hotel I was working at shut down. I now had a decision to make. It was tough because this coincided with the birth of my daughter. The easy route would have been to just get another job as a chef but I decided to give record dealing a go.

How much capital did you have?
My friend Chris and I had less than $10,000 to start with and had tried to get a bank loan, but neither of us owned any property so that was not an option.

It was 1993 and we were on our own with no retail or business experience between us. The amount of stock we had was nowhere near enough to fill a shop but we had signed a three-year lease so thought it best to open the doors and see what happened.

I had a friend design a logo and we got the windows painted and an A frame made to put out on the street - and that was about all we could afford.

What mistakes did you make early on?
One of our customers was a bank manager and he gave us a loan to buy a car. We sunk the money into buying more stock to try to make the shop look a bit more full and appealing. It’s an easy mistake to make early on and one I made several times over. Buying too much stock and not keeping cash on hand for emergencies can lead to cash-flow problems.

Having vast amounts of stock does not always equal bigger sales and I learned it is best to concentrate on what you have and presenting it in the best way possible when times are lean.

How have you had to adapt to changing technology over the years?
The early 90s had seen the death knell for vinyl, with CDs taking the main percentage of the market. Australia had all but stopped pressing vinyl so imports were the only way to stock your shop. This wasn’t such a bad thing for me as I had contacts set up outside Australia and had always concentrated on niche markets.

For shops that weren’t niche the CD price wars would have been a problem. All the major chains were discounting and, with their buying power, it would have been impossible to be competitive.

Did your former job (chef) have any impact on your current job?

Being a chef taught me how to work in a fast, orderly way as well as concentrate on presentation. I have been told many times how neat and orderly my shop is and first appearances count for a lot. I think the shop is a representation of myself and I'm sure this is something that has paid off because people talk and I hear over and over about how this shop or that shop is dirty and messy and has no new stock, etc. Word of mouth has been one of our best allies over the years.

When you opened in 1993 there was no such thing as iTunes or digital music. How big an impact did that have on your business and how big an impact does it continue to have?

By the late 90s the internet had become a serious competitor to all retail outlets. eBay in particular gave people more options. The warning bells were ringing and the next few years were tough. The thought of just going back to trading at fairs certainly crossed my mind. It doesn’t matter how quiet the shop is you still get all the bills at the end of the month and I was struggling leading into the early 2000s.

Around 2003, a thing called iTunes appeared and this made trips to your local music store redundant. This new technology certainly had an effect  on us, but nowhere near as much as it would have hit the major chain stores.

I still stand by the fact you can’t download a record and, with that in mind, concentrated on having a diverse range of titles and getting new stock as often as possible to keep things fresh.

Rather than battle technology I thought it best to embrace it so I started selling on eBay and did very well out of selling unique Australian product to a worldwide audience.

New things are always daunting, especially the older you get, but in order to survive you have to acknowledge them or at least decide what may be a fad and what is here to stay.

There is usually a honeymoon period for anything before it becomes the norm so there aren’t many surprises. I don’t consider myself a technically-minded person but I’ve forced myself to keep up. Trying to get my website up and running the first time almost reduced me to tears but, in retrospect, that was due to choosing a poor company. So I advise people to choose carefully when making this kind of important decision.

How important is your website?

With the rise in popularity of online shopping competition is higher than ever and a website, or at least a strong web presence, is essential.

Although our web sales only count for less than 20 per cent of our total sales I still see it as a very strong advertising tool and spend a lot of time working on this side of things.

We update every day and add new product weekly. It’s essential to keep people interested and, along with Facebook and Instagram, it makes people feel like they are part of something instead of just a customer.

How much has your business changed over the years? How have you adapted?

Rather than concentrate on any one product we have always diversified, selling posters, shirts, turntables, badges and anything music-related.

I’ve always believed keeping things fresh and not just selling one product is the key to survival. Most standalone CD and DVD shops have closed down over the last few years and only the ones who diversified have survived.

How much competition is there?

Melbourne has more than 50 record stores, which is probably the highest per-capita anywhere in the world. The competition is tougher than it has ever been and covering all bases is essential.

What’s one of your biggest problems now?
Vinyl is more popular than it has ever been. Just about every artist is releasing vinyl and record companies are pressing all the back catalogues they abandoned for CD. One of the main problems facing stores these days is what do I stock? Nobody can stock everything and the new-release sheets keep coming day after day. Do I restock what I just sold or get something new in? These are nice problems to have but problems nonetheless because mistakes can prove costly.

I still believe if you have an item in stock in front of someone you have a much better chance of selling it than offering to order it in. People like to browse shops and are spontaneous buyers so having too much choice is a good thing.

Fast-forward 10 years: what do you see for Heartland Records?
I believe the new interest in vinyl will mean it is around forever now. I would say the popularity will continue to rise for a while before levelling out. Then people who are no longer interested in vinyl will sell their collections which will help keep shops afloat.

Finally, tell us about Record Store Day. How big is it for a business like yours?

Record Store Day is one of the best things to have come along. Now in its tenth year, it celebrates and supports independent record stores around the world. It is the biggest retail day of the year and by far the most enjoyable. This year there are more than 500 exclusive vinyl releases made available for the first time on the day. Many are very limited; this causes a lot of interest. Last year we had people outside the shop at 5.30am and, by the time we opened at 9am, there was a long queue down the street.

Three pieces of advice for other small business operators?

  1. Stick to what you believe is the right way to go about something. I was given six months by some of my peers when I first opened and managed to survive for 25 years because I believed in what I was doing. Being a stubborn Capricorn helped, too!
  2. Have faith in your own judgement.
  3. Treat people as you would like to be treated yourself.

Heartland Records
420 Victoria St, North Melbourne