Who cares about HMV? Shopping has never been better. - Spectator Blogs

15 January 2013

How many people presently lamenting the demise of HMV (at least in its current incarnation) actually spent any money there these past, say, five years? Not too many, I suspect. And for good reason: HMV was not, by its end, very good. If it had been wiser or less complacent, it might have been better placed to survive.

But here’s the thing: HMV was not merely the victim of technological change and new customer preferences it was also the wrong size. Because it had stores in most of Britain’s largest towns and cities and because it had been around for a long time we tend to think of HMV as a large company. But it wasn’t a large company. Like Borders and JJB Sports and all the other chains Shiraz Maher mentions it was just a medium-sized company ill-equipped for today’s tough commercial environment. HMV was too large to thrive and too small to survive.

It was neither one thing nor the other. Neither large enough to offer a comprehensive selection nor small enough to deliver a satisfying – and personal – customer experience. In the internet age size matters. Go large or go small or die.

This is one of the reasons why Waterstones and other chain bookshops will eventually perish too. (Another is that they are not as good as they used to be: the days when Waterstones staff knew about books  – or at least read book reviews – appear to be long gone.)

But it is true in other media too. There is consolidation at the highest level of the market as dominant brands reinforce their positions. At the very small, local, level however the picture is different: there is a future for independent retailers provided, that is, they offer something useful and deliver it with service to match. The internet kills mediocre companies. Shopping has never been better (that is, less awful).


Location may matter too. The large cities will still, I think, be well-stocked with interesting shops. So, I suspect, will many small towns too tiny to be considered useful to the larger chains. Again, it is the middle that will struggle most. The kind of town large enough to interest the big battalions but not large enough to sustain the little platoons too. If it’s a dormitory town or some other place arguably unblessed with any great community identity then expect these effects to be magnified.

Take my own home town. Selkirk is not a large (fewer than 6,000 folk) or especially wealthy place but manages to support a brace of excellent independent butchers, a fine greengrocer and an excellent, quirky, independent bookshop. It helps that there is no large supermarket in the town (though there is an Asda and a large Tesco just 6 miles away). There is an advantage to being small.

But each of these businesses are also very good at what they do. They have to be to compete against the likes of Tesco (who are open 24 hours a day and will deliver your groceries even if you live 20 miles from the store).

One should be wary of extrapolating too much from one’s own experience. Larger neighbouring towns have miserable high streets. But, regardless, it is possible for the little guy to put up a decent fight provided, that is, he’s prepared to do so. If you offer something that the big box stores cannot then you can find a market.

These patterns are, I think, discernible elsewhere too. Take the media, for instance. The big brands – BBC, New York Times and so on – can survive (the BBC, of course, has a certain funding advantage). And so can high-quality, small, local papers. It’s the guys in the middle who are getting hammered. Those with neither the resources to cover the world nor the ability to tailor their newspapers to local audiences. National doesn’t quite cut it anymore. You might need to be international or hyper-local to survive.

And, of course, these trends operate like a seesaw. As the big companies become ever larger so they eventually drift away from some parts of their audience. They no longer do some of the things that once made them attractive. And so they begin to lose those consumers, some of whom may scurry to newer, smaller, nimbler businesses that have room to flourish beneath the canopy offered by the big chains and national (or even international) brands.

Amazon, of course, is one of those brands. And in its wake swim thousands of other, much smaller, businesses for whom Amazon has opened the door to new markets, greatly expanding their potential range of customers. Amazon doesn’t just sell its own stuff, remember, it acts as a distributor for thousands of other companies. If Amazon is some kind of shark, these other firms are its pilot fish. Damn Amazon all you must, but don’t forget how much Amazon has improved shopping in this country. (Comparably, Starbucks has improved your coffee-drinking experience even if you never actually go to Starbucks.)

And, of course, if goods can be bought and distributed more efficiently then that leaves more money available to be spent elsewhere. The champions of HMV and other bloated, inefficient, not-really-very-good stores forget that.

Change is rarely painless and it is true that many high streets are pretty grim and depressing places these days. The answer to those problems lies in finding imaginative solutions for these empty premises not in penalising or blaming bigger companies for their ability to win customers.

