In the 2013, a great number of new local businesses opened up shop in the town centre and many of them continue to perform well. Tourism is on the increase in Barnsley town centre following the successful first year of Experience Barnsley Museum and the Yorkshire leg of the Tour de France. The redevelopment of the town centre has now started, with the demolition of the library and the adjacent buildings on Shambles Street, and later this year the market and metropolitan centre will follow suit.
A year ago I interviewed Stu Sheard, DJ and ex-HMV Supervisor about opening up Debut Records in Barnsley. It was then and still is, the town’s only record store. I caught up with him, one year on, to talk about his experiences of trading in the last year, and to hear his thoughts on independent record stores and the pending improvements to the town centre.
On BBC News last week, in an article about the future of independent book shops, Nicholas Lovell, writer and digital consultant said that “the future of independent bookshops is not about selling books [and] they’ll do it by selling to people the ‘idea’ of being a reader.” Lovell, author of The Curve – a book about how to make money when everything is going free – said that small bookshops should exploit the idea that books were “about status and self-expression and personality”. Robert Hiscox, co-owner the White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough, Wiltshire said, “If you’re very small you’ve got to offer something to get people to use you – who’s going to pay £20 in the shop when you are going to get it for 11 quid on Amazon?”
The parallels between running a book shop and running a record shop are probably too close for comfort. Obviously you too have to compete with Amazon. Regulars are obviously aware that they can shop online and save money but choose not to. Why do you think they shop at Debut Records?
I think some of them do it because they choose to support local business and some of them do it because they like the personal service and like to chat. Some of them though, say they do it because they like to have browse. Even if they came in for a specific title that I haven’t got, they might go and browse anyway and still leave with something. They like the fact that they have a record shop in their town again. It’s that nostalgic idea of browsing, handling and buying actually psychical records. Some people walk past and just smile as us – just at the fact that there is a record shop here.
Have you noticed any patterns in sales this last year? Seasonal maybe, or specific genres selling well, anything unexpected?
To be honest, every week is different. One week a specific title might be something that sells extremely well, but then other weeks, it can be anything and everything.
There are seasonal patterns. April and May is good and so is the later part of the year. For instance right now, during the summer it’s a bit of struggle. There are less releases in July and August. Go back to June 9th; there was new releases from Jack White, Kasabian, First Aid Kit, Led Zepplin re-issues, Deep Purple re-issues, all within the same two weeks. That’s a lot, and I couldn’t afford to buy them all in, in one go.
Do you get many people buying up front?
Some people do, but to be honest, it’s hard. When I place orders, I have to order quite a few of them, rather than just that one, so I have to be able to guarantee selling them.
Do you have specific groups of customers now with regular buying habits?
Yeah. I have the same one come in every Friday. Always the same time and always spends £12 or £20 on two CDs. He used to come in to HMV all of the time as well. I see some regulars every week, but then there are others that I haven’t seen for ages. Not sure why. There is one guy that used to come in all of the time. He did HMV too. He used to spend a fortune. But he’s just vanished. Not sure where he’s gone. I see him around town, but just not in here.
You also sell via ebay and you have had in-store performances. You only have a small space to play with in here but I was wondering what other tactics do you see yourself trying out in the next year?
It’s hard to have bands here because of the size, but an acoustic show is fine. Because of our size, there’s a risk you’re actually sacrificing sales. People come to watch the act and you hope they’ll come back and buy now they’ve been in.
When we had Scott Doonican play here when we opened, he did bring a few people with him who spent, but most of them never been back. Maybe they weren’t local.
An article on The Quietus in April suggested that Record Store Day is potentially too big and in crisis, after smaller independent record labels struggled to keep up with the demand to produce limited edition releases. A number of smaller record labels had said that Record Store Day (and pressing plants) prioritised those released by major labels and larger indies, effectively penalising smaller indies. Being a new and small indie shop, Record Store Day must have had just as many cons and it did pros. How was it for you?
Record Store Day was a good thing to do. My takings were fantastic and it had a good knock on effect for the following three weeks. However, the lead up to it was a nightmare. Sales don’t often pick up after Christmas until Easter anyway. March was quiet but then April came and there were some big general releases, which I couldn’t afford to get in because I really had to buy my Record Store Day stock instead. But as I’d had a quiet few months, that was a struggle too. I’m lucky that family helped me out. It did all balance out in the end. I paid everything off and I ended up making some money.
