Around the traps: RCA’s solution to ABBA marketing problems has been to establish a special ABBA warehouse

Rolling Stone (Australian edition) 13 January 1977

ABBA Capers, Part Two. After four weeks at the top of the Kent Report’s top 100 albums list there are reports in Sydney that ABBA’s Arrival may have ended, and their departure could be sooner than expected. The group’s company, RCA, has aroused the criticism of a number of record dealers who say that its bulk order, mass marketing approach is not doing them a lot of good.

In the first place, RCA adopted the policy, prior to Arrival’s release, of being particularly heavy-handed about ordering patterns. In a letter to retailers the company’s managing director, Bob Cook, outlined the supply problems which beset the company when ABBA’s last album exploded onto the market following the March showing of a TV special on the band. These have been partly caused by “frequent re-ordering of small quantities” which prevented the company from getting a clear picture of real growth potential which in turn would have permitted better production scheduling. So RCA came up with a radical innovation in marketing: it set up a special ABBA warehouse with ABBA staff, forward ordering of production was set in motion, and representatives of the trucking companies were even located in the warehouse to co-ordinate shipping schedules. The company went farther than this however; it put two conditions on the usage of this facility: only orders which specified the ABBA single, album, cassette or cartridge of Arrival were to be processed through the facility and only orders in box-lot quantities were to be processed (singles in 25, 50 or 100 unit boxes, albums in 50 unit boxes or in counter display boxes of 70 units, and cassettes in 20 unit boxes). Orders which were for quantities of less than a full box would be passed on to the regular distribution system (with inevitable delays) and orders which included other products would be similarly treated even if the ABBA selection exceeded the minimum quantities 

That latter condition was, in a way, an inadvertent method of discriminating against the company’s other product – and quite probably put limits on orders of other RCA releases. But the kicker was not so much in these conditions as in the mass marketing approach. Specialist record retailers were angry about the fact that the album was readily available in department stores and other high traffic outlets (which of course are much better geared to take advantage of the special warehousing and ordering arrangements) and also that there was some heavy discounting going on from very early in the release period. As one said last week “next thing you know the bloody record will be available in service stations.”

The record dealer’s argument is that wider availability of the album depletes their sales, and that sales of albums like Arrival (high quantity, rapid turnover) are economically crucial to them. These sales provide the surplus funds which can be spent on product that might otherwise not be purchased. But as well as that while dealers have to buy their product (they can’t send it back if it fails to sell) the high traffic customers usually receive theirs on a sale or return basis. This is not unusual; often it is the only basis on which the stores will take large quantities of records. But it does put them at a marketing advantage.

The situation gets complicated when sales are not quite matching expectations, as now seems to be the case with Arrival. Although RCA is quite happy with the record’s progress to date there are some disquieting indications that it will not have the longevity as Number One album that its predecessors enjoyed. The single Money, Money, Money has already dropped out of the 2SM Number One spot (replaced by Chicago’s treakly If You Leave Me Now) and there are signs that the same thing may happen on the Kent Report’s national singles chart. If the single drops it will be after only five weeks at Number One (compared with Dancing Queen’s eight weeks and Fernando’s fifteen weeks.) It should be pointed out that all of these singles are taken from Arrival and that if their performance is any indication the album should sell its projected million units. However in Sydney at least there are signs of an unexpected challenger for the Number One album spot: Manfred Mann’s The Roaring Silence 

RCA has one overall problem that its mass marketing approach cannot contain; although its sales through non-surveyed outlets (department stores) could be through the roof, these will not be reflected in the charts. Furthermore department store sales will tend to bleed off record store sales, thus compounding the dilemma of Arrival’s chart performance. Ultimately it is the charts which dealers follow when ordering records; and if Arrival does not show signs of the solid and lengthy market performance which has characterised ABBA’s other album sales they will be careful about future ordering.

© 1977 Rolling Stone. Thanks to Samuel Inglles