The signs have already gone up outside HMV Watford, one of 66 branches earmarked for closure by Deloitte last week.
‘STORE CLOSING,’ they declare, obnoxiously. ‘ALL STOCK REDUCED!’ A brisk circuit round the premises confirms the position. The place looks strangely drunk and disorderly in that completely random ‘Primark’ kind of way. There are books strewn across the floor. Many of the shelves, once majestically awash with overpriced DVDs of films you may never watch, remain bare and unstocked. Practically everything’s stickered and up for grabs, ready for the big clear-out.
Weirdly, the emporium is teeming with prospective punters but few of them seem bothered about putting their hands in their pockets and actually buying something. It’s like the buffet at a funeral, mourners milling around the sandwiches, wondering who’ll be the first to break the politeness barrier and chow down.
I know why they’re not biting. The Amazing HMV Closing Down Retail Extravaganza (not the official title) is a sale that is not a sale. The clues are conspicuous, such as the signage declaring, menacingly and fascistically, that chart items are not – repeat, NOT – included as part of the current reductions. Pop junkies hungry for a deal on the new Paloma Faith will leave disappointed.
And at the front of the store, there’s a selection of DVD titles in a rack adorned with a big green sign that says “80% OFF.” Which would be completely amazing, except it’s not really 80% off. A closer look at the aforementioned big green sign reveals that what they actually mean is up to 80% off, and that’s against the RRP. So if you want to pick up a copy of Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists for the exact same price you’d pay for it elsewhere, only this time under the pretence of an 80% reduction against a price that no one’s ever charged, well, you’re quids in.
Elsewhere, a £20 copy of Dark Shadows on Blu-ray proudly takes its place on the shelf next to another, identical £10 copy of Dark Shadows on Blu-ray. Even in the store’s death throes, the pricing is almost gleefully erratic.
The demise of HMV was never going to be pretty. Perhaps the only surprise was just how long it took them to bite the administrative bullet and call in the receivers. It is a dinosaur. A relic of retail yore. Look at the way the management completely fumbled the firing of head office and distribution staff when the official Twitter account got hijacked by a disgruntled employee. A simple social media faux pas, for sure, but one that neatly sums up the company’s cockamamie approach to the twenty-first century.
Ok, so it’s easy to gloat. HMV were as clueless as everyone else in the record industry when the online revolution merrily toddled along and took a big, joyous dump on the face of physical media. But rather than clean up the mess and move with the times, HMV buried its head in the sand of bad business decisions. How else to explain the disparity between the prices on HMV.com versus in-store? And just what were they thinking by branching out into the live music business? Wasn’t that just ignoring the problem? The way the company completely ignored the potential of e-books and instead took a massively expensive, ultimately unsuccessful punt on Waterstones in the nineties perhaps sums it up best. Over the course of many years, HMV didn’t shoot themselves in the foot as much as they slowly chopped it off with a blunt spoon and fed it to the dog for breakfast. The store’s current business model, implemented in an opiate, post-Olympic haze, seems to revolve around selling gratuitously expensive headphones to morons, which is basically insane.
It’s interesting that when the company filed for administration last month, there was an almost immediate outpouring of grief on Twitter and Facebook and other outlets that HMV itself would struggle to comprehend. I completely get the nostalgia. HMV was where I bought my very first record when I was eight years old. It was a 7-inch copy of Always on my Mind by the Pet Shop Boys. I remember it vividly. All the Top 40 records were kept behind a counter, so you had to tell the store assistant which record you wanted to buy and they’d fetch it for you, and you’d only buy it once you’d checked it for scratches. ALSO it had a gorgeous plain white cover with a tiny still of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe from their film It Couldn’t Happen Here in the top-left corner of the sleeve.
Anyway, whatever. There was a definite sense online that with HMV effectively out of the picture, browsing would more or less come to an end, and that the salad days of impulse buys and random purchases made on a whim would somehow be superseded by a terrifying new world of online ‘wish lists’ and algorithmic shopping terror.
Well, there’s both good and bad news in that regard. The bad news is that, sure, with HMV gone, there will almost certainly be a black hole on the high street in terms of music, film and TV retail. The good news is, who cares? Browsing didn’t take a running jump. It evolved.
Take, for instance, the Apple TV. After a single month of use, I have no hesitation in declaring it one of my absolute favourite gadgets of all time. I plugged it in, signed up to Netflix, and now, night after night, I spend ages trying to figure out exactly what I’m going to watch. It’s nuts. Flicking through page after page on Netflix is, for me, a nerdy joy. Yes, the current selection’s pretty limited. But that will change. And when you can get 1080p HD quality film and television live streamed on demand straight into your TV via a HDMI, who needs DVDs or Blu-rays?
That ongoing question of delivery will pretty much sound the death rattle for HMV. Netflix will get more sophisticated. Lovefilm will continue to expand their selection of titles. Blinkbox will continue to deliver new releases on demand. And iTunes will do what iTunes does, which is to say, everything, albeit a little more expensive and perhaps ethically a bit more ‘ahem’ than the competition. If HMV is to have any chance of survival, it needs to teach that bloody dog to stop listening to the gramophone and learn some new tricks.