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Educated LP buyers flock to Princeton

This article was published in Billboard on November 19, 1994

PRINCETON, N.J.--Ask most people what they know about Princeton, N.J., and more than likely they'll mention the prestigious university. Ask the same question of hardcore record collectors, and there's a good chance they'll direct you to the Princeton Record Exchange, located one block from the Ivy League campus.

Owned and managed by Barry Weisfeld, the Princeton Record Exchange has gained a reputation as having one of the best collections of vinyl in the New York/Philadelphia corridor. With an inventory of more than 100,000 LP titles, 90% of which are used, the store attracts avid collectors from as far away as Europe. On an average Saturday, according to the owner, there may be 70 or 80 bargain hunters and collectors in the store at one time, intently browsing through rows of wooden bins containing everything from classical to alternative rock, with a fair share of idiosyncratic and rare pressings.

Weisfeld began building his impressive inventory as a youthful passion. "I was obsessed with collecting records in college," he says. In 1975, after graduating from the University of Hartford, he stacked his collection of 1,000 records in a van and, in effect, went back to college. But this time it was strictly in search of sales. For nearly five years, he supported himself--of-ten sleeping in his van--by buying and selling records on campuses and at flea markets all over the East Coast and in parts of the Midwest. During that period, Princeton was just one stop on his college itinerary, but in 1980 he decided to make it his home by opening the Princeton Record Exchange on Nassau Street, the town's main thoroughfare, directly opposite the, campus.
Five years later, with business going well and inventory building rapidly, the store moved to its current location on a quiet side street, one block farther from the main shopping area. "By sacrificing location for space, we may have lost a small percentage of walk-by, impulse shoppers," says Weisfeld, "but it was worth it because we more than tripled our space."

Deceptively small on the exterior, the narrow but deep one-story, white-brick structure is conveniently located next to a large, metered parking lot. The total space is 4,300 square feet, about one-quarter of which is reserved for storage and offices.
Although Weisfeld retains the intense energy level of a seller accustomed to a hectic emporium, he prides himself now on what he calls the "professional environment" of his store, pointing to the bright, fluorescent lights (to better inspect the quality of the records), carpeted floor, and ample aisle space. "We try to discourage a flea-market atmosphere," he says. "There is no bargaining over prices, and our customers are satisfied because they know that anywhere else they will find the same record at two to three times the price."

Adding to the store's professional environment is Weisfeld's knowledgeable staff of 12 full-time and eight part-time employees, many of whom are either musicians or collectors, andseven of whom have worked at the store for more than six years. "The turnover is low," Weisfeld says, "because they like the work and, relatively speaking, the compensation is good" The store is open seven days a week, and at any given time at least half the staff is engaged in activities other than working the counter. "[ Dealing in used product] is labor-in-tensive," he says. Purchasing, inspecting, and pricing a collection that could contain as many as 2,000 records--most of which come unsolicited from individuals, estate sales, and radio sta-tions-requires a team of three to seven people with specialized knowledge in rock, jazz, and classical music.

In addition to LPs, which account for about 43% of total sales, the Princeton Record Exchange also carries CDs and cassettes. Housed in the front third of the store are 35,000 CDs (40% used, 60% new), which make up 50% of the store's total sales, and 5,000 cassettes, which account for 4%. New inventory' is purchased from a nearby one-stop. "It may be more expensive," says Weisfeld, "but merchandise is easier to order, and can be had in one day."

Blank tapes and T-shirts sporting the Princeton Record Exchange logo are the only accessory items sold. They amount to about 1% of total sales.

While acknowledging that there is a lot more competition from chain stores now than when he first started, Weisfeld does not feel particularly threatened, because sales of new pop music account for only 10%-20% of total revenues.

Last year, the store grossed more than $1 million in sales; this year Weisfeld expects to do even better. "Business is gradually growing," he says. "Each year we gain more customers than we lose."

Despite its growing success, Weisfeld has no plans to open another shop. "I like the idea of doing one store really well," he says, attributing customer satisfaction to three factors: quality, reasonable prices, and a wide selection. To ensure quality, the store offers a one-week guarantee on all used product, less than 2% of which is returned.

To keep prices substantially lower than his competitors in the used-product marketplace, Weisfeld cuts down on labor costs by making the store exclusively self-service. Unlike competing stores that sell used and collectible LPs and CDs, the Princeton Record Exchange does not sell through catalog, nor does it do customer-requested searches for specific hard-to-find recordings. Instead, the staff encourages customers to browse. "Some stay all day," Weisfeld says.

The price of a used recording is determined by supply and demand, reference books, intuition, and the overall condition of the piece. The markup on used LPs tends to be 150%, with the majority of records selling for $1.99$9.99 and collectibles generally ranging from $25-$300. There is also a special budget section, with prices between 99 cents and $4.99. If an LP doesn't sell within six months, it is marked down 25% to 65%. "Items are priced to sell quickly, and most stuff sells within six months," says Weisfeld. Lower-priced records that do not sell are eliminated at a rate of 1,000 a week. "The expensive records stick around," says Weisfeld. "It's easier to sell 10 $100 records than 100 $2 ones." Used CDs generally sell for $6.99$9.99.

Weisfeld estimates that 20% of the customers are responsible for 80% of the sales. To lure them back on a regular basis, new inventory is introduced at what could be called a record pace. One of the most popular sections, "New Arrivals," features at least 1,000 newly acquired LP titles a week, enticing a fair share of customers to come into the store two or three times a week.

"LPs are not dead," Weisfeld is fond of saying. He says he has sold albums to people who traded in their vinyl when CDs came in, only to find out that they preferred the more natural sound of records to the colder, digital sound of CDs. As to why some records are more popular than others, Weisfeld shrugs his shoulders and says, "It's not that logical; the demand fora record, at least in the rock category, takes on a life of its own." Predictably popular, however, are the Beatles and Elvis Presley. Just recently, an obscure Elvis 45 of "Kid Galahad," from the Presley movie of the same name and made for promotional purposes only, was culled from the store's pile of 30,000 45s and purchased for $400 by an Elvis collector who stops by every four months. And a rare two-record set of stereo LPs on the VeeJay label, "The Beatles Vs. The Four Seasons," sold for a whopping $600.

With both bargain hunters and serious collectors, the Princeton Record Exchange has established a secure niche for itself in vinyl. Says Weisfeld, "For the tiny percentage of people who did not make the transition to CD, we can make them happy here."



This Article was written by Linda Crowley and Published in Billboard on 11/19/94. We appreciate their attention to the local businesses of Princeton, and highly recommend their paper to all of our customers.



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