But, as HMV and the other national chains show, the last place you want to be is stuck in the middle. Be big or be small or be dead.

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  • shoping

    Menschen, die ihre Liege müssen mehr als sit tun können, eine Dreipunkt-Stuhl, Infinity Stuhl, oder sogar eine Null-Schwerkraft-Stuhl kaufen. Jeder von ihnen kann bewegt werden, um weiter zurück liegen. Unendlichkeit und Schwerelosigkeit Stühle haben beide einen zweiten Motor, der die individuelle Steuerung der Fußstütze sowie die Rückenlehne lassen wird. Der Anwender sollte gewarnt werden, jedoch, dass die mehr der Stuhl die komplizierter werden die Kontrollen zu tun.

  • Blazenka Hudson-trograncic

    HMV were lucky to have little Nipper and not a black Labrador called Nig*** or they would have been in trouble a lot sooner.
    The article is right to identify as not very good the chains that set up in most shopping mall type high streets. At one time there were camera shops, we didn’t need a Jessops. The same with card shops, when I was young WHS stocked all the paper, cards and much more I needed.
    Big chains go in hand with rampant consumerism, do we really need it?
    Retail needs a total rethink, we have to accept we will not need hordes of salespersons, many who don’t know their stock anyway.
    Britain can be serviced with a far smaller population of workers, that’s the real problem.

  • Sarah G

    HMV. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Failure is what they deserved. Amazon, Argos & Tescos, for example, are companies with vision who know their competition and markets deserve to THRIVE!

    • Geoff103

      Indeed. It seems that many of those disturbed by the demise of HMV retail chain (the recording company went years ago) harbour the idea that we, the customers, exist for their benefit and not the other way round.

      If they don’t serve, and they plainly don’t in today’s climate of instant downloading (I’ve transferred all my CDs in lossless format to the computer and will never buy another one) then they deserve to go.

      If I may underline my point, I used to buy a dozen or more ‘classical’ music CDs a month and HMV became actively hostile to my sort of purchase about 20 years ago. No matter, there were other retailers about.

      But today, I signed up to the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall for about £12 a month (less than a full price CD) and for that I get unlimited access to their archive and, more importantly video relays in excellent HD video and sound quality of live performances from the Berlin Philharmonie. As good as being there as my computer/large screen TV set up is based around my HiFi.

      Next Live concert this Friday at 19:00.

      Not only is CD retailing dying but the CD itself. If I can ‘go’ to 5 or so live BPO concerts a month (and I live in a small village in Cumbria) as well as access over 150 archived concerts at a time of my choosing why would I buy a CD? And this trend will continue. When the Vienna, London and major American Orchestras follow the BPO, that’s where my spend will go. And my music pleasure will far outweigh the days of edited, relatively dead CD performances.

  • LEngland

    I seem to recall that at HMV, Humanity’s most brilliant and infinitely wide – ranging repertoire of intelligent music designed to elevate and ennoble the listener, was labelled under the catch-all nomenclature of ‘Classical’. This is a largely innaccurate convention ( ‘Classical’ only exists between 1750 and 1820, not very long ) applied by the USA in the early days of sound mass – media ( late 19th century ) to differentiate the Superior from the Dross that pays for the Superior

    Dross, though merely formulaic, unvarying and predictable, and being designed to furnish the obvious so as to appeal to our lesser selves, was filed under various pretentious, irrelevant and deceptive although expensively publicized categories.
    Such is Commerce and this business will continue in other forms under, possibly, different names.

  • Louise McCudden

    I do feel for all the people losing their jobs as it’s not their fault, but I remember chatting about how people weren’t really buying CDs anymore about ten years ago, back when I was doing my A levels. They were increasingly overpriced, stuffed with filler tracks, and marketed with a short shelf life. If you paid £16 for, I dunno, Ziggy Stardust or Thriller, you’d still be listening to it decades later. If you’re asked to pay £16 for an album with a couple of singles and a bunch of mush that you’re not even expected to particularly like much even at the time, with the next album ready to be marketed at in three or six months time anyway, well, you’re obviously not going to, are you? When did Lily Allen have her hit via MySpace, 2002? 2003? The music industry itself has adapted and managed to make money from other means than record sales – tours, shows, TV programmes, videos, etc, with the songs themselves being almost a promotional tool, an advert for the rest of the product. Why did it take shops like HMV so long to modify their business model in the same way? It’s not like any of this came as a surprise.

