Retailers across the world are facing a tough, uncertainfuture. Business is migrating online, rents are too high for independent retailers and the experience of shopping is often an underwhelming one. This is especially true of record shops.
I suspect most of those in the British media lamenting the collapse of the HMV music and video retail empire are recalling their historical connection with the brand, rather than reporting from experience. No one in their right mind would venture into town to be crushed in one of the chaotic stores, staffed by holiday-jobbers with minimal knowledge of music and culture with aisles of bewilderingly-arranged overpriced boxes.
That was my experience this week during a family day at the sales. The massive HMV near Bond Street Tube station is one of the most hideous shopping expeditions you could possibly embark on. It has been for some time. I suspect so-called vulture fund Hilco Capital knew it could never turn around the ailing brand when it bought it in 2013 and so spent the remaining years abandoning the stores to fester whilst plundering the company of around £48m, shamelessly profiting from loss.
For all of us who love entertainment — presumably that means everyone — the destruction of HMV and others of that ilk is to be mourned. But don’t be seduced by the prevailing narrative that it was inevitable thanks to the internet. It happened because none of us really cared, the brand was frozen in time and the owners lacked risk-taking imagination.
The music industry itself is worth a fortune — almost £5bn a year according to recent estimates. The UK film, TV and music activities have grown by 72.4% since 2014,outpacing growth in other EU countries. Why is retail failing to capitalise on this goldmine?
The pile-em-high retail model has been broken for some time, yet that is the only model HMV knew. Instead, smart brands are focusing on customer experience to transform their fortunes. Sports shops have installed areas where you can practice golf and tennis swings and have your running style monitored by computer, department stores are offering tired shoppers spa treatments, shopping centres have ice rinks, cocktail bars and gymnasiums. Shopping is not just about shopping. It’s about enjoying a wider and more immersive experience. The experience economy, as Joseph Pine and James Gilmore so presciently observed.
And, for me, there is nothing I like to experience more than listening to music, watching great films and, when my children aren’t looking, playing video games. So let’s not lament HMV’s passing for too long. Instead, let’s figure out ways to make the tired old record shop experience something more in tune with 21st century values and lifestyle.
I’ve no idea whether the following represent smart solutions but if someone somewhere wants to lend me a few million quid, I’ll happily put your money where my mouth is and help create an HMV for the modern shopper. Technologically savvy, yearning to experiment and share, and for whom music and film are among the most life-affirming moments they’ll experience.
So, in no particular order…
Follow the crowds. Instead of watching everyone spend their money on rubbish coffees, bring the rubbish coffee in-house. If you sell it, they will come. The best coffee bars have wonderful playlists, so why can’t the people who actually sell those playlists, use coffee to entice the punters? One of my favourite record shops — Rough Trade East — does exactly that. Café at the front, records everywhere else. It encourages browsing.
Watching booths. There’s a picture on the wall of the Oxford Street HMV of people in listening booths, recalling the store’s ‘glamorous heyday’. There should still be a liberal sprinkling of listening stations with fancy headphones but why not also sound-proofed booths that you can hire for £5 an hour, whilst the rest of the family is doing the shopping or you’re waiting for your mates to turn up. Watching, listening or playing. I suspect they might induce some illicit snogging but we’re trying to create an experience here!
Playlist nirvana. The moment I walk into a record shop, I give permission for the store to scan my Spotify playlists to work out what I like. Then I’m directed — by human — to new music they think I’d like. A personal shopping experience based on my desire, their knowledge and the wizardry of technology. For free — because the data I have allowed the store to access is payment enough. Who knows, maybe I can buy a ready-made playlist from the store for a couple of quid (less than the price of a shit cup of coffee) without having the hassle of downloading it all myself.
Real helpers. People who know what they’re talking about, not students who don’t know the difference between Van Morrison and Vin Diesel.
Real sections. Blues is not soul, R&B is different from both, folk is not the same as country, music from emerging economies is more fascinating to young audiences than pap-pop. So organise it properly. Offer niche but not too much — leave that to the smaller, more specialised stores. But give people a taste.
Playing time. You know those pianos that are occasionally plonked onto railway platforms for travellers to play — why not shoppers? Maybe a music room where you can tinkle, strum and bash next door to a small recording studio where, for £50 an hour, a group of mates can digitally record what they’ve been practising in their bedrooms. Or, you know, just have some fun. Maybe have some small pop-up gigs for amateurs. All those reality TV shows have led us to believe there are superstar talents hidden away in every residential street — well here’s your chance to bypass Simon Cowell and show the public.
Join up. Make the brand, the store and shopping experience feel like it’s a club. Join up and we’ll send you new releases, buy £150 worth of stuff a year and we’ll send you four free tickets to any of these gigs. Make the shopper feel like they’re part of something not just a stranger to be squeezed of cash.
Tasting notes. These days, wine merchants offer a free tasting note print-out so you can learn a little bit about what you’re drinking. Snobs can scoff but they’re actually pretty good. Why not the same for music and film? Print or email some notes about the making of the thing you’ve just bought, the story behind it, the personalities involved, the subtle lyrical references and inspirations that can only add to the enjoyment. Give the shopper something a little bit extra.
Karaoke nights. Stay open late occasionally and offer a singalong experience. Why must shopping be so passive, we need to figure out ways of taking part. My wife and her two best friends still cry with laughter at the old video they made of them singing and dancing in the Trocadero shopping centre when it first opened. It’s still a great memento if utterly embarrassing but it goes to show how utterly memorable and precious a musical ‘experience’ can be.
DJ sessions. Learn how to be one, play with the turntables, get some advice — and playlists — from the professionals. Streaming and tools like Garage Band have made everyone think they can be Fatboy Slim or, heaven forbid, MC Grinder from the BBC’s People Just Do Nothing mockumentary. Let them have a go.
HMV made the mistake of doing what it always did. Selling music. Instead, we want to experience music. Shopping needs to be an experience. The economy has been transformed into one of experience.
Now, who wants to lend me £50m to give it a go? I promise it’ll be an experience…