Do you remember the first cold remedy you ever bought?
Do you remember the first pencil case you ever bought?
Do you remember the first blouse you ever bought?
I bet you can remember the first album you ever bought…
In the 1990s, Boots, WH Smith and M&S all endured tough times and, although customers questioned why they had lost direction, there was a general feeling amongst the British public that we needed to rally around our legacy retailers. Why is it then, that in recent years we have turned our backs on the staples of our High Street? Why has history and culture become so much less important than price or convenience? Why do we value the physical product so much less than the digital? As consumers have we lost sight of what really matters?
I began my own career with HMV in 1998. I started as a Christmas temp, like many people, lacking direction in my career and somewhat unsure what to do next. The next ten years were incredibly rewarding and exciting. I struggle to articulate to my peers who have worked for other retailers just what an exciting a place it was to work. It wasn’t just exciting for the people who worked for HMV, there was a palpable sense of excitement for our customers too.
As a Manager at HMV you really lived a great, albeit challenging, life. Summer conferences in Marbella, Dublin, Aviemore; Winter conferences at the Grand in Brighton (one that stands out was themed around a Scarface Anniversary re-release – outstanding work Trish!). There we witnessed performances from bands that genuinely needed the support from HMV to break their first album. We genuinely felt that we had an obligation to support new acts and to bring them to the public’s attention. It wasn’t retail, it was ROCK & ROLL! (to quote an ex MD, Dave Pride, at a new store opening). The conferences were also educational. We learnt about the company’s history and were reminded of our obligation to honour both the heritage and the future (Brian McLaughlin, Ex CEO, was a great story teller). You felt part of something bigger than your own experience. The business was full of egos, like any company, however somehow the sum never became greater than the whole.
We were at the forefront of youth culture however at the same time, we knew how to merchandise and sell the latest Midsomer Murders DVD. Every Monday there was a new set of singles, albums, films and games (which had a Friday release date, just to complicate things). Saturday, as for most retailers, was the most thrilling day of the week, not just because of the sales lift but also because that was the day we received the deliveries of new releases. The stock room would be buzzing with anticipation as you discovered what the album of your favourite artist actually looked and felt like. Each shop in HMV was responsible for buying approximately 70% of the stock you would see in store, entirely aiming at you, the local and regular customer. This brought challenges and risks. For instance, if an album sold well on Monday, was this because it had a very loyal fan base or did it have the legs to keep selling. Would it get any airplay? Would customers tell their friends that they had found a gem? Should you order more? This wasn’t a tin of beans, it wouldn’t eventually sell through - it was a genuine gamble.
HMV connected with customers in a way that most retailers can only dream…and yet….somehow it has all gone wrong.
Why? Technology has changed, and well, let’s be honest, HMV hasn’t. Consumer shopping habits have changed too. The customer base at HMV is very different. It feels like HMV has been caught between two very different customer profiles (sweeping statement alert!); one that is older and still keen on physical product and, well the kids who don’t really get HMV anymore.
I look at HMV now and don’t really understand what they stand for, and to be honest I am not sure they really know either. Do they cater for an ageing and dwindling customer base or do they completely reposition, fundamentally changing their product base to get the kids re-engaged? Is technology (ie. headphones and accessories) the answer? Not really. HMV has to reposition as a specialist, but of what?
Trevor Moore, the new CEO, has an enormous task. He has to choose what type of customer he wants as he cannot appeal to everyone in the manner of the HMV of old. Jamie Zuppinger of Barracuda Search, wrote an article in Retail Week earlier in the year, in which he commented that most CEOs he had spoken to felt their biggest mistake after joining a failing business was not cutting deep enough and fast enough. Unfortunately I feel that this is exactly what Trevor Moore needs to do. In all probability, the only way HMV can survive is to reduce the store portfolio to circa 100 stores and to truly specialise. The margins have became so tight that to support this the supplier base will probably need to increase their equity stake much like other specialist retailers.
And we, as consumers, have a responsibility too. There was an outcry when Woollies went under. Are you prepared to see another integral part of our high street culture disappear? Yes, you can buy an album cheaper on Amazon, but is it as fulfilling as browsing a display in HMV? We have to place a greater value on our high street.
Trevor Moore, needs time. As consumers, we have an obligation to buy it for him.