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.