Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Change or Die

Sam The Record Man's flagship Yonge store is closing... again.

For anyone who has lived in Toronto, this is a landmark. The "spinning" neon records over the entrance, the sheer size of it, the history. 70 years ago it opened, and was THE record store in the city. None bigger, none better.

The Barenaked Ladies snuck their first indie tape into the racks because they figured it was the easiest way to get discovered by the masses. They were right. The fact that none of the employees knew what to charge for the album didn't matter. Sam let it stay.

CityTV started it's newscast and Late Great Movies with a shot of the store, so you knew they were in Toronto.

Sam himself became an icon in the city, and could often be found sitting behind the counter chatting with his employees and always willing to help out a customer.

Sam's sons reopened the place 5 years ago when it last closed its doors. Over 100 stores across the country existed, now there are 2. Competition from HMV hurt in the 90's and early 21st century, especially when they opened a bigger, newer store just across the road from Sam's.

The sons claim that technology, namely online shopping, is what has hurt them most. This is certainly possible, although I think they're putting too much blame there. I mean, HMV, Sunrise, and Music World all still operate brick and mortar stores and haven't shuttered-up yet.

Of course, those stores look newer and have incentives for customers to come in. 3 for $30 deals on DVDs, 3 for $20, club cards, sales, huge indie, Criterion, or World Music sections, etc, etc, etc. Plus they are universally cheaper than Sam's.

Sam's was cool when it was the only big player on the block. Now it just looks old and outdated. Drab colours, decor that hasn't changed in 70 years, overpriced merchaindise, hard-to-find staff, confusing layout. It tried so hard to look like a corner record shop, but you knew it wasn't, so you couldn't forgive the frugality.

5 million people during a work day in the city. The largest per-capita movie-viewing public in North America, and a lot of music and culture lovers with a wide range of tastes. There's no reason they should have failed outside of their own reluctance or inability to change with the times.

Sure, they opened their big DVD section a few years back... it looked like a newer version of the rest of the store. And it doesn't take much to walk across the street to Sunrise or HMV and find the same stock for cheaper. Boxing Day for me was making a pass through all 3, and then buying each item where it was cheapest. That would often mean 1, maybe 2 things from Sam's, if the line wasn't too long (and last year it definitely wasn't), and 10-20 each from the other two.

Why not make the effort? When you shuttered and re-opened before, it was a prime opportunity to re-do the store. I'm not even talking a multi-million dollar reno, but re-arranging the racks, painting, laying down some laminate flooring... something. If you felt technology was killing you, then you should have embraced it. Where is your website? It didn't need to be an online store, but some place to advertise, check stock and prices, and put items on hold. Why not have a points or membership card? Sell MP3 players. Hell, have an MP3 kiosk in the store to let people buy and download songs directly on their players. Push your indie and unknown selections, start a buy/sell/trade program, lower your prices... there are a ton of possible options that you missed the boat on.

Sorry boys, but don't blame the Internet, blame yourselves. When a store doesn't make strides to keep up or pass their customers and competition, it will die. Nostalgia and history only go so far, especially when your base gets older and you aren't replenishing it.

I'll miss seeing Sam's, it's just another piece of my city that will fade away. At the same time, I'm curious as to what will replace it. That's a prime piece of real estate.

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