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Tower Records Hopes to Shake the Retail Blues This Holiday

The chain tries to tackle discount rivals, changing buying habits and its debt problems. Shoppers will see more non-music products.

November 29, 2002|Jim Wasserman | Associated Press

Tower Records, the storied 1960s music chain that launched the music megastore and became a cultural retailing icon, strolls into its 43rd holiday shopping season this weekend struggling with debt and on the ropes.

The West Sacramento, Calif.-based Tower hopes four weeks of strong sales will reverse a new image as the tottering giant inside a stumbling music industry. Among the chain's troubles: deep-discounting rivals, changing consumer habits, lack of hits and its own missteps in the 1990s as the music business began a significant shift.

Tower exemplifies the even deeper woes in a recording industry beset by piracy, computer CD burners and fans who download from the Internet rather than buy from stores.

As 2002's countdown to Christmas begins, the family-held chain of 113 stores in 21 states -- known for steep prices, deep selection and superstore band appearances -- is in the hands of a corporate restructurer.

The company that grew up on rock 'n' roll and matured into a hip center of world music recently cut 90 jobs and sold 51 profitable stores in Japan. More closings are imminent. Tower also has overhauled management, begun experimenting with non-music merchandise -- and has reported its first sales gain over last year: up 2% for the first two weeks of November.

As part of its restructuring, the company has even begun reviewing its CD prices, which often prompt mainstream record buyers to scoff and buy elsewhere.

"Where Tower prices, where they've historically priced, to be perfectly honest, is not competitive," said Colin McGranahan, an investment analyst at Sanford Bernstein in New York.

Tower's typical CD can cost as much as $18.99, compared with $13.99 or $14.99 at Best Buy Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Inc.

But the chain has a loyal base of older, more-affluent customers who spend heavily on music and appreciate its wide selection. "It seems to me," said Lee Landenberger, 46, of Atlanta, a former radio DJ who spends $2,000 a year on music and liberally burns CDs for friends, "their rationale all along has been, 'We charge a lot and always have, but we have such a huge catalog of stuff that's going to bring you in.' "

After $167 million in losses over four years, Tower aims to keep its brand alive, regroup and rebuild. And in the season when record retailers typically rack up 30% of their annual sales, Tower's managers see a chance for new life.

Under the eyes of watchful creditors, they're fast remaking Tower into a "full entertainment" store.

"We're looking for things that can move the needle quickly," said Betsy Burton, 50, a corporate turnaround specialist hired Sept. 18. Alongside Tower's mix of Eminem and Pavarotti, Burton is blending "fun things for the holidays, unique toys and collectibles, pop culture and offbeat things."

She's pushing gift cards while moving in DVDs, small electronics and more video games, which are seeing double-digit sales growth again this year.

A similar 1980s Burton strategy -- adding major-brand beauty products to Supercuts stores -- turned around that ailing chain.

"You can generate some momentum, and everything feeds on itself with new energy in the store," she said. "It's important to do some things and do successes early on."

Music purists may sigh, but Burton says it's the path to the corporation's one true goal at the moment: to reach the end of 2003 earning more money than the interest payments on its $200-million debt.

Tower's troubles started in 1998, when it borrowed $110 million to fuel an expansion drive in Asia, South America, Canada and Britain. In 1997, Tower's founder, Russ Solomon, now 77, boasted in a magazine interview that his company "can compete with anybody." Solomon also predicted an industry shakedown in which companies would die and "the good ones will get bigger."

Not long after, Tower began its four-year streak of losses in a market turned upside down by free music downloads on Napster and successors such as Kazaa.

Today, music fans such as Eric Chu, 17, increasingly are turned off by the prices for CDs. Although record industry officials call CDs a bargain compared with other entertainment options, Chu browses at Tower Records for hip-hop, rap and rock music and then downloads at home.

"I would like to support the music industry," the San Francisco high school senior said. "But I'm young and I don't have much money."

Investment analysts consider comments like that when they look at Tower's restructuring strategy and competitive struggle and view retail stores as long-run losers in the paradigm shift to cyberspace.

Indeed, New York-based Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks music shipments, reports that the recording industry shipped 22.3 million fewer CDs, cassette tapes and albums in 2001 than in 2000. The Recording Industry Assn. of America reports that CD shipments fell 7% in the first half of 2002, after declining 5% last year.

Meanwhile, RIAA estimates that music fans illegally download more than 2.6 billion music files a month on the Internet.

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