Zia Record Exchange creates pop culture wonderland
Customers find smoking deals, rare items and astounding variety

Photo by Sharlene Celeskey
Beatles gift items and CDs displayed in Zia Records at 1850 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, Ariz.

Batman greets me when I walk through door at the Thunderbird Zia Record Exchange. The molded plastic superhero is at the front of the store as part of a four-foot barrel-shaped-black-plastic-cooler with a Mountain Dew logo. And he is for sale.  The caped crusader is just the first unusual or unexpected item I will find in the store. The new Superman cardboard DVD display is fittingly right next to Batman and a section of the back wall is strictly devoted to superhero gift items.  As I walk through the rows of used and new merchandise I see: DVDs, Blu-rays, comic books, video games, CDs and Vinyl. I feel as though I am walking through a maze as down each row I find unexpected merchandise.  There are bright pattern socks, traditional board games, used turntables, a variety of speakers, musical instruments, sodas in glass bottles, rock and film posters, Beatle gift items, recycle bags with Edgar Allen Poe and David Bowie logos, and special edition boxed sets of albums and CDs. Used CD sets start out around $25 for a 4 disc Kiss set while a newly pressed Beatles vinyl set sells for $499.
How do the ever-changing Zia Record stores continue to keep competitive and expand in the age of digital and advancing technology, Internet sales, and a slower economy?   Every time I enter one of their stores: I feel surprised at finding a “Sailor Moon” book 1 graphic novel, seeing trend items like Red Hot Chili Peppers knee socks, and discovering Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” 45 record.  Finding all these eclectic items reasonably or sale priced in store is like walking into a pop culture wonderland.

Brian Faber, the General Manager of the Zia stores says, “We keep overhead low, make wise business decisions and depend on customer loyalty. We stress value to our customers and offer bargains. Zia evolves with technology. The changing hardware is just a small challenge. Price for value matters most.”

Zia opens with one store

This year locally owned ZIA records relocated its central Phoenix and Tempe stores to larger locations. Zia has come a long way from being one small independently owned store, and expanding over the years to include five Phoenix area stores and two each in Tucson and Las Vegas.

Jesse Srogoncik, software designer and Larkspurs guitarist, worked for Zia when they first opened in 1980. He remembers the original store on Indian School and 19th Avenue, as he was the first employee. He says,”Punk/DIY was exploding and Zia was one of the few places that embraced the scene. The majority of sales were used vinyl although we had a relatively deep import section where people could cop things like: ‘A Taste of DNA,’ ‘L.A.M.F.,’ ‘Shot by Both Sides,’ ‘Anarchy in the U.K.,’ ‘White Riot,’ etc.” Their second store was located in Tempe along Mill Avenue.

Zia Evolves

Zia keeps evolving and Srogoncik said, “One of the things that kept Zia interesting was Brad’s (Brad Singer the original owner) willingness to experiment and diversify.  Success or failure neither would deter us from trying out different things.”  The element of surprise when visiting a Zia store has been a big part of their appeal for 33 years.

Zia is well known for their used items, which are plentiful at all stores.  Faber said, “Used stuff comes in every day: books, games, CD, vinyl. It is fun to shop at Zia because you never know what you will find in used merchandise.”

Of the latest addition of musical instruments and amps at some of the stores, Faber said, “There are not many restrictions on what people bring in that we will try to sell. That is part of the discovery aspect of Zia.” 

Used inventory is a hit

Former PVCC student, Nils Thiede, a steady customer for 10 years agrees. He says, “Their used CD’s and DVD’s are really cheap if you are willing to spend some time searching through the two for $5 bins.”

  CDs, DVDs and books make up the majority of their used stock, prices are lower than new, and the used items on sale are a bigger bargain. There are DVDs for as low as 99 cents and books for 25 cents. It is a Mecca for collectors of rare and out of print items. I recently found a CD single from Jeff Buckley’s album Grace to add to my collection.

Vinyl makes a comeback

The resurgence of vinyl was been both a benefit and fun for customer and the employees according to Faber.  Each store has a large stock of records with the majority being used. Each store features bins, which showcase newly arrived used records.  Since vinyl is in again one of the most awaited events for music lovers is the annual international “Record Store Day” on the third Saturday in April.  Last year a friend and I went to the Thunderbird store before they opened and there was already a line. Sales clerks came out to the crowd to pass out donuts. Once the doors were open, the customers walked quickly to find special released vinyl albums and 45’s.  It was like a treasure hunt as everyone excitedly ran to each place marked by a bright helium balloon to check out the special purchases.  Grace Rucker, a clinical medical secretary and music lover in Phoenix, has shopped at Zia for over 10 years and said, “I love their Record Store Day because once there, you never know what you will find.”

Zia reaches out to customers

Zia depends on and has earned the loyalty of their customers. The chain runs one-day sales called flash sales and weekend sales, both advertised through their website, Zia Blast e-mail, radio and social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumbler.  The quickest ways to find the updates are to go to Facebook, Instagram and Tumbler or to your email inbox.

Zia offers frequent buyer card

Another way the company develops consumer loyalty is by issuing a Zia frequent buyer card. You earn points per dollar amount spent as you rack up points you use them to receive 50 percent off of an item.  If you are a frequent customer or make large purchases, you can rack up points quickly. I had been saving my points for a big purchase when my teenage son borrowed my card to buy some used CDs. When the clerk offered him the discount he gladly took it.

Zia maintains a variety

The other draw for Zia is the wide variety of music they stock. When they first opened their doors, they offered not only hard-to-find Punk and Alternative and Indie music but imported records as well.  Grant Carpenter, a math teacher currently living in Britain, has fond memories of the Tempe Zia when he listens to "Expo 2000" by Kraftwerk.  Although he now shops for music in downtown Birmingham, England, he has not found a store like Zia. He says, “Zia had such a wide variety of local, national and international music, a veritable musical United Nations.”

Zia still carries merchandise that is not found at other stores. Phrogge Koehler, professional drummer and percussionist, has been shopping Zia for over 20 years and says, “I feel they have the widest selection, now in the new location, of all forms of entertainment, music, video, literature and specialty items.”

Rucker also likes Zia for their rare records. Thiede agrees their amazing selection is a drawing card and especially likes their inventory of rare sci-fi films.

Srogoncik has shopped there over 30 years since he worked there and says, “Even though Zia has changed ownership, it still manages to preserve the diversity that it was originally chartered with. A safe haven for any music fan, irrespective of their chosen genre allegiance.”

Zia reflects the individual community

As you check out the different stores you will see that they mirror the community in which they are housed. Tempe has more of a college crowd feel to it, the Camelback location an urban feel and Chandler-Gilbert the suburban store. Thunderbird appears the most colorful with their comical and interesting signs posted. The Rotten Tomatoes ratings are listed under their recommended DVDs display. Faber says, “Each manager has a lot of discretion in how they set the tone of their store and that is why each store is different. Zia strives to serve the communities in which they are located. “Our golden rule is to be a good community member,” Farber said.  They continue to sponsor local music and be a successful force in the community.

Zia opens clearance store

 Zia’s recently changed the University Avenue Tempe store into a clearing store for “rare treasures and merchandise at a great value,” said Faber. The store re-opened on Friday, Nov. 8th. and is now their smallest of the Zia stores.  The new store sells CDs for as low a $1 and books and CDs are buy-one-and-get-one-free and stocks discounted DVDs and VHS and sells half price gift items. A word of warning: allow yourself at least an hour to go through the stock of CDs because I found several rare gems in that time frame.

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