If you've been reading this series, you'll remember that when we last left Tony Cicalese, he was settling into his new brick-and-mortar store, the second location for his record store in Florida.
Cicalese returned home after spending four years traveling the country in his van with his cat so he could build a thriving online music business on eBay. Once the online part of his business was moving along, Cicalese went home to Florida, where he opened his first store in 2010.
Four years later, he's built the physical part of his business with a new location—soon to be four times the size of his starter store—and the online part of his operation is booming, too.
There's something different about buying something you love from a guy you know loves the same thing versus buying it from an anonymous big-box
Cicalese has found a way to be successful in both parts of his professional life, and he was generous enough to share the story behind this integration with us.
Finding a balance
Cicalese knew from the beginning how he wanted to interact with his customers.
"This goes all the way back to the beginning on eBay when I had conversations with customers around the world about the music we all had in common," he tells us. "There's something different about buying something you love from a guy you know loves the same thing versus buying it from an anonymous big-box company, or buying it from another music store where the staff doesn't like or understand your music, or they even look down on it."
Remember Cicalese's "no music snobbery" rule, the first one he put in place when he opened his starter store?
"Developing that kind of relationship also helps us provide better customer service because I know my people," he says.
But before Cicalese had the customers who routinely come into his shop, he'd already realized that to thrive online and off, he'd have to find a balance, and that extends to where he sells what.
"You can't have a brick-and-mortar store without an online presence," he explains. "But unlike most record stores, which had to try to retrofit to incorporate that online presence, I mastered it first, and then built the store around it."
This was key to Cicalese's philosophy of seeking a balance between life online and off.
"You can't charge eBay prices in your brick-and-mortar store," he notes. "That was a pet peeve of mine when I visited other record stores. If you want to fetch eBay prices for your item, I'll never begrudge you. That's how I built my business. But then do the work, take the risk and put it on eBay, risk that it won't sell as high as you think, risk that you won't get paid.
"Risk it getting lost on the way to a foreign country," he continues. "Risk a chargeback. There is no risk to putting it on your store shelf. There is also no chance that one enthusiastic buyer from Japan who is willing to bid your item up to $50 is ever going to set foot in your store, so don't insult your local customer base by trying to charge them $50, or even $40, for it. It just creates resentment."
You can't charge eBay prices in your brick-and-mortar store
Developing new relationships
Cicalese keeps this same balanced philosophy going when he stocks his brick-and-mortar store.
"Part of the fun of record collecting is the thrill of the hunt," he explains. "What good is it if you know that nothing in the $2 bin will ever be worth more than $2? You have to know you'll be able to find some treasure at a bargain price, and you'll come back every week."
Cicalese now gets the treat of hearing and seeing his customers react to a great find in his bargain bins.
"Unlike my online business, I get to hear the customers gasp as they dig through the bins and find something they never thought they'd find—at really low prices," he says.
A lot of the ways Cicalese relates to his customers, whether online or in the store, go back to his days of tending bar. Then he remembered his regulars' favorite drinks, and now he remembers his customers' tastes in music.
"I've been developing new relationships with people at my store even if they are not into my music," he says. "As we expanded, we had to bring in some additional genres. In doing so, I continue to learn more every day, and I remember what certain people like and will hold something on the side for them."
Cicalese has a drawer behind the counter where he stores his "holds."
"There is a little girl named Sophia, maybe 9 or 10 years old, who is nuts for Tom Jones records!" he tells us. "So when I come across one, I put it into the drawer and when she comes in I tell her, 'I have something for you!'"
Since helping this girl pursue her musical tastes, Cicalese has also met her mom and her older brother. Now the whole family stops in a couple of times a week!
In mixed company
When he first started adding other genres to his inventory, he had some concerns about how the different communities within his customer base would get along, especially as he built his social media presence.
"I was initially concerned about the worlds of dance/R&B (our original focus) and rock 'n' roll (our more recent addition) in the Facebook chat," Cicalese recalls. "I wondered if I should make a separate page. But people seem to get the concept of the store. This is not your daddy's record store! It explicitly comes from a gay perspective, and we celebrate what has often been put down: disco, bubblegum pop, dance music, belting divas, etc."
At the same time, Cicalese's "no music snobbery" doctrine and his passion for lifelong learning about all types of music, have brought him not only new business smarts, but more insight into who his customers are, no matter how they shop.
I've been developing new relationships with people at my store even if they are not into my music. As we expanded, we had to bring in some additional genres. In doing so, I continue to learn
"What we learned in the last couple of years was something I really already knew. While the gay community may listen to more of that style music than most, we still listen to everything else on top-40 radio, including rock, classic rock, '70s singer/songwriters, etc. It fits perfectly with the rest of the store," he notes. "Our clientele is about 50-50 gay/straight, in perfect harmony.
"Regulars have already made friends with each other in the store, made friends with me and my staff," he says. "We have listening stations where they can play things for each other, and we offer free beverages because some people are there from open till close digging through our crates and listening to stuff."
New store helps customers and business
Cicalese's new location has allowed his business to be fully integrated in both the tastes of his customers who visit the store and the way his online business meshes with his brick-and-mortar one.
"Everything is more fully integrated now, because we were able to put in an extra large counter area where my cashiers can do double duty by listing things on eBay, sending boxes of merchandise to Amazon's warehouses and shipping orders to customers," he says.
Since the early days of eBay when we first noticed his savvy and openhearted voice piping up in eBay chats, we've turned to Cicalese for sales smarts and customer service advice.
His passion for his product has always come wrapped in a package of both those traits. It's no surprise to us that he has built a strong and thriving business in more than one market, always keeping an eye toward how he can better care for his customers and bring them the music they love.
We're excited to learn that Cicalese's next venture will take him into the arena of producing CDs. Join him on Facebook, if you’d like to learn more about that. You'll find a vibrant community there, too, all under the care of our friend Tony.