So, HMV are the latest UK High-Street casualty, merely days after Play have resigned to shutting down their own retail operation in the aim of becoming a marketplace like eBay. However, whilst many are arguing that this is the end of the high street, I think it’s worrying to cling onto these old stores at times…
Last year, it was GAME/GameStation/Gameplay. Then Comet. Then last week Play, and now HMV.
We’ve had weeks of speculation of course. HMV was in trouble, it was struggling to pay its overheads and all the rest. That doesn’t make the fact it is now in administration any less sad however, or any less concerning for the legions of people in the media like Mary Portas, or in the Government, as to the state of our high streets. But there are questions that need to be asked, questions that it seems no-one wants to ask but it’s time someone came out and asked it.
Are these High Street chains dooming themselves?
Now, physical places to go – such as hairdressers and clothing boutiques and charity shops will tend to always have a presence, as will the occasional supermarket (I have a Co-Operative supermarket on my high street, and a Spar corner shop not a minutes walk from there). High streets aren’t completely doomed as some shops and stores will always be necessary, unless we find a way to genetically program our hair to stay in the style we want, which would obviously put hairdressers out of business but also raise massive ethical questions in the process. No, the problem with Comet and HMV and their ilk is not that they existed, but why they felt there was so little need to adapt to the Internet age?
I was reading the blog of Philip Beeching – an interesting read from a man who was part of HMV for twenty-five years. It is an insightful and troubling read. Shops knew the risks of the coming Internet age, and they knew one day they would have to change and adapt, but similarly, they didn’t think it was a rush. It was the future, not the now, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Unfortunately, this is the Internet age. The future is now. We are living in that time when these chains, who grew so expansively in the eighties and nineties, are finding themselves too big and too heavy to outmanoeuvre the likes of Argos and Amazon. The latter of which has grown into the huge chasm of the Internet, and the former a chain which did adapt very early by making sure it had a strong online presence. The piper is piping, and with landlords having to charge more for tax and inflation reasons, it is becoming harder and harder for some of these huge giant chains to survive in their current state.
So here’s the question – are these chains worth saving?
I’m not sure how to answer that. Amazon, Argos and eBay offer me things and ways to buy and sell that I never once thought possible – as Play and Gameplay became entrenched in being tied to a retail presence, I found myself naturally looking for more reliable postage (Play had been terrible on that the last couple of years, with multiple orders going missing) or for better and cheaper deals (Gameplay being so tied to GAME and its retail chain, Amazon was consistently cheaper and with much more reliable next-day or on-release deliveries). I find myself shopping from Asda or The Co-Operative online more and more as deliveries are cheap, the deals are better and the local high street is in greater decline. I know my mobility isn’t good but there’s no reason to go out to the town centre if there is bugger all to do in the town centre. Most of my day-to-day stuff I can do online. I can pay my bills, transfer money to my brother so he can sort out his new flat and his wedding next year, check I’m not going over my budget, any spare I can put into my savings and if I need something like pots and pans, or an anti-frost freezer mat or a corkscrew, I can guarantee it is here for me tomorrow morning by ordering it online, rather than go into shops and find out they don’t have what I am looking for.
So it might also surprise you to find that I enjoy going to a hairdresser. I barely look at myself in the mirror, it’s true, but I do like having a proper haircut and having some fun with my hair, knowing my friend and brother who are much younger than me are already losing their hair. Apparently my high forehead denotes I probably won’t suffer terrible hairloss, although that could be utter bollocks as far as I know. There’s a linen shop nearby – towels, bedsheets, rugs, curtains and the like. And yes, I happen to prefer to see what I’m getting before I pay for it on that front. I’m a stickler for towels, me. But more than that is that sometimes online you can’t exactly guarantee the colour, or the pattern, so having that knowledge that it’s there in front of you and it won’t magically change on the way home is quite nice. Near both of these is a Fruit and Veg shop selling local produce as well as some exotic items, and it’s much MUCH cheaper than supermarkets (and better quality fruit and veg I find!), so yes, I like to grab apples and bananas and sometimes the ingredients for a nice stew there too. And next to these is a shoe shop – my grandfather always told me it was important to have someone properly measure your foot and get the right shoe for the job. Good job too, not long ago I was told I have a high arch which meant I needed a specific type of trainer, which might explain why my feet hurt for years before that revelation. And right near there is a Fishmonger – seriously, if you want fresh fish you may as well go to the proper place for it, no? Same with a butcher nearby. There’s a homewares place nearby which you can get various bits and pieces if you want – again, cookware, it’s good to get a proper feel for it as you’re buying it. Need a heavy pot? Sometimes online those big pots are actually pretty light, so it’s good to have that sense of security in what you buy there. And a second hand DVD and Games shop, which also specialises in rare and collectable things too. And I’ve sometimes spent an hour there just talking about movies and games. Recently, the PC shop I tend to go to for parts and spares also moved into a free spot there, which means everything I could possibly want offline, in the real world, is contained in seconds worth of walk from each other, not least a decent coffee shop and a snappy restaurant nearby too. That to me is a good high street. I can go there once a week, once a fortnight, and everything I need is there. I don’t have to worry about a long walk from shop to shop. It’s all there for me.
