And then we went to Croydon: It’s 1981, and we’re Getting Down to Our Price!

In 2011, there are only a few hundred record shops left, and the last of the chains, HMV, is undergoing a dismal Christmas.  Once upon a time, however, it was all so very different, so for this Front of Store Christmas Nostalgia Special, we’re going to wind back the clock…

Cast your mind back thirty years (if you can remember that far).  It’s Christmas 1981, mid-way between the old King’s death and our modern world.  We’re going to Our Price Records at 70 North End in Croydon, to see what a mini retail boom looks like.

Economically and politically, 1981 hasn’t been a good year.  The Thatcher government’s medicine is having its effect; unemployment is up, inflation is up, and there is much talk of a one-term government – though Labour’s leader looks unelectable.  The summer has been marked by a fairytale royal wedding, and some pretty extensive riots.  How the world changes.

But Our Price in Croydon is a pure cash machine.  About 1500 sq ft of net selling space delivering sales of about £500 a ft – you’d be pretty pleased with that sort of return thirty years later, and if you were paying sales assistants £70 a week (inflation adjusted, that’s about £5 an hour in 2011 values), you’d be making a lot of money.

Our Price was started in the early 70s under the name “Tape Revolution”, the legend being that founder Gary Nesbitt couldn’t find the cassette he wanted in existing record shops, so opened his own.  By 1981, there were about 70 branches, and the chain would eventually swell to over 300, swallowing up Harlequin, Sound FX and Virgin’s high street stores before it was eventually overtaken by a reinvigorated HMV, and then terminally absorbed into the Branson empire in the 90s.

The business was built on discounting (hence the name), selling top albums cheaper than high street competitors like WH Smith, John Menzies or Boots; UK releases were complemented by container-loads of cheap imports poured into a warehouse in Heston, providing more depth and variety than the traditional chains could manage.

Despite our cassette beginnings, here in 1981 we sell records – albums, singles and 12-inchers – to be played on music centres and hi-fi separates systems across south London; cassettes are a secondary format for motorists, although more and more people are buying those new-fangled Sony Stowaways.  And, aside from cleaning cloths and blank tapes, that’s all we sell – it’s a very pure business model.

The retail environment is, well, grubby.  We show the hoover to the old grey carpet in the morning, and we may dust occasionally, but diesel fumes from the buses outside, combined with fast food odours and mandatory smoking (customers and staff) create a heavy fug.  The shop is a bowling alley in form, long and narrow, with wire LP racks and formica cassette shelves down the walls; a Top 60 chart in the window and a raised counter across the back.  Shrinkage is kept down by the simple expedient of removing all the records and tapes from their sleeves and cases, and keeping them filed behind the counter in masterbags – a stock control system that is simple and almost foolproof (unless the masterbag is misfiled…).

The counter itself is a slab of red formica, behind which four staff hammer away at two Casio tills and control a queue each.  In Christmas week, the shop is rammed from 9:00 right through to closing at 6:00.

And at Christmas 1981, British pop music is on a roll.  We’ve killed off prog, survived punk, and we’re seeing new wave transmogrify into a raft of exciting bands, new sounds and much visual excitement.  Adam Ant is for the teenies, but Human League, OMD, Soft Cell, Heaven 17, the Associates, Wah! and Echo & the Bunnymen all promise great things, while the Clash and the Jam hold the line for guitar rock.  Bands like Blondie and the Police have already conquered the world, and although there’s plenty of schlock for the mums – Shakin’ Stevens, Bucks Fizz, Elkie Brooks – there’s much to be hopeful about.  Providing new Brummie band Duran Duran don’t stick around, and aren’t followed by a new generation of shallower, kids’ bands and years of anodyne pop respectability, we should be fine.

The job – I’m assistant manager, by the way – is fast-paced but essentially very straightforward, and thanks to Head Office’s light touch, we can be pretty imaginative instore if we want to promote indie singles or dance 12-inchers.  We are selling hard and having fun, and if you want to buy Olivia Newton John, madam, that’s just dandy with me.

