August 28, 2013

A Word With the Boss: Bull Moose Q&A

Brett Wickard opened a record store in Brunswick in 1989 while still in college. It's now blossomed into a small empire, with 11 locations and an online store.

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

Brett Wickard opened a record store, which he named Bull Moose, in Brunswick in 1989 while he was a student at Bowdoin College. What started as one store with a limited inventory is now a small chain, with 11 locations in Maine and New Hampshire and an online store. Bull Moose now sells CDs, movies, video games, gifts, and audio and video accessories at all of its stores. Three of the stores also carry books.

click image to enlarge

Bull Moose founder and sole owner Brett Wickard, shown in his South Portland store, says to compete with the big online book and music sellers, “It’s our job to listen to our customers and adapt and kind of roll with the punches.”

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Most of the major record chains have closed their stores as online retailers, including iTunes and Amazon, dominate music sales. But Bull Moose has grown and is the largest music, movies and game chain in the state. The company added its 11th store, at Mill Creek in South Portland, this winter and is expanding its Waterville store. Wickard, who is still the sole owner of Bull Moose, agreed to answer some questions. 

Q: How did you get started in the business?

A: I started it the summer after junior year in college. The local music store had closed down, and I told my friends that I was going to open a record store. I had some money saved from a prior job, but nobody wanted to work with a college student with no experience, so it was slow going at first. But it's not like we were selling milk -- music is something that has an emotional connection to people.

Maine sometimes gets a bad rap as a place for starting a business, but we're a small state and word of mouth is very helpful. ... That kind of community doesn't happen everywhere.

Our original location -- on the wrong end of a one-way street -- wasn't good and probably things would never have worked there, but one of our good fortunes is that we were able to rent a space at the Tontine Mall (in downtown Brunswick), and then we took advice from our UPS driver to move the locale one more time, out onto Maine Street. He said, "Everyone from the college has to walk by this place if they want to go downtown," and we thought, "Hey, you're right. That would be a great location." 

Q: Why did you name the store Bull Moose?

A: The fake reason is one that a customer gave me -- that Teddy Roosevelt founded the Bull Moose Party when he was sick of the major political parties. So I founded Bull Moose because I was sick of the major record companies. The real reason is that Bull Moose was the name of a track club I was in while in college. If you look closely at the original logo, you'll see that the bull moose has running shoes on. 

Q: How difficult has it been to compete with Amazon, iTunes and the other major online operations that began after you opened Bull Moose?

A: It's our job to listen to our customers and adapt and kind of roll with the punches. The main way that we adapt is to try to recognize what assets a physical store has, and it's that it can be focal point -- if you're into a particular band, you're going to be in a store, talking to other people about that band and similar bands. We try to make the stores as conducive as possible to hanging out in and we've also expanded to "touch and feel" things, like socks, that are kind of difficult to sell online because you want to see what they're like. 

Q: Were sales affected as those online competitors grew?

A: We've grown every year in our business except for one, and that was seven or eight years ago, and that was flat (Wickard declined to provide current sales figures, but said they fall in a range from $10 million to $50 million). I think our store let people discover music again and made it more accessible. People would say, "I finally ripped (copied) my CD collection and realized I was missing one."

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