This week has seen HMV - one of Britain's most loved retailers - go into administration. Each time such a recognisably British icon goes to the wall, our high streets become increasingly more characterless and hostile places.
I do, I admit, suffer from the affliction of often being overly sentimental, but it is clear that the British public is united in great sadness at the prospect of seeing a friend disappear from our town centres.
It is equally as disappointing, though, that many have predicted this day would come for several years now. HMV's demise was largely predicated for two main reasons: because it didn't make the transition to digital music sales quickly enough and that it has faced too great a competition, both from supermarkets - who are happy to sell CDs and DVDs as loss leaders - and companies, based in places like the Channel Islands, which avoid tax.
These explanations for HMV's woes, however, while very important, are too simplistic. There are other, equally as significant reasons, why the UK's sole surviving entertainment chain has seen its fortunes collapse. These are what I believe those shortcomings are and here is what I think could have been done/should now be done to rectify them.
There is nothing more important to a company's fortunes than branding. Take a red polka dot mug, for instance, retailing for a couple of quid in a supermarket - put a Cath Kidston mark on the bottom and it will retail for six quid. Why? Because Cath Kidston is exceptionally good at selling an image of quintessentially British 1950s domesticity that many people are only too keen to buy into. The customer is not simply buying a mug, they're buying into an ideal.
HMV has long since stopped trading on an ideal. Whereas many independent music shops are fighting the recession, and have a loyal customer base, those who feel such loyalty to their local HMV are few and far between.
This is the first, and biggest, hurdle HMV faces to getting back on the path to prosperity, but it is also the easiest to jump. HMV has a heritage second to none; it should monopolise on it.
The company should bring back its branding of the 1920s. That beautiful and nostalgic image of 'Nipper' the dog listening to a phonograph recorder is worth its weight in gold: it speaks of a bygone era. HMV should do what Cath Kidston has done - use people's romanticism of days past as an effective marketing tool. In the 1950s, we still had the death penalty and homosexuality was still illegal, with offenders locked up and vilified by society, but this hasn't stopped Cath Kidston from portraying the decade as an era of domestic bliss, typified by mothers in aprons baking cup cakes for her adoring family. HMV should do likewise - it should recreate the look and feel of the shops of the 1920s and 1930s and put it in stark comparison to all the characterless chains which pervade every corner of our high streets, these days. In essence, make it a time machine; only a time machine which both offers a romanticized vision of the past, as well as the latest in music and cinema.
Tap into new markets
Today, the public is very discerning. People do not have a huge amount of spare money, so the money they do have they want to spend on desirable and unusual products. This is something HMV has not done for as long as I can remember, at least.
There are many desirable products HMV could sell. For example, stores could start to stock vintage movie and music posters. The trade in such items is exceptionally strong and is a corner of the market which HMV could dominate. At present, there are no retailers of music and film memorabilia which have anywhere near the same name recognition and trust that HMV enjoys. For all a member of the public knows, the vintage 1964 Goldfinger poster he buys from 'thebestfilmposters.com' could be a fake. HMV should get in on this lucrative trade and use its good name as a stamp of authenticity on the products.
Furthermore, by selling such desirable items, footfall into HMV stores would increase, and even if a customer did not buy a vintage movie poster their trip in to look at the posters could well mean they buy a DVD. Indeed, Selfridges has a vintage poster section, which I love looking in, and on a couple of occasions I have been browsing the posters, seen a film which interests me, and I have gone along to the HMV in Selfridges and bought the DVD.
HMV is a specialist in CDs and DVDs. However, it is quite possible - although not common, I admit - to go into a HMV store and find that they do not have the CD or DVD you want. This is totally unacceptable. Every single HMV store should have an exhaustive catalogue of CDs and DVDs, as people need to be sure that when they enter there will be what they want on the shelves. I can't be the only person who, in the past, has been doubtful whether a product I want will be available in my local HMV, so has bought it online, instead. And the trouble here is that if one orders a DVD online, one is much more likely to do it again, in the future.
Moreover, even if there is an obscure film, which sits on the shelves for month after month, HMV would still benefit, economically, from stocking it as the public would know that they're certain to get what they want in store.
Furthermore, HMV should start to stock all of the books which inspired each film and do an offer on both, if bought together. Doing so would attract a whole new clientele of keen readers, who then might be persuaded to buy the DVD. This, of course, would work the other way around, too - encouraging film buffs to read the book from which their favorite film originated.
Doing all that I have suggested would likely mean that many smaller HMV stores would have to close, as there simply is not the space. This, though, I believe, would be offset by opening a greater number of large stores, employing more staff. Moreover, having fewer stores would add to the mystique - it would make HMV appear a more special and desirable brand and people would, therefore, be more likely to track a store down.
From my experience of shopping in HMV, you cannot fault the staff. As film and music lovers, they almost always know what you're talking about and they are only too happy to help. This does not mean improvement to HMV's business model could not be made, though.
HMV should become a co-operative. A number of studies have shown that co-operatives have a higher degree of staff satisfaction and efficiency. It's simple, really - if the staff have a stake in the success of the business they work in, they have a much greater incentive to make that business work. In addition, co-operatives tend to also have ethical pay structures, with directors' salaries much lower than in those companies which are not co-operatives. This is something that the public is supportive of; hence the continually rising fortunes of stores like John Lewis and Waitrose.
In addition, it is my firm belief that HMV should establish formal ties with arts colleges and universities which specialize in the arts. Not only could there be a mutual exchange of knowledge and experience, burnishing HMV's credentials, but the public would also be much more likely to shop there if they knew some of their money was going to support education and the arts. Brands which are socially responsible, such as Waitrose and John Lewis, have not been affected by the recession anywhere near the extent to which companies which are not have been. Tesco - the titan of British business - warned in December that its sales in the UK have slipped into decline. Tesco has always believed that pile it high and sell it cheap is the strongest business model. In the past, they were right. The problem (for them) is that things have changed. People, today, care what impact the pound they spend has on suppliers and wider society.
So, beyond the underlying problems I initially detailed, improving its branding, tapping into new markets, building on its product range and becoming a socially responsible business are the main areas in which I suggest HMV should concentrate, in order to survive. Today, I bought some DVDs from HMV - as I have often done - in the hope that this icon finds a way through its dire plight. I desperately hope they are not the last I buy.