Solomon, Russell M.
Solomon, Russell M.
The founder of Tower Records and the driving force behind its remarkable growth, Russell M. Solomon has often attributed his success to incidental innovation and an understanding of the changing marketplace. These he claims are key ingredients in Tower's dominating presence in the retail music business. Solomon pioneered the concept of the superstore and oversaw the expansion of Tower from a single store in Sacramento, California, to more than 150 stores in 14 countries, selling music, videos, and books, with annual sales of nearly $1 billion.
Born in 1925 and a native of Sacramento, California, Russell M. Solomon learned retailing by working in his father's drugstore in the old Tower Theater Building. In 1941, at the age of 16, he opened his first record store in his father's drugstore. He bought the store from his father in 1952, which failed. As Solomon recalled, "I was too young to know any better." A poor student, Solomon was thrown out of high school and was a junior college dropout, leaving school to join the army. During the 1950s, Solomon worked for eight years as a rackjobber, wholesaling records to discount stores, but he went broke in 1960. He had tried to expand the store with insufficient capital to finance the expansion. "It was a dumb mistake," Solomon admitted, "to think you can finance a business on creditor financing. So I went back to what I did best." Solomon returned to retailing and reopened the Tower Theater store that creditors had closed, opening his second Tower store in Sacramento a month later. It was the creation, however, of a big store in San Francisco in 1968 that launched the Tower empire.
Married but separated for over 25 years, Solomon has two sons, Michael, a lawyer who is Tower's general counsel, and David, who provides Tower's financial advice. Tower has remained a private company with a net worth estimated at around $400 million. Usually casually dressed in blue jeans and sports shirts, like most of his employees and customers, Solomon has been described as "a hippie who learned to run a business." He is a collector of contemporary art.
Solomon's first Bay area record store was a success from the start, offering what became the formula for Tower Records future popularity: wide selection and discount prices. Tower was the first record store chain to stock virtually every record title, using hot-selling albums to lure customers for purchasing other, less popular records. This approach was much like how supermarkets use discount items to increase overall sales. "We stole all our ideas from supermarket merchandising," Solomon confessed. Like a supermarket, Tower stacks popular items in piles on the floor to encourage impulse buying and to project an image that Tower always has the albums that consumers want long after competitors have run out. Tower was also the first record stores to open from 9 a.m. to midnight. As Walter Yetnikoff, chairman of CBS Records, has said, "Taking your date to Tower Records has become an institution, and it's cheap if you don't buy too many records. Late store hours has been called a stroke of Solomon's marketing genius, but he has said that it just made sense since 'people stay up late everywhere; what is there to do if you don't want to go out and hang around a bar?'"
Tower Records' San Francisco store was only 5,000 square feet when it opened, now small by Tower's standard, but at the time it was almost double the size of the average record store. Pioneering the large-store concept, Solomon began to expand into other markets. The Los Angeles Tower Records store opened in 1970; outlets in San Diego and Berkeley followed in 1972; and other California locations debuted in 1974 and 1976. In 1976, Tower expanded beyond California, entering the Seattle and Phoenix markets. In 1981, Tower went international, opening retail stores in Japan. In 1983, Tower moved east to New York City to its flagship Manhattan store at Fourth and Broadway, a success that earned Tower its second of four Merchandiser of the Year Awards from the National Association of Recording Merchandisers. Stores in Washington, D.C. and Boston followed, and Tower headed even further east to London in 1985. Solomon by chance acquired its prime Piccadilly Square location, which helped ensure Tower's success abroad.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Tower expanded both at home and aboard, opening up stores in Atlanta, Chicago, Nashville, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, and throughout Asia, Europe, and Central and South America. Foreign stores in the late 1990s accounted for at least a third of Tower's sales. Tower also diversified its product line, opening its first book location as early as 1963, and in 1981 it became one of the first music chains to offer videos. As vice president of video sales John Thrasher explained, "It was a logical extension for us. Russ always saw video as a collectable product. Most people thought we were crazy, but we had success with it. Then the mass merchants came along and proved that you can sell video."
Chronology: Russell M. Solomon
1941: Began to sell records in his father's drugstore.
1960: Opened first Tower Records store in Sacramento, California.
1963: Unveiled Tower's first bookstore.
1968: Opened San Francisco store.
1976: Expanded Tower outside California.
1983: Opened store in New York City.
1986: Plunged into European market with Piccadilly Circus store in London.
1995: Opened first Wow store in Las Vegas.
1998: Expanded Tower Records to more than 150 stores in 14 countries.
Tower reorganized its store-management structure in the 1990s, integrating all three of its lines—music, books, and videos—under one general manager at each location. Tower is the only chain that still practices decentralized buying with each store with its own staff of buyers. In this way, it is the local buyers who are responsible for knowing what is on hand and how many copies of a release to stock, paying attention to local market conditions. This is one major reason why Tower has been so successful throughout the world, tying inventory decisions to local customer interest. This practice is contrary to conventional retail logic, which holds that stores gain economies of scale by purchasing at the chain level, often based on electronic purchasing data generated at each store. In 1995 Tower launched its Wow stores, combining records, videos, books, and software with consumer electronics. Tower has also brought its mail-order business online. In sales of both prerecorded music and videos Tower ranks in the top ten among U.S. retailers.
Social and Economic Impact
Russell Solomon has seen his single store in Sacramento, California, grow to a global enterprise that has changed the way people buy records, videos, and books around the world. Solomon recognized that variety and discounts would be an unbeatable combination. By keeping his stores open late, he also has helped encourage shopping as an evening social event. Tower's global reach has been an important agent for distributing various cultures' art throughout the world. If television has managed to better connect people around the world, chains like Tower also contribute to the wider exposure of culture internationally. With only about 15 percent of Tower's sales from the "top 40" genre, Tower also provides a market for alternative and classic recordings that have a more difficult time being stocked in smaller stores. In the era of the giant retailer, which Tower helped to usher in, Solomon has shown how larger stores can also be responsive to local tastes and markets.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Russell M. Solomon
2605 Del Monte
West Sacramento, CA 95691
Business Phone: (916)373-2561
Angel, Karen. "Tower of Stength." Publishers Weekly, 27 October 1997.
Fabrikant, Geraldine. "Tower Record's Giant Steps."New York Times, 25 April 1987.
Jeffrey, Don. "Tower's Solomon Weighs Expansion, Stock Offering."Billboard, 27 May 1995.
Mayfield, Geoff. "The Flowering of Tower."Billboard, 14 March 1998.
"Russell Solomon and Family." Forbes, 17 October 1994.
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