How does your sale of vinyl compare to CDs?
CD’s always sell more than vinyl. As soon as people come in they often go straight to them. Part of that is the price, part of it is that buying vinyl is still quite niche. Some people have come into the shop and have assumed that the vinyl is second hand as they didn’t know that vinyl is still produced and that most new releases are available on that format.
In Sep 2013, BMBC said that independents rule in town centre. “Barnsley’s independent retail offer continues to grow, nationally just 43.5 per cent of units are held by independents, regionally 60.3% but Barnsley again shows it has something fresh to offer with 78.2 per cent of shops being independent.” Do you think that was is nearly a 80/20 split of independent stores over chain stores is a good thing for Barnsley?
I think it’s a great thing that so many local business owners are able to set up shop in the town centre. Independents always look good and give a town a unique edge. However, it doesn’t attract enough business to town. More big names are needed. That in turn would improve business for us independents. That’s why people go to Meadowhall. If someone wants a very specific thing, they go to Meadowhall as they’ll probably find it there and choice too.
Big names in Barnsley would work for the town and for us. If you listen to people, that’s what they want. Of course, everybody wants to see local businesses perform and to be present on the high street, but a town like this can’t survive without the big names. So fingers cross they come.
In the recently released, government commissioned ‘Why Our High Street Matters’ report by Mary Portas, she lists 28 recommendations for both national and local governments in helping the state of our nation’s high streets. Many of the recommendations relate to the importance of the town market and the suggestion of a national markets day, business rates, parking schemes and managing landlords and empty units. What would your recommendations be for a healthy town centre?
Free parking. I know we have free parking on a weekend, but you need some in the week too. We can’t just rely on a Saturday, especially if it ends up having bad weather, or there’s a match, or a festival, or some other big event as people tend to stay away.
When the Mayor’s Parade was on, County Way car park was being used for the parade floats rather than for visitors to town. That ate up most of the day for us. If we’d have had free parking in the week, it would have mattered less. It gives people more options about when to shop and come to town, rather than focussing on just the one day.
Making it easier for people to start up a business would be great. Free rent for six months maybe. It’s better to have an occupied unit than to have an empty one. We do now have free business rates though, which is great.
I think spreading events and markets out around the whole town centre, rather than always focussing on Cheapside, would be good. Having a market in Mandela Garden’s would be great. The people or the traffic very rarely flows from the market end of town up to here. More needs to be done to keep that flow of people going.
Before you opened up shop, you looked into other record shops that had opened and the problems they had encountered. Had you come across any problems that surprised you or were you prepared?
It’s overall cost of things. Not just buying in the music and rent, but the added cost of things like the internet, or rental of card machines. Charges from the bank for banking with them.
Do you think having a position on The Arcade has been beneficial to you in the long run, as opposed to having a unit right in the centre, a market stall or even being based outside of town?
I am better off here. I like the Arcade. It’s nice looking and it’s out of the way any trouble there might be in town. I do wish the unit was a little bigger and that we had more traffic, but it’s like anything – it has its pros and cons. If I had a unit right in the centre, I might have taken more money but I’d have had much higher rent to pay and I’d have probably had to pay for more staff too. In the end, I don’t think it would be that much different.
Last year, shop owners on The Arcade initiated much of the local activity on Small Business Saturday, and this month there is also the Arcade Vintage Festival (although that was organised by a separate organisation). The Arcade and the adjacent Hanson Street seem to be one of the shopping areas that is probably most able to draw most attention to the town right now because of the amount of indie shops, restaurants and the Civic. I was wondering how close you all are. Do you keep in close contact with specific shops down here and do you have any plans to help strengthen that relationship?
Not really. I’m friends with the guys in Originals next door, Aroma and Getchageekon. It’s difficult though because I’m on my own here and I don’t want to leave the shop incase I miss out on that potential big sale. However, I do think that we need some kind of Arcade shop keepers forum, or facebook page. I think that would help strengthen the area.
What would you tell someone from outside of town, why they should come and shop in Barnsley?
There is a lot of culture, music, art and history here, both in the town and on the outskirts for people to explore. But in regards to the town centre, The Civic and the Town Hall with its fountains and gardens are great. This area of town as a whole is great, but the rest of the town is tired now. I think the business owners and organisations are doing a lot with what they have but there needs to be more choice, more events. I think that the redevelopment or regeneration will work and pull people in and it can’t happen any sooner. I’m looking forward to it.