Staring down cyberspace
Lots of people shop from their computers. Others still like to handle the merchandise.
Kelly Shelton and his wife, Kathy, own Edwards Video, and recently opened Eagle Video. But the days when every little town had a video store, or two, are long gone, replaced by pay-per-view movies on cable or dish. Netflix will send movies straight to your mailbox.
Video stores, it seems, are about as relevant these days as buggy-whip shops. So why would the Sheltons own not one, but two of them?
The answer’s simple, of course: There are customers who still want to go to a store, browse the displays, handle the cases and take something home immediately.
Online it can also be hard to just shoot the breeze with someone behind the sales counter. On a recent evening, that’s what Tom Robbins was doing at Eagle Valley Music in the West Vail Mall. He and a regular were gabbing about bands, import versions of discs, and music in general.
Even while Web sales of videos, books and music grow, some customers still like to make personal connections when they shop. Shelton, Robbins and other small retailers count on those personal connections to keep their cash registers ringing.
It’s getting harder to move items such as videos, music and books across a small shop’s counter, though. Amazon alone rang up more than $10 billion in sales in 2006, mostly in books, CDs and DVDs. Apple’s iTunes store sold 5 million songs every day in 2006.
It’s hard to argue with that kind of success. And shopping is simple.
“I like you can buy one song at a time with iTunes,” Avon resident Dan Douglas said. Douglas acknowleged it’s been years since he went into a store to buy a CD.
Between free music services and iTunes, he keeps his music collection humming.
David Sandman works the bar at Finnegan’s Wake in Avon. He said he’ll go to Eagle Valley Music for special items, but he mostly shops and rents online.
“It’s hard to get in the car sometimes,” Sandman said.
When Blockbuster eliminated its late fees, Sandman used that store in Vail and the online service. Now, with Blockbuster gone, he rents from his computer.
“I can just download something, and I know it won’t be edited for content the way Blockbuster did sometimes,” Sandman said.
For music, Sandman leans heavily on iTunes and Wal-Mart’s Web site.
“I’m more than willing to pay 99 cents for a song,” he said.
Blake Best likes poking around for obscure albums at hole-in-the-wall record stores. But that’s an activity best performed in a city. When he’s home in Avon, he uses online services, mostly free ones.
“My girlfriend does mostly online shopping,” Best said. “It’s convenient, and it goes right to your front door.”
But small, local shops hang on with the promise of human contact and knowlege.
Talk to Nicole Magistro for more than about 10 seconds and her passion for books, and bookstores, becomes apparent.
Magistro started working at the Bookworm in Edwards six years ago. Three years ago, she bought the business. With full knowlege of her online competition, she expanded and bought store space in the Riverwalk center.
The new space, tucked away in the complex, draws a steady crowd even at mid-day on a weekday.
“I love coming in here,” customer Sarah Giovagnoli said. “It’s fun to come in and just browse.”
Giovagnoli said she did a lot of her Christmas shopping at the Bookworm, and cringes just a little at the mention of Amazon.com.
“I’ve never bought anything from them,” she said.
Fellow customer Linda Galvin said she buys from Amazon once in a while, but does most of her book-buying at the Bookworm.
“I like the personal attention,” Galvin said. “I do a lot on the Internet, and it’s pretty impersonal.”
Galvin isn’t the only one looking for personal service.
“The pendulum is swinging back,” Magistro said. “There were more independent bookstores opened in 2007 than the year before. People in greater numbers every year appreciate the value of independent businesses.”
Magistro makes sure the people she hires are avid readers. As Galvin was leaving with a book, Magistro told her it had been a favorite of one of her employees.
Shelton said he won’t hire anyone for his stores who doesn’t love to watch movies.
“You don’t hire a kid from McDonald’s to run your video store,” he said.
But stores also have to be open when customers are available.
When Robbins’ store moved to West Vail, next door to the Sandbar, he and his mom, Jeannie, decided to keep the store open until midnight. The Sheltons’ stores are open at night, and the Bookworm stays open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays.
“I believe we should be open when our customers want us to be open,” Magistro said. “Big stores have trained us that we can get our shopping done any time and we have to recognize that.”
Beyond hours, small stores have to try to do things Web stores don’t.
At Shelton’s store, all the DVDs are inspected and cleaned before being rented again. The store also sells movie-butter flavor popcorn and other snacks.
“Netflix can’t do any of that,” he said.
Eagle Valley Music customers will usually get a promotional CD or poster Robbins has received from his suppliers when they buy a new disc. It’s a way to provide buyers with a little extra for their money, Robbins said. So is a small discount for paying cash.
There’s a supply of old and new vinyl albums in the store, as well as comics, posters and other items. While vinyl will never again hold the place of honor it once did in record collections, Robbins is moving more of itthese days ” in part, he said, because of the ritual of playing a record, and partly because vinyl played through a good stereo system still sounds better than just about any form of digital music.
But vinyl is just part of an inventory that includes comics, DVD and even a still-boxed-up stash of videotapes.
“The trend today is toward ‘lifestyle stores,'” Robbins said. “You don’t put too much stock in any one thing. You need to have a selection of all those items.”
Part of the Bookworm’s appeal to Giovagnoli is the presence of a coffee shop. She was finishing a latte as she left with a book she’d ordered for her son.
The store also has meeting space for author presentations and community meetings at night.
Besides service, or at least its promise, small stores have to closely watch inventory lists and ledger sheets. Inventory, especially, has to adapt to what customers want.
Magistro stocks items from best-seller lists, of course, but that’s no guarantee an item is going to move.
“Some of the big sellers on Amazon just don’t resonate with our buyers,” she said.
To keep product moving, Magistro works with about 80 book clubs, and makes sure she has what people in those clubs are reading.
Galvin is a member of one of those clubs, and said Magistro’s store is a good resource.
Beyond book clubs, Magistro will also stock books for other groups.
Giovagnoli teaches new-parent classes through Vail Valley Medical Center, and said the store stocks books she and her colleagues recommend to expecting parents.
The Sheltons rely on new releases, keep a tight rein on inventory, and only rent as much space as they need.
“There’s still room for video stores,” Shelton said. “But not a 5,000-square-foot store. It’s been a struggle, but you can still make a decent living.”
Shelton also got a break in Eagle when the City Market store shut down its video department.
“We were coming anyway, but that was a nice little boost for us,” he said.
The other key, Shelton said, is active owners.
“You have to be owner-operated,” he said. “The quality you get is always better. An employee won’t always ask if a customer wants popcorn or something else.”