Mary Portas came to my town to save the high street here. Truth is, that what I just described – the bottom of Lux Street, is the perfect microcosm of what you need. An electronics chain is there (Woolacotts), and a couple other shops are. But this idea that we need huge streets lined with shops seems totally bewildering in the modern era where half of what I want, need and crave I can get online. It’s nice to support these real shops and I do support them, I buy from them and that’s fine. But it’s just the convenience of the Internet and this small section of my town caters for everything I could possibly want. I could walk up a huge hill towards a street with a mobile phone shop, tons of estate agents, a travel agent etc. But there’s no point. I don’t need those places on a day to day basis. I am fully catered for down the bottom of that hill, where everything is perfectly set up.
I think that’s the problem. Some have this idea of huge shopping malls and lanes with dozens of chain stores thriving and being nice to us, but it’s not that easy. Yes, we have to support stores but stores also have to accept that if they’re not in the right place for business – then neglecting an online space is tantamount to professional suicide. I can’t get out every day. Some people can’t, they have to work or look after kids or whatever. We’re in a world now where shops might have to accept that a lot of what we do is online, and when we go to shops like I described, you want professionals who know their product, not a workforce that thrives on minimal training and just looking busy. That is the importance of a street presence. We don’t want to go in and buy cheaply – we can do that, online, with free delivery and usually free next-day delivery to boot. I go in to the homewares shop, for example. “Hi, I… uhh… I need a heavy pot for cooking stews on an electric hob.” “Certainly sir, just out back here and I can show you a selection of cast-iron pots and pans!” I know vaguely what I want, but it’s a professional who can extrapolate from there and give you exactly what you need. Same with a hairdresser – sure, you can shave your head at home. But it’s nice to have a professional look after it, trim it and have a bit of small-talk in the process. It’s nice. I go into a fruit and veg shop, “What’s this?” They tell me what it is, how it is prepared and cooked and what it can be good with.
That sounds like such a little thing. But for me, it’s everything. I don’t mind I pay £3.99 more in this shop for a heavy cast iron pot than I would on Amazon. Because the gentleman there is nice, polite and shows me a range of products that might suit my needs, asking questions like “Gas cooker or electric hobs?”. You could say, arguably, that it’s an in-built tip for the professionalism that you get from some of these awesome small shops. And I have absolutely no issue with that. They have done their job, often brilliantly, and I am more than happy to spend that extra few quid for them. If I know exactly what I need – like, I know the name of a game I want, I will get it online. Or if I need a freezer mat, I will get it online.
There’s sometimes a case of “Either/Or” when it comes to shopping. And I say no, its not an absolute. I’ve ordered clothes online of the correct size, and they turn up and they’re not a 2XL at all – they’re smaller, or much MUCH bigger. Same with trainers, you order a size 13 boot and it comes and it’s either far too tight or far too loose. I can’t get my hair cut online either. Some things we need the high street for. We really do, and these things WILL survive. They’re surviving right now as bigger chain stores fall around them. They’re surviving and in some cases even thriving because they have a good customer base, and they provide a service as well as the provision of goods. Some things we will always enjoy a high-street presence for. But these smaller shops have adapted to the change – they provide great advice and services that you can’t get online. And that’s important when you only know half a story, like “I need to get a window froster!”. Okay, you want that in spray form, or sheets of sticky-backed plastic? It’s these little details that make shopping in a shop much better.
In recent years, you go into HMV or a Comet or a PC World and say “I need a movie/fridge/laptop”, and it’s all a bit… well, here they are. And they read the card out as if somehow you can’t possibly have done that by yourself. “So how wide is this fridge?” I’d say in Comet. “Huh?” “How wide is it? I can’t make the slot under my counter any larger!” And immediately, you can see them freak out. You’ve just completely stumped them. “A question? OhgoshohgoshohgoshwhatdoIdoheeeeelp!” They may be cheaper. They may have a range of products. But the service? It’s just… it’s not been there. And for many of these chains, for many years, the service simply hasn’t quite been there. I don’t doubt there are some who know what they are doing, but generally speaking from my own experience, quite a lot of people are there for a paycheck. And that’s pretty much as far as it goes for them.
So these big chains were always going to be doomed. Caught between a knowledgeable, professional selection of smaller chains and independent stores and the cheap convenience of the Internet, they were never truly going to survive forever. The future is here. The adaptation and evolution of the high street has already happened, and many of these big high street chains now look like dinosaurs, huge hulking behemoths that just seem to be compromising between the two extremes and never quite getting anywhere. That HMV is now in administration is not a shock – what is a shock is how they managed to hang on for so long, and how they will adapt to this strange new world. Once upon a time, HMV was a place to go for in-depth and passionate musical knowledge. Now it’s a hollow retail chain. Perhaps it’s time to look back in order to go forward? Or is it too late now? Perhaps not, considering 80% of music sold in the UK is still on CD. iTunes may make millions, as may Amazon, but clearly there is still a huge presence for physical discs.
But yes, the world has changed. Mary Portas and her ilk think of this romantic ideal of huge malls and streets lined with shops. It’s just… different now. And failing to adapt is going to hurt a hell of a lot more than the process of adapting.
Those who don’t change will become a footnote on a page, their remains nothing more than a reminder of who they were. I recently got driven past a closed GAME store by a friend.
“Good riddance.” And they were not my words.
Some things might just die because it’s their time too. And you know what? It might be worse trying to keep them alive than letting them crash and burn, because from the ashes sometimes others can rise to take those job places. Keep propping up those who are doomed? Well… no new growth. Just lob losses. And that… that’s probably worse in the long run, no?