Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Disappearing from a high street near you

The news that HMV and Blockbuster have gone into administration this week, following a path trodden recently by Jessops and Comet, has prompted plenty of nostalgic responses. The commentary seems to be - 'We used to go to these places all the time, and now they're going!'

But that's surely the point - we used to use these places, but many of us (myself included) have been seduced by how much cheaper things are on the web. Ironically, in some cases the service was better too. Going into a shop and talking to a human could be a miserable experience depending on the human you talked to. You don't get that problem online. You can also see instantly if something is out of stock, rather than trolling all the way into town, searching through the CD racks in HMV, say and then finally being told by a dead-eyed gawky member of staff that 'if we had it, it would be in the rack'. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

I sound a bit bitter there, but truthfully, shopping in HMV wasn't a pleasant experience. I'm not sure what they were trying to sell in the end. It seemed like everything. The result was that often when I went in looking for a particular CD or band, they didn't have it. People bemoan Asda and Tesco only stocking chart-toppers and popular stuff. But HMV went that way first.

The problem was that HMV wasn't a record shop, but people still thought it was. People looking to buy music went in and were disappointed that instead of racks of CDs they seemed to be trying to sell high-end headphones or One Direction badges. People looking to buy headphones wouldn't automatically think 'HMV - that's the place to look.'

The head honchos at HMV have defended their retail policy saying they had to branch out into new markets, but if the internet has taught us anything it's that niche expertise is in short supply. Anyone can become a unit shifter of DVDs or CDs online - and they will always be cheaper. What you can't buy online is the expertise of someone who can say 'If you like this band, then you might want to have a listen to this as well.' Amazon try that with their recommendations, but the robots are a way off from knowing what to recommend.

I often have a discussion with people about how expensive coffee shop coffees are. My point is that you aren't buying a latte and a biscuit for £3.00 or whatever. You're buying somewhere warm and comfy to park your arse for an hour or so. Shops that get it right don't just sell products, they sell something else - like knowledge, expertise, informed insights and so on.

I think, ultimately, real-world retailers are going to have to get smarter about how they sell stuff and know what they are really selling. I've been talked down to in Jessops because I didn't want to spend more than £100 on a camera. Sorry, I wasted your time, Mr Jessops shop assistant who, incidentally, probably doesn't have a job now. I've been treated rudely in Blockbuster and made to feel scared about failing to return a DVD in time. But when DVDs are dirt cheap in the supermarkets, I don't have to feel stressed about returning a DVD any more. I've had bad experiences in Comet and HMV as well.

The bottom line is this - if people liked shopping in those stores, they wouldn't be disappearing from the High Street. The emotional attachment people had formed - as seen in the nostalgic memories people are tweeting - wasn't a strong one. In the old days we went to those places because we had to, not because we wanted to.

The old days are gone. And so are the shops.

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