    • Harold Angryperson

      Indeed, and also on compilation CDs they re-used the same tracks too often as well – I must own at least a dozen copies of “Drive” by The Cars via these. Q magazine once ran a feature on those who did the compiling and they were quite shameless about what they were doing.

  • Sarah

    HMV was always full of hostile nerd boys. That’s what killed them. I used to buy loads of things in there until that happened.

  • Daniel Maris

    Here’s the thing, I really hate it when I hear someone say “Here’s the thing” because invariably it’s not the thing but some other thing, as in this case.

    Here’s the real thing Alex: it’s nothing to do with size, it’s to do price, assessibility (the ability to assess a product) and convenience. There are plenty of medium sized chains that are and will survive the coming of the internet because of convenience (e.g. if you run out of staples it’s easier to pop down to Rymans than order them online and wait two days) , assessibility (e.g. beds and sofas need to be physically tested before you buy) and price ( e.g. Poundland-style shops are not going to be beaten on price when you add in post and packaging).

  • Walter Ellis

    Who, for that matter, cares about the demise of high street libraries? Book-buying has never been easier, or cheaper. Yet we are forever hearing novelists and pundits bemoaning the fact that local libraries, which are largely nineteenth century creations, are going the way of the Church of England. On the last two occasions on which I was in a library other than the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, most of the “customers” were scrolling the internet. Hardly anybody was browsing the shelves.

    I feel sorry for the HMV workers who will lose their jobs, just as I feel sorry for any library staff who lose theirs. But time marches on. I wonder how many of the Spectator’s Coffee Shop users ever buy the mag.

  • JMckechnie

    Who cares? If I were to take your question literally then I would say I care a great deal about this; and that people I know care about it equally. People will lose their jobs; town- centres will become more and more like empty relics: if this can happen to a brand such as HMV, then is anyone exempt?; and then there is what it means for communities as a whole if shops don’t thrive. This process of change is all very well; and it is rather grand of you to gratuitously say that they have to become ‘imaginative’, without being at liberty to use your own imagination on the diagnosis, but we really don’t know what the future holds for our retail industry because of the impact of the internet; just like we don’t know what impact it will have on our newspaper/television/publishing media industries; our telecommunications industry; or even our transport industry. Perish the thought that if this dear old publication were to be affected one day to the extent that Alex Massie was to be found holding a plastic cup outside a vacant HMV store; but don’t worry, people like me, and many that I know, will care.

  • laurence

    ‘Who cares?’ Well, I should think that the 2500 people worried abut their jobs care. You do not have to be a regular customer to feel some sympathy for those whose jobs are in jeopardy. Remember too that HMV took over the running of several Fopp stores which are precisely the kind of excellent small scale outlets that you praise.

  • chudsmania

    Unless you have a mortgage and children to feed maybe ? Dont coming looking for sympathy should you hit hard times Mr Massie. Maybe karma will catch you one day soon.

    • Whyshouldihavetoregister

      Why should I pay your mortgage and feed your children by using your shop? In 25 words or fewer, please.

      • chudsmania

        I didnt say you should. I was talking to the organ grinder not his monkey.

        • Whyshouldihavetoregister

          All right, oh master of cliché and failed evader of the point, why should Alex Massie pay your mortgage and feed your children by using your shop? Take your time.

          • chudsmania

            Its not my shop. Nor do i shop there. And i dont care where Massie shops either.But ,as its passed you by obviously , HMV employees care very much about its demise , and more importantly where their next pay packet might come from. Is that enough for you ?

            • Whyshouldihavetoregister

              Nope. As should be obvious to anyone but a fool (and I see from the likes and dislikes that you are related to some), by ‘Why [should I use] your shop?’ I was pointing out that nobody has a moral duty to support anyone else’s employment at the expense of their own interests. You continue to fail to address this point, so I take you to be the fool in question. Unless, of course, you hire a pianist to play mood music whenever you watch TV with the sound off, and you buy a new buggy whip for the car every year; in which case I salute your saintliness, while continuing to laugh at your ability to miss the point.

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