President and co-CEO of J&R Music and Computer World
By Marissa Maier
In addition to her numerous accolades, Rachelle Friedman was recently named No. 30 on Billboard’s “Women in Music Power Players List” for 2011. She and her husband, Joe, turned a 500-square-foot music store on Park Row into a 300,000-square-foot, block-long complex selling everything from tablets to flat screen televisions. We sat down with Friedman to get a taste of both her career and J&R Music and Computer World’s place in the Lower Manhattan community. Since you and your husband Joe created J&R in 1971, how has the industry changed for women and how has it changed for you personally?
The various industries that we are part of have definitely evolved for the better. Women have higher-level jobs and positions in music. Personally, as a business person I am evaluated on my strengths and weaknesses and no longer get comments at meetings of “when will your husband arrive?”
When did you first notice that change?
It is hard to say. As we became more successful, we were given a little more respect and I was treated differently, but it did take a long time. I sit on many boards, and now there are more than one female on them. There is no longer a token female. It has evolved, but it isn’t where it should be.
Originally, what attracted you and Joe to the music and electronics business? And when you started J&R, why choose Lower Manhattan as the site of your store?Joe was already working as an electrical engineer. I was in my junior year of college at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University studying chemistry with the hope of going to medical school. Because we loved science, we loved everything techie and I was passionate about music. When we opened the store, it was a part-time endeavor to supplement Joe’s salary and make up for my lack of salary. Lower Manhattan was only one train stop away from my school and it was within walking distance of Joe’s job. The area was the finance capitol of the world and the courts were there, so it felt like a nine-to-five, five-days-a-week place. As a newlywed, I really liked those hours instead of a seven-days-a-week, retail type neighborhood.
In an interview, you attributed J&R’s success to a mix of uncompromising customer service, knowledgeable sales people and competitive pricing. Is this a formula you had in mind from the start?
From the outset, we felt that there was a void in consumer electronics. We wanted to create a place that both we and our friends felt comfortable shopping in. With music, I really felt I wanted to create a community where people could meet fellow aficionados, like social media now. Afterwards, we were the first consumer electronics standalone computer and Apple store.
We wanted our store to not be intimidating so people would feel free to ask questions. We want the sales staff to relish the idea of educating people and to make sure they weren’t talking down to them. It was important to have a computer store that females felt comfortable in, too.
On top of that, we really felt it was important to have discounts and competitive prices to give our customers a true value, especially in these times.
Why do you think the digital entertainment and hardware business continues to flourish even in the midst of a hurting economy?
Entertainment is a necessity in good times and in bad, especially in a tough economy. Hardware has come down in price and entertainment software has come down in price. People are communicating with these devices, sharing photos, picking music that becomes the soundtrack of their lives.
Entertainment gives you a good, cozy feeling. People will continue to spend on entertainment, and we have noticed that in every economic downturn.
J&R was closed for six and a half weeks after 9/11. Why did you decide to keep your business in Lower Manhattan and why was it important to reopen your doors so soon after the attacks?
We decided to keep our business in Lower Manhattan because we are an important retailer in the community and we felt we owed something to our customers who had been so good to us over the years. We wanted to rebuild as quickly as possible. I don’t know if you were there, but after 9/11, Lower Manhattan looked like a war zone and we wanted to send out a message of hope and perseverance. We wanted to show the world that the terrorists didn’t win.
It does seem that the actual store has become a mainstay of the community.
Absolutely, and now as my son came into the business he wanted to do something special and he started J&R Jr., which he used to be called. It’s our children’s store. There is a community vibe there. We are essentially a large mom-and-pop store.
You work in an industry that is continually evolving and advancing. Are there any new gadgets that you are particularly excited about?
Well, I am excited about everything in our stores, but the big buzz right now is convergence, and a lot of that is connecting the web to television, like the Sony Internet TV or Intel WiDi technology, which allows you to stream content from your computer to your television. It is really exciting that almost everything has WiFi, which allows you to stream anything.
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