For the record: Good riddance HMV – you deserve to go the way of Tower, Our Price and the rest

I don’t think anyone would be too surprised if HMV finally went down the toilet in 2012. Even if it was just the bricks and mortar side (leaving the online store up), it would be a momentous moment in retail history – the last big music retailer would be gone, leaving another huge hole in our dying high streets.

But rather than shedding a tear, I’d be more inclined to smile and raise a big glass of ‘who gives a fuck’. Why? Because for me it deserves to go bust. And why? Because the people that run it lost sight of the real value in its chain, if they ever even realised in the first place.

Frankly, I doubt they ever did: the music (and then film) market was a pretty easy cash cow to milk for many years – it wasn’t rocket science. So, when the heat went on in the noughties, just like with Tower Records (RIP 2006) and Our Price (RIP 2004), it all started to collapse. HMV has held on to the rail the longest, but that grip is really slipping. Won’t be long now.

Am I a twisted former employee? Hardly. I had a few weeks as a HMV Christmas temp in the 90s and had a nice time, right up until I got a better offer (ie, a permanent post) at another retailer (not a record shop). I bear no grudge and worked with some nice people; I can’t remember having a single unpleasant experience while I was there.

Am I a twisted former rival? Hardly that either. I spent five years at Our Price Music (or just Our Price, depending on your age), with HMV being our biggest competitor, but beyond being sent out to price check on occasion, my subterfuge went no further. In fact, I came away from my music retail years with better friends from the local HMV stores than I did the Our Price ones, thanks to workers from both stores drinking in the same pubs post-work (such as good friend and fellow blogger Exile On Main Street).

So what am I then? Just another former member of retail staff who would probably still be doing it if the business paid a living wage (well, living for anyone who doesn’t want to live like a student, or with their parents). And that’s where the point comes in: what HMV, Our Price, Tower, Andy’s Records, you name them, all missed – it was their staff they should have valued beyond all else, rather than paying them peanuts, ignoring their wisdom and chasing pure profit.

High street retail has historically had two things going for it: customer interaction and product interaction. But importantly, until the interweb, it also had a pretty captive audience (if you take away a small percentage for phone orders, catalogues etc) which led to a certain amount (read: massive) of greediness and complacency.

This is why soon, all we’ll be left with are cafes, chicken shops, opticians and tourist tat shops. To that you can add the kind of places that simply don’t convert online so well, or that are more immediate impulse stores: for example, newsagents, tailors, or antique/curiosity and charity shops.

High street stores, like the music industry in the case of downloads, is looking to blame anyone and everyone except themselves. But the truth is simple: the internet is cheaper, due largely to lower overheads (ie, no shops), which means the likes of HMV are forced to fall back on the tactile nature of their stores and the service/expertise given by their frontline staff – oops.

If you’re currently working at HMV and giving good customer service (I know people that are), good on you – I’m certainly not wishing to criticise individuals, or tar the name of music store staff in general. What I’m saying is, Mr HMV, how much better do you think they’d be as employees if you invested in them, paid them a decent wage, listened to them; basically valued them?

When I started at Our Price, around 1990, the terrible money was tempered by a series of benefits I felt made it worthwhile. While being encouraged to play things we didn’t know anything about, we took it in turns to choose what to play within reason (no swearing, popular stuff at lunchtimes and on Saturdays). I got a musical education that I feel has really benefitted my life.

While we were working for a chain with more than 200 stores, there was still a feeling of independence. The vast majority of ordering was done in store, reps visited weekly to sell in new releases – we even made up our own charts.  That Beta Band moment in High Fidelity – that kind of thing went on with regularity and made you happy to do the job.

But over time, all those parts of the job that actually felt like perks dried up. We started being sent compilations from head office to play at lunchtimes, alongside charts to put up. Ordering become more and more centralised, reps dried up and a good range was replaced with computer games. We lost vinyl too, despite still selling a good amount – company policy, we were told.

So as we turned into till monkeys, with more and more limited chances to improve our knowledge on the job, the promos and fun went too. I’m sure those on high would’ve argued all these measures were necessary because the old model wasn’t working, but I think the fact the company soon folded with a whimper would suggest making their staff miserable and centralising the chain into total and complete blandness wasn’t the answer.

Recently conversing with two staffers in my local HMV was a pretty depressing venture. I don’t get the feeling of ‘music specialist’ that record stores used to strive for; it was closer to lowest common denominator. Sure, the haircuts screamed ‘music fan’ but the teenage frumpiness screamed ‘I don’t care’ even louder. Their attitude, demeanour and lack of verve tells you most of them won’t be around long – because they have no value in their job, in their company, in their ability to make a difference. And that’s a shame.

Compare it to the experience you’ll get in John Lewis, where employees are invested in the company, or to a retailer where expertise is taught and valued – a proper optician, or a tailor – to see what I mean.

If high street retail wants to get off its knees, it needs to stop feeling sorry for itself, stop cutting corners, and wake up to the fact that the only advantage it can possibly have over online shopping is a friendly smile, a knowledgeable recommendation, a cup of coffee, an enjoyable environment to shop in plus every chance to listen, touch, read etc. And it’s your staff who can do the former, and tell you how to do the latter.

