His Master’s Choice

ClosedAsk yourself these questions, and see what your answers are, compared to those of this writer:

1) When was the last time you rented a DVD from Blockbuster?

2) How many times have you used Jessops?

3) When did you last buy music from HMV?

The reason I ask these questions is to emphasise the sheer hypocrisy of the numbers of hand-wringers, whining and bemoaning the demise of the ‘high street’ – well, you played a part. I did, and I know it. Hence that, while I am genuinely saddened for the thousands of enthusiastic, professional and knowledgeable staff soon to find themselves out of work by these specialist retailers, and the companies that work incredibly hard to service them in trying times, I simply cannot abide the “it’s a real shame” brigade.

Take HMV, as the prime example. What did you do about it? Did you say the same when you were contributing to their growth or impending monopoly of the market place, by buying their cheaper albums, cassettes and CDs, undercut specifically to see off the independent record stores that every town or large village had? No. You didn’t. “I used to shop at HMV all the time” – yeah, because you had no choice eventually. They removed that initial choice. And, let us please have a minutes silence for Virgin Megastores, Our Price, Tower Records, Zavvi, etc. All of which were seen off by HMV, until they were the only shitting dog left in town.

For the record, dearest solitary reader, my answers are:

1) Not since 2005, at the absolute very latest. I actually thought they had disappeared years ago like Findus Crispy Pancakes, or McFly.

2) Once, and that was to get a photo for an Indian visa. It was a slow, laboured and expensive process, as I can only imagine an evening with Ed Miliband is.

3) Probably a Take That album for a birthday present that I’d forgotten to get. Emergency relief, a silver, disc-shaped codpiece, designed with the sole purpose of sparing one’s precious man-bits from violent removal.

However, there are other answers and questions to ask:

1) Have you rented/bought/downloaded a DVD in the last 12 months?

2) Do you own a camera, or do you take pictures on a regular basis and enjoy editing and filing them?

3) Have you acquired new music in the last 12 months, and if so, how did you obtain it?

Failure to evolve has cost HMV dearly.

Failure to evolve has cost HMV dearly.

So, I think you know what I’m saying here. The services offered by the three retailers that have fallen into administration are still being used by you, the willing and compliant consumer, that made them giants on the high street in the first place. But, guess what? It would appear that it is not just market forces at work here. Having worked in retail for nearly 20 years, from shopfloor to senior management, I’ve seen a fair amount of change in consumer habits.

And it is an obvious formula, to me anyway, why they’ve failed: failing to understand the changing nature of their consumer’s shopping habits and evolve their business to suit them, added to mismanagement from above, multiplied by external economic factors = go under. It isn’t just the bloody, never-ending, more-dipped-than-a-10-year-old-Australian-sheep recession. Or the government. Or Jimmy Savile. It could be Jim Davison or Thatcher, but we’ll just all have to pray for that, eh?

Retailing can become scientific when done acutely and successfully. However, overall, it isn’t that tricky. Product, price, service, proximity: have they got what I need, and how much is it? If I don’t know what I need, who is best equipped to tell me – who do I trust? Is the best deal the most convenient in our oh-so-fucking busy lives?

And that is the key, here. The ceremony of purchasing has diminished because the service we experience does not engender return visits. No, I want to sit on my arse, on my tablet, spending an evening reading the opinions of people I’ve never met or made eye contact with, to make an informed choice. Really?

Before everybody started wearing character-sapping polo shirts and name badges in HMV, the staff’s own tee shirts were their identity. The bloke in the Iron Maiden one, or that shy looking bloke with the fringe, and skin the colour of anti-freeze in the Ride one. You had an affinity with them, or at least that was how the interaction started. Somehow there was an instant trust.

As an example, my brother, who was the composer of my life soundtrack, and still is, always knew more than me. So, for birthday presents, I would trot off to Rough Trade Records, in the basement under Slam City Skates in Covent Garden’s Neal’s Yard. Armed with a list of obscure band names and albums, I would approach the counter, sheepishly, and ask what can I get for a know-it-all, elder brother, that will impress him? And, it reaped many a positive result. They knew. I was never in doubt. It was what they did, and they did it well. And it wasn’t intimidating or snobbish. And guess what? Rough