Rough Trade, Vinyl Hunter, and Earworm Records on navigating the new landscape...

It’s been two weeks since the government announced that all ‘non-essential’ shops could reopen again.

While many will have argued that record shops fit into the ‘essential’ category of stores allowed to open before this date, vinyl enthusiasts have had to wait patiently for their favourite stores to swing open their doors.

Clash caught up with Rough Trade East (London), Vinyl Hunter (Bury St Edmunds) and Earworm Records (York) to hear how shops in the capital and further afield have been staging their comebacks.

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Firstly, the words on everyone’s lips are: ‘customer safety’. The twelve-week lockdown is far from a distant memory – and though restrictions have been lifted, the threat of the virus remains at the front of store owners’ minds. However, while shop doors have been closed, record stores have been working behind the scenes to prepare for welcoming their customers back.

As Stephen Godfroy, Director of Rough Trade, says: “Being able to reopen our shops comes as a great relief. Of course, staff and public safety is the primary concern, but now we’ve all necessary measures in place for safe working and shopping, being able to finally re-engage with our customers in person, it’s a great feeling...”

So, what are the necessary measures shops have been taking? Wandering into Rough Trade East this weekend, the spot where wristbands are usually collected for a show has been replaced by a glove and hand sanitiser station. The café is closed to customers, there are perspex screens across tills, and the footfall in the shop is noticeably reduced.

While flicking through vinyl with blue plastic hands feels and looks a little alien, it’s comforting to know that safety is paramount. For smaller shops, the task of reopening has presented different challenges.

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Earworm Records is hidden at the end of a narrow brick passageway in York – and is a staple of the York music scene. As owner Paul reveals, the emphasis is not only on customer safety, but customer experience: “We’ve tried to think about how you feel as a customer going in, how your confidence changes while being in our shop. We wanted to make sure Earworm has done everything they can to make people feel comfortable”. 

Part of making people feel at ease is to incorporate a booking system for locals. Paul likens this to a boutique, bridal shop set up where customers can ring in advance for a designated browsing slot. This isn’t something they’d usually do, but it gives their dedicated customer base the chance to spend more time digging for vinyl gold.

For passers-by, it’s a matter of joining the back of the queue. The dedication stores have shown to their customers is evident, and reaffirms the record industry as one founded on community.

However, as much as record shop owners are prioritising the customer, the customers themselves are putting their favourite local independents first. As shops have reopened, the curve of physical sales is on the rise. During lockdown though, online sales have been booming. For small independents, customers buying directly from record stores has kept businesses ticking along.

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Will Hunter, owner of Vinyl Hunter in Suffolk, comments: “I’m feeling pretty confident about things really. We’ve been super busy online and working really hard. We’ve seen an exponential growth of sales on Discogs from people all over the world – I guess people are spending more time at home digging than they would normally. We’re getting orders come in for so much money, so we’ve been really pleasantly surprised”.

While online sales of vinyl peaked during lockdown, store owners predict that the momentum of e-commerce will continue in the months to come. At Rough Trade, work is being done to harness the power of digital, and realise its potential in shaping customer experience:

“We expect e-commerce to represent an increasingly significant part of our overall sales in the months and years ahead, despite so much of our company’s DNA being experiential, in person, live and up-close.”

“Those characteristics will continue to be at the forefront of who we are, but we’re reaching further than ever before with online sales, so CV forces us to think more about how we translate the quintessential Rough Trade store experience, digitally, online. We’re about to commence interactive live streaming events, which should be great fun and a new way for both artists and audiences to interact when celebrating the release of a new record or book”.

While the negative impacts of Coronavirus are incredibly easy to spot, it’s worth digging out the positives, dusting off the sleeves, and playing those records from time to time instead. Through this troubling time, the record industry has displayed a deep concern for its customers. Customers in return, have shown themselves to be fiercely loyal to the institutions they care about.

As Will Hunter of Vinyl Hunter rightly summarises: “It’s affirming that people really value music at a time like this...”

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Words: Sophie Church

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