HMV – you had a plan and it didn’t work. As the song so rightly says, rip it up and start again. And if you don’t believe me, just ask your staff and find out how many of them know who wrote that lyric. You might be horrified by the answer.

5 thoughts on “For the record: Good riddance HMV – you deserve to go the way of Tower, Our Price and the rest

  1. I gave up going in HMV when I realised the experience differed very little from shopping in Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Soulless and uninspiring. Makes me pine for Select-A-Disc and the like.

  2. After 8 happy years with Our Price I left when it finally became the Superdrug of the music world & each store lost it’s local identity, the very thing that would make some musica fans go from one town to another. There was a time when no 2 Our Price stores were the same & the people that worked there nurtured its specialist selection. I went back many years later to work part time, just as the local Our Price was being transformed into a Virgin Megastore ie 3 times the size with a shallow depth of stock in comparrison… the same video titles stacked up & racked up in several places all over the store in orde to ‘persuade’ them that they really should purchase this title, not go in, browse & actually fdiscover something for themselves, a far more rewarding experience. HMV fell into the same trap & has now completely lost its soul. Maybe there is a future for the independenys to resurface, music fans, start praying now.

  3. It’s no different anywhere you go. Here in Australia I used to work for a music chain called Sanity. When I worked there at the turn of the millennium there was no internet access to find information nor were MP3s and downloads a *huge* concern (yet). Staff were initially encouraged (as you were) to select their own music and play it and we were hands-on in ordering and knowing what was hot, what was not, and what awesome new album was about to drop. We also knew our stock. Well.

    It wasn’t long though before it too suffered the malaise brought on by upper management with no clue and a desire to hire any young deadbeat teen because they were cheap, didn’t complain about the shit pay, and would do what they were told like good little robots. Product knowledge? Nah, that went out the window once they introduced the internet into the stores. Interesting music? Nah, that’s “Sanity Radio” now. The most annoying, middle-of-the-road compilation “station” in the world. Played at levels that actually inhibit you being able to ask staff anything (which is probably the point).

    Case in point: back in August 2008 I knew that Metallica would be dropping a new album some time in the not-too-distant future (September as it turned out). Having worked at Sanity in my younger days I knew that that sort of information should have been being promoted to the staff to help push pre-sale orders. Heck, one of the biggest bands is releasing a new album? That shit should be plastered everywhere. I happened to be walking past a store when I decided I’d go in and ask for the actual release date. Firstly, the guy behind the counter couldn’t hear me until, after the third attempt, I told him to turn the music down because I was having to (literally) yell at him. Secondly, he had no idea what was being released in the coming weeks and months as Sanity no longer released that info to them via weekly “please read this sheet of info” news updates (apparently). Instead, the onus falls on to the customer to have a majority of the information already and the service provider acts as more of a confirmation point (via them searching the internet). And thirdly, this kid didn’t know how to spell. Do you know how frustrating it is when you know that a band actually exists but you’re being told it doesn’t because some illiterate waste of carbon didn’t pass his basic spelling exams? That, despite me S-L-O-W-L-Y telling him how to spell the name he still got it wrong? (Really frustrating.) Then this kid tried to tell me oh-so-condescendingly: “Dude, I don’t think that’s a real band because, like, I can’t find anything on the system about them…” At which point I walked over to the “HEAVY METAL” section and threw one of the empty cases at him and walk out.

    It’s not wonder these businesses are going down the toilet.

  4. Good riddance HMV. They cancelled the balance on a gift card I was given as a present. I have never been in one of their stores since.

  5. Yup, I agree HMV totally deserved to go bust. It makes you wonder if their mangers ever set foot on the shop floor. I think their crazy pricing had a lot to do with it. For years you could pick up a cd for say £4.99 and the exact same cd next to it would be £15.99. This would happen constantly, and this bizarre disparage in pricing would also happen to DVDs. Their constant sales were also bizarre – 5 DVDs for £30 (they do this because they want you to part with £30) but I could only ever find two of interest so they never made a sale. I think my loss of interest in HMV happened when they changed the way they racked up blu rays. At one time they were stocked with the covers facing you so titles were easy to find, and some covers would catch your eye, then they changed it to show the spines only, as you might rack them on your shelves at home. This made it very difficult to find what you were looking for. They were also rubbish at getting new titles in stock or placing them where they were easy to find. Last time I visited my HMV it was to make a definate sale for two new release blu rays. I couldn’t find them anywhere so went home and bought them from Amazon.

    But what really made me go elsewhere was the beefcake security guard at my local branch in Huddersfield who would make a habit of following me around the store, even making his presence known at one point by walking slowly past and flicking a pice of paper. He probably recognised me from the time he worked at the Leeds branch when I worked as Chief Technician at the Odeon and we had a deal for loan CDs for free cinema tickets. Why he targeted me as a possible thief I have no idea. Now I’m self-employed and married to a doctor. I bank more money in a day than he makes in a month. Well my money went elsewhere in the end.

    So goodbye HMV. And as for the meathead security guard, enjoy life in the dole queue.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.