The calendar makes this a particularly enjoyable Christmas.  Christmas Day is on Friday, so we’ve got a three-day weekend to look forward to, when every shop in the country will be closed.  Then, a week of Record Token madness and attempts by Croydon wide boys  to exchange well-worn vinyl for something tastier.

“My mum bought me this for Christmas, and I don’t want it.”

“Your mum bought you a three year-old Wings album?”

“She said she bought it here.”

“It’s got a Boots price sticker.”

We let these debates run long for the pure enjoyment of them – they’re almost as much fun as joshing with record company reps who attempt to get us to beef up our chart returns on their behalf.  (I take a puritanical line here: first, accept the free stock, then refuse to corrupt the charts, compiled for the BBC by the British Market Research… Bureau.)  After the shop closes, we nip smartly round the corner to the Whitgift Centre’s own pub, the Forum, which is decorated to look like the last days of Pompeii.

The record industry is earning huge profits, and the biggest beast in the business is EMI, who have plenty of good stuff of their own, plus valuable distribution deals with Virgin, Island and Stiff.  This year, they have the record everyone wants:

They’ve got something for everyone, as a result – Human League, Queen, Cliff Richard, Diana Ross, Pink Floyd, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Madness, Japan, Olivia Newton John, the Rolling Stones, Stranglers, U2, Genesis, Gillan, Heaven 17 and Duran Duran.  I’ll be ordering about 1000 pieces from them, albums and tapes, and this essential shipment will be split into many different cartons and several deliveries, perhaps across several days; yes, even in 1981, with the world at its fingertips, EMI is doing its best to do its worst.

Incidentally, if you aren’t already, you should be listening to the Human League as a soundtrack for this posting.  Here’s the “groundbreaking” 12″ mix of Don’t You Want Me, complete with a jump at 2:17 that’s causing quite a lot of customers to bring their records back:

 “It’s faulty, it’s scratched, it jumps!”

“No” – patiently – “it’s supposed to sound like that.”

“GARN!”

Passing momentarily back to 2011, I’d like to salute the Our Price Music Staff Register on Facebook, where over 900 old hands swap reminiscences – it’s certainly prompted this Proustian surge.  Although no one joined Our Price to get rich, it was a terrific community, albeit one that is now in danger of exchanging photos of its grandchildren…  And Our Price Facebookers, these chart orders are for you to enjoy…

The next most important distributor in 1981 is PolyGram, a combine of German Polydor and Dutch Phonogram.  A year or two earlier, Britain’s other great historic record company, Decca, was swallowed up by PolyGram, and quickly reduced to an interminable Rolling Stones reissue programme and a fine classical catalogue (neither of which cuts much ice with the good people of Croydon).  They distribute Chrysalis and Arista, both of which are on a roll.  My PolyGram order, of about 750 units, will arrive with dense and erroneous delivery notes.  At least one item will be “extended” ie it won’t arrive until some weeks after Christmas:

A strong pop roster: Soft Cell, Blondie, Ultravox, Dire Straits, Level 42, Kool & the Gang, Rush, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and Rainbow, plus for the mums, Barry Manilow and the soundtracks to Cats and Chariots of Fire.

Now it’s the Americans’ turn, and they are so much better at this distribution lark than the Europeans.  CBS manages its catalogue rigorously, and has a state-of-the-art pressing/distribution facility in Aylesbury; everything we order will be delivered first thing the next morning.  CBS also distributes A&M, which is doing very nicely indeed.

Another 750-piece order, I think: Adam Ant, Elkie Brooks, Abba, Shakin’ Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel, the Police, Johnny Mathis, Julio Iglesias, ELO and Earth Wind & Fire.

Almost as reliable as CBS are WEA (that’s Warner/Elektra/Atlantic).  They are pretty cool for a major record company, but they haven’t got as many big hits this Christmas:

Randy Crawford is a massive hit, but Christopher Cross (K56789), Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello, the Pretenders and AC/DC don’t give them as much breadth as the other majors.  300 pieces should be fine.

Now we’re moving to slightly less poptastic climes.  RCA is based in West Bromwich, and has the friendliest girls taking orders from its call-centre.  Not much product to get excited about, though.  Their American parent will sell them, and their Elvis legacy, to German Bertelsmann in the not-to-distant future:

Going into Christmas with an ageing Bucks Fizz album, a(nother) Bowie hits collection and a(nother) Diana Ross Motown collection – a bit weak.  100 albums/tapes will do me for a couple of days.

If that was underwhelming, there’s still one more “major” left, trading on its Pye heritage – ie the Kinks backlist – and some novelty songs.  But they got a distribution deal on Imagination, so Tiny Tim survived for another year at PRT (Precision Record and Tapes):

They’re big in Croydon – I’ll have 100 pieces.

A few years earlier, that would have been your lot.  But one of punk’s richest legacies was independent distribution from the likes of Pinnacle, Spartan, Jungle and JetStar:

Some big albums come through these distributors – Depeche Mode, UB40, New Order, Joy Division and (a south London special) General Saint & Clint Eastwood.  250 pieces to order here.

Almost there.  We just have to call up the TV Advertised companies – in a world before Now That’s What I Call Music, there is a whole recycling industry, churning up hits and selling them back to you at a premium price.  K-Tel, Ronco, Arcade and Warwick are indeed names to conjure with…

Chart Hits 81 (“buy Volume 1 and get Volume 2 FREE!”) is a monster, one of the biggest selling albums of the season.  Timing instore availability to align with the ITV ad slots (Channel 4 hasn’t been launched yet, there’s only one commercial TV station) is crucial – get it wrong and you’ll turn away a hundred unhappy customers.  Other TV-advertised specials include Hooked on Classics, Country Sunrise/Country Sunset, and (hurrah!) Chas & Dave’s Christmas Jamboree Bag.  I’ll need about 500 pieces across this little lot.

And so the great machine rolls on towards Christmas Eve, and that joyous moment when it goes quiet, someone puts Release the Bats on the record deck, and the last few desperate dads are sold to:

“What sort of music does your daughter like?”

“Er…”

“That’ll be Dare, by the Human League, then.  £3.99 please.”

And that’s it.  Count the cash, phone in the sales number to the area manager, and clear off home.  Via the Forum, of course.

Wherever you are, a big hello to Big Tom Smith, tyro Liberal Cathy, Mike and Lewis (double-act), Dawn, Dee and Andy.  Merry Christmas, everyone.

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5 Comments on “And then we went to Croydon: It’s 1981, and we’re Getting Down to Our Price!”

  1. Andy Adamson says:

    I think this is going to end up being my favourite piece of reading this Christmas. I started at HMV that Xmas and things were pretty much the same: the Monday morning spent phoning each supplier and reading out the catalogue numbers and quantity from masterbags or a note book for top ups, shrinkwrapping the sleeves with a piece of cardboard inside to give them ballast and to try and piece together those pesky KTel BOGOF albums once you had unwrapped them.
    I remember, we would do a bulk catalogue deal in early October which would arrive in 2 drops, end of October and end of November. The supply chain tended to clog up in the last few weeks leading up to Xmas and we’d be too busy to process anything but chart orders in December.
    The dread was always the unexpected event: so if someone famous died after about 10th December you were unlikely to get stock before Xmas
    Other suppliers for us included the Aladdin’s Cave of the SP&S cutouts van (deletions) where you entered the back of a converted grocery van decked out with vinyl and cassettes to choose a selection of interesting and obscure albums to give your store some points of difference.
    Oh and the charts. You had to phone up to get the places and then it was a mad scramble to place orders, sometimes with a wholesaler like Sounds Good, Terry Blood etc.
    And then once it was all over, we start the Sale….
    Have a great Christmas

  2. Jack says:

    Elkie Brooks was the best selling female album artist in 1981″Pearls” it stayed in the charts for 76 weeks.

  3. Tony Beadle says:

    Hi Phil

    Thoroughly enjoyed this – struck lots of chords!

    Everyone remembers the Christopher Cross LP catalogue number but it frightens me how many others I can still remember! 9102 021 anyone?!

    Jetstar was a company I’d long forgotten – their rep was the wacky baccy supplier to the entire chain as I remember.

    I think I was in Northampton for that Christmas – and Ealing the following one before picking up my very old and knackered white Fiesta van!

    Happy days (in retrospect)

    Tony Beadle