(Editor’s note: Due to a reporting error, this original version of this post mischaracterized Better Days’ consolidation to Lyles Mall.)
Ben Jones is exiting his Better Days Records store in Lyles Mall this morning when a customer spots him.
“Ben, you leavin’?”
“I’ll be back.”
“Yeah, but I won’t get my deal if you’re not here.”
“That’s why I’m leaving,” Jones says without a trace of a smile. In the parking lot, Jones adds, “In business, there is no ‘deal.’ ”
Maybe that kind of hard-nosed business acumen is why Better Days is expanding in the very same niche and the very same business climate that did in ear X-tacy.
Ear X-tacy certainly isn’t closing because the media and rock star friends like My Morning Jacket turned their backs on John Timmons.
I’ve never seen a phenomenon like the ear X-tacy free publicity machine. Insider Louisville certainly played along … and benefited with traffic boosts whenever we ran a post with the store’s name in the title.
I’ve never seen such loyalty, which extended to members of the Insider Louisville staff, who were there buying on the last day the record store was open.
But my question is, “Why, after all the public proclamations of love and loyalty did ear X-tacy close? Was there ever a real business behind ear X-tacy?”
I’ve always been curious why the media – from LEO to Time Magazine – loved, loved, loved ear X-tacy while ignoring Louisville competitors such has Better Days even as Timmons begged for help while railing against iTunes and music pirates.
Who better than Ben Jones, who started in the record business before Timmons in 1982 – and who shows no signs of stress – to help us understand what happened.
It’s seems like ear X-tacy did a lot of business.
Ben told me Wednesday he expects ear X-tacy closing will boost business by 20 percent at his 2-month-old Highlands store, 1765 Bardstown Rd.
My response was, “So, did you open (in the Highlands) because you knew ear X-tacy was in trouble?”
(Full disclosure. I’ve known Ben Jones about 20 years. I know he has the best intelligence network in the city; that his cellphone never stops ringing.)
I think the question and comparisons between Better Days and ear X-tacy are fair because both were cutting their business slice from the same shrinking pie – analog music sales in a digital world.
And Jones is the first to admit that Better Days is niche player. But he’s adamant that in the reality versus virtual-reality worlds, “there will always be demand for tangible goods.”
The Digital Age will peak, but never go away, Ben says. He flourishes by knowing what people want and what they’ll pay for it. “I’m never going to reinvent the wheel. But I know when to change the tires.”
Which he did in a big way six years ago when he closed a 4,000-square-foot, two-story store at 1591 Bardstown Rd. in the Highlands, consolidating to a smaller space in the Lyles Mall at 26th and Broadway.
With that move he accomplished two things: He focused on an under-served area of Louisville where fewer people download music, and he paid down a $50,000 debt with the savings on West End rent compared to the Highlands.
Two years ago, he expanded into an adjoining space at Lyles Mall, going to about 3,000 square feet from 2,000.
Then, he returned to the Highlands August 1, leasing a 1,400-space-foot space at 1765 Bardstown Rd.
Asked why he thinks he’s survived when ear X-tacy hasn’t, Jones said one word: “Used.”
About 50 percent of Better Days’ inventory is used, and Timmons never entered the used-music niche, Jones said.
He buys used records and CDs, then guarantees them when he resells them. Used, Jones said, has a far higher profit margin than new records and CDs. And customers like used records and CDs because they get what they want for $5 with a money-back guarantee.
And the truth is, Better Days is an Internet-based business. Ben and his 6-person staff use eBay and other sites to buy close-outs and going-out-of-business inventory across the United States.
As I said, I’ve known Ben for more than 20 years, and I can’t really think of an occasion where we talked about anything other than business, so I should know Better Day’s business rules by heart:
- By as low as possible and sell “as fair as possible.” Not “buy low, sell high,” because 21st Century retailing is all about discounting, Jones says.
- Buying low and selling fair “comes with a lot of negotiation,” with suppliers and landlords, Ben says.
- Good landlords are crucial to a retail business because tenants can call and say business is down, “I’m going to be late with the rent,” Ben said. Or, conversely, he can call them and say, “I need to expand. What have you got?”
- Better Days is not the type of retailer to depend on loss leaders to generate cash flow and traffic. That’s what Big Box retailers do, and they’re in trouble, Jones said. He has to make a profit off each item to cover overhead and salaries: “I’ve never understood how you can ‘lose’ the race and still win.”
- Don’t run a retail business on inventory debt. Don’t finance inventory because interest carry will eat up profits.
- Follow the smart rules, ignore the rest. Ten years ago, the prime rule of retail was, “Never put merchandise on the floor,” Jones said. Ben’s Prime Rule of Retail is the opposite: “Every space is merchandise space.” Shoppers, especially young passionate music fans, like getting down on the floor or reaching up racks to get a bargain, Ben said. “The shopping experience is a hunt.”
- Have inventory no one else has. Better Days in the West End has aisles and aisles of gospel records, records Ben sells to churches not just in Louisville, but in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Lexington.
- Run your business like you invest in the stock market. “There will be lots of changes, but it has to be a long-term commitment,” Jones said.
I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about whether I should metion one issue. But I think it’s too obvious not to metion race.
John Timmons is white, and his rock star looks and alternative music advocacy connected with the media and with his mostly white, middle-class audience.
Ben Jones is black, and even in this nation led by a black president, there is an unspoken skepticism about the business skills of African-Americans.
The great thing about business, though, is that accounting ledgers don’t measure race, hype, publicity or Social Media buzz. They only have a final line for numbers in either red ink, or black ink.