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 emurphy@pressherald.com
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."

Discovery is such a great part of the music business. It's always the hunt and the search for something new. We feel those are the things that the music business was really kind of scared of, but actually it led to people wanting to discover new things. 

Q: How are you thriving in an age of so much Internet commerce?

A: As a business, we try to not judge the music fans and video fans, we try to figure them out and be with them. Our goal is to heavily (focus) on having everything. A lot of stores may carry things that turn (over) one time a year or less. A lot of retailers would say that's crazy, but it's worth it for the music fan or movie fan. If we carry that, it gives them an incentive to come. The stuff we sell is a different beast -- people are looking for a specific item. 

Q: Was it difficult to take the leap and expand beyond the original store?

A: The second store (in North Windham) was the most difficult, due to, frankly, a lesson I had to learn -- that people who work at the stores are awesome people and it was hard being able to let go and not be a micro-manager and let people thrive. That's one of the most important things that I learned as a manager, learning how to stay out of the way. So much of a small business is your own blood, sweat and tears. With two stores, you can't do that anymore, and I learned I have to trust people, and I learned that some people were better at parts of the job than I was and we are all better together. 

Q: What was it like having Mumford & Sons perform at your store before their concert here last summer?

A: It was a dream come true. There are a handful of people here who have chutzpah and they will ask anybody to show up if they're coming to town. They will get on the phone, call up the manager of anybody and say, "You guys are coming to Maine. Why don't you come into our store?" We do get shot down often, but we're like the kid who wants to go to the prom and gets shot down and keeps asking. Sometimes the homecoming queen says yes. 

Q: Do you have lot of variation among stores?

A: We allow each store to adapt to its marketplace -- what might sell well at one store might not even be on the charts in another store. That's really true with music, but also with movies and games. Music is now less than half our sales, and movies and games are growing dramatically. In some of our stores, music is not even number one. And some of our best-selling things are items like Magic cards (Magic: The Gathering, a trading card game) -- people are really into that and know we have them and it fits into what we're about, which is, it's something fun. 

Q: What do you see in the future for Bull Moose?

A: We like to consider ourselves an opportunistic company. We try to keep our options and our minds open, but our overall ambition is, we like to sell inexpensive, cool stuff. We should be a store that you just go hang out in, not be pressured to buy something. But if you find something that connects to you somehow, that's what we'll be selling. It's all about connecting with other people, so we want to be a meeting point where those types of conversations take place.

We're aggressively looking for new locations right now. Nothing to announce yet, but we plan to keep growing. 

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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