The internet versus the "personal touch"

May 2, 2013

Alabama Public Radio continues its collaboration on the new television program, “Alabama, Inc.” It’s about business in our state—both big and all. The phrase “buy local” is often the battle cry to support mom and pop businesses in your neighborhood. But, saving a buck or two is also tempting when online retail giants offer the same items cheaper. And that's how local retailers around the state are losing millions in revenue to Internet sellers. One record store is looking for a middle ground between nostalgia and the digital age—by using the personal touch. Jimmy Griffin pays attention. That's it. That's his big secret. In fact, customers at Charlemagne Records in Birmingham, where Griffin has worked for decades, will tell you he's like a walking encyclopedia. He says he has what he calls "baseball cards" of information. “ Units of knowledge that stick in your head, I call them baseball cards,” Griffin says. “It's familiarity that makes you remember them… it's sort of like being a chef is what we do? Like I don't know how much salt to put in a salad but a chef does.” But he knows what his customers want, sometimes even before they know they want it. So our store has a totally different merchandising concept say than Best Buy. We've got lots of things people don't know they want until they see them,” he says. “Mainly like used things and interesting things. And what we carry is new releases and things that people in our neighborhood people might want like Jack White and Alabama Shakes. So we're more pinpoint. We can't cover everything.” And that, Griffin will tell you, is what's kept Charlemagne records in business since 1977. But Jubal Dalzell, who prices items at the record store, says the challenge is not getting stuck in 1977. “ Yeah. We're not as social media savvy as some places are but that's interactive as well,” says Dalzell. “You can be online chatting with your customers about music too. I can't imagine ordering all this stuff on the phone. Large part of my day is spent pricing records. Spend all day. Ebay, can go see what is this record worth.” Griffin says he likes calling customers on the phone to have, you know, real conversations. Trouble is, it's hard to reach them sometimes. “It's one thing to finish research but it's another thing to even find somebody home in the modern world….telephone not necessarily your best communication tool,” he says But it's one way to keep things warm and personal, something an online retailer like Amazon lacks. “Also some people don't want to fool with internet so we do it for them,” says Griffin. Some people don't have computers. Some people aren't really great with computers.” Take longtime customer Robert Calhoun. I'm one of those people,” Calhoun admits. “I like going thru things. Internet will give me information but I can't actually hold it in my hands.” But Internet retailers are still at a huge advantage, says Bob Robicheaux. He teaches business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Many customers are prone today to go to a local retailer and seek advice on what products are best suited to them and how they work, but rather than buy them from the local merchant, some consumers say thank you very much and leave and then find it online and go buy it online,” Robicheaux says. What's more, he says, online retailers aren't required to collect sales tax. “We lose 4k to 5k new jobs every year,” he adds. TThat translates into a loss of about $80 million in income tax that state of AL is not collecting b/c of ppl who have lost jobs b/c the retail biz they worked for are not smaller or non-existent.” Congress is now considering legislation that would let states automatically collect sales tax charged by online retailers, a move Robicheaux says would level the playing field. You can see Gigi Douban’s full story this Sunday on “Alabama, Inc.” on WVUA-TV.