Marketing: Can't get no satisfaction? Try the post: Mail-order music firms now offer quick delivery from huge collections to frustrated record buyers

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IN THE past, if you wanted to obtain a song but hadn't caught its name, your best chance was to pop along to the local record shop and hum it. Now you might be better advised to contact one of the growing band of mail-order suppliers.

Curiously, perhaps, at a time when more and more specialist radio stations are hitting the airwaves, the serious fan of classical, jazz or country music is finding that the national chains tend to stock only a small selection of the recordings available. Some stations have started catering for this demand by offering to supply any records they play by mail, so long as listeners can say when they heard them.

If this move proves successful, it should provide encouragement to proponents of teleshopping. As Alan Price of Blackmail - part of the west London independent record label Demon - acknowledges, several years ago people were 'deeply suspicious' about buying records through the post. In some cases, postal orders were sent off to addresses advertised in the music press, but the goods would never arrive.

Now, most of the suppliers in the field accept that the best way of gaining customers' faith - and regular orders - is to have a quick turnaround. Mr Price, for instance, tries to ensure goods are sent out within 48 hours of the receipt of orders - which, in keeping with the times, can be sent by fax or telephone round the clock.

Blackmail started by offering titles in Demon's varied catalogue of alternative rock, psychedelia, blues, folk and associated genres. But it has lately followed others in supplying material from different catalogues with the aim of keeping their customers' interest alive.

Demon's closest rival is probably Magpie, the authorised mail-order company for the reissue specialists See for Miles. Keen to differentiate his operation from those that advertise in the colour supplements, Magpie's managing director, Mark Rye, claims to be offering all types of music from the past five decades via a monthly magazine. Mr Rye says he founded the operation with other former record company executives because they had grown bored trying to find the music they wanted in record shops - and it is obviously targeted at similarly minded folk.

Mr Rye, who has carried out extensive research on his customers, has spotted a market for 'easy listening' and recently launched a separate, bimonthly magazine called Magpie Memories to cater for it.

At the other end of the spectrum are the likes of Red Lick, beloved of blues fans, and Record Connoisseur, which caters for those putting a premium on sound quality. They all share a need to keep close computerised links with distributors and suppliers in order to meet orders as efficiently as possible.

For this reason, Mr Rye steers clear of imported material. On the other hand, though, imports are vital to Red Lick's proprietors, Ken and Ann Smith. Indeed, longtime blues fan Mr Smith started the operation 25 years ago as a way of finding the things he wanted for his own record collection.

When his wife became involved 10 years later, she set about putting it on a more businesslike footing, by such means as ensuring that catalogues appeared regularly. Like others in the field, Mrs Smith is reluctant to talk figures. But she says the current blues boom does not seem to have had as much effect on growth as word of mouth recommending the comprehensive service offered by the operation, which is based in the wilds of Wales.

One of the key areas in which all these companies differ from their high-street equivalents is their willingness to sell vinyl LPs rather than CDs when possible. In fact, Record Connoisseur's John Turton largely restricts himself to that market.

A former athletics scholar at a US university who 'got hooked' on sound quality while working as a chauffeur in Los Angeles, he seeks out quality pressings from the US and Germany for about 1,000 customers.

But while these people will pay a premium for top-quality sound, the key to the success of many other operations is price. Red Lick, for instance, may be small, but it is not blind to marketing. Mrs Smith admits its secondhand sales are a 'dangling carrot' designed to encourage regulars to look forward to the catalogue and so spend more. It is also noted for passing on the price reductions it obtains to customers, and for selling deleted items.

Mr Price of Blackmail suggests that this is why even people in large cities use mail-order companies. 'They know they can get product efficiently and at a good price.'

(Photograph omitted)