In October 1988, Angie Roloff and her husband Ron opened Strictly Discs in Madison, Wisconsin, after Ron left a career in the biomedical research field to pursue his love of music full time. Nearly 31 years later, the couple made the difficult decision to shutter in-store operations due to COVID-19, roughly a week before Governor Tony Evers forced a mandatory shutdown of all non-essential businesses. Now that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has overturned Evers’ stay-at-home order — ruling it “unlawful” and “unenforceable” — the Roloffs and their employees have reopened Strictly Discs in a limited capacity.
As part of Billboard’s efforts to best cover the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on the music industry, we will be speaking with Roloff regularly to chronicle her experience throughout the crisis. (Read the previous installment here and see the full series here.)
Last week we briefly talked about the U.S. Postal Service issue, and I wanted to discuss that a little further since it’s a big deal for you guys. I know there was already a slowdown in shipments due to the pandemic, but I’m wondering if you’ve experienced longer delays in shipments reaching customers since the postmaster general started cutting overtime and instituting a lot of those changes that are now so controversial?
When we first shut down, I would always say the U.S. Postal Service was incredibly reliable and incredibly quick when you consider all of the pieces of mail that they move. Naturally, they had challenges just like all of us with COVID, and so initially, as you said, we did see a really drastic slowdown in how long it was taking things to move about, especially depending on which hubs and different areas of the country a parcel might be tracking through. That was hard, because I would spend a good amount of each morning answering customer inquiries, essentially [saying], “Where is my package?”
Despite the fact that I think it’s pretty clear to everybody that there’s something serious going on in this country and in the world, people still didn’t seem to understand how that would impact the mail. Then once we opened back up in May, things did really, really improve. I thanked my lucky stars that that period seemed to be over, but now we’re back to that same sort of lag where things are taking significantly longer than [they did] historically.
Is it similar to the slowdown previously, or is the slowdown even worse now?
I’d say it’s comparable, although in some ways it’s still to be determined, because it’s still kind of a developing issue. Like for example, our carrier, it would be routine that they would just work to sort everything they picked up on their route before their day was done. Now I’m hearing from our carriers that at a certain time they just have to stop. So the next day they come in and they already have the workload from the day prior, and it feels very much like the snowball chasing you down the hill and it’s just getting bigger and bigger. And you realize that that is going to compound as the weeks go on.
How long did it normally take for your shipments to reach their destination, and how long is it taking now?
Our LPs ship media mail, which is the slower option for the U.S. Postal Service. It does depend on how far the package is traveling as far as the transit time, but most packages were taking three to 10 days at most, and usually closer to five or six days for media mail. Now I have seen things within the U.S. take six, seven weeks. One of our [customers] ordered a couple of LPs, and one of them went through the hub in Pittsburgh and it got to him right away. The other went through the hub in Chicago, which seems to be really struggling, and it took a month.
What percentage of your business would you say is online sales?
It depends on the year a little bit, but generally about 40%.
So if these changes continue, this could really, really hurt you.
It could, definitely. And when you hear talk about privatizing the Postal Service or something along those lines, would we potentially be looking at rates that would be comparable with other companies in that realm, like UPS and FedEx? There just really isn’t a good option for us to move our products affordably with companies like that.
And if you did have to do that, I’m assuming you would have to pass those extra costs along to the customers.
We would have to. I think in some ways that would make buying a lot of what we sell and businesses like us sell cost prohibitive [for people].
Do you fear that the slowdown itself could also keep people from ordering things from you? Like, ‘Oh, it just takes too long, I’m just not even going to bother ordering from them?’
I do. It’s frustrating, because we live in kind of an instant gratification society, so it’s hard to explain to people that something will get there, it will just take a lot longer than we normally would expect. We’ve been trained that if you’re ordering perhaps from Amazon, you get a lot of things in two days.
And I guess with a company like Amazon, it would be cheaper for people to order from them, as opposed to you or other independent record stores?
Sure, because they have so much more leverage to negotiate better rates.
The Postmaster General, Louis Dejoy, said he’s going to suspend the changes that they’ve made that have slowed down all the mail. Do you trust that he’s really going to do that?
I don’t know what I trust anymore. I’m hopeful. It seems that the plight of the Post Office has been elevated for both parties, so I hope something will happen.
Do you feel like the motivation behind this is political? And if so, do you feel like you’re being held hostage to a political fight right now?
It sure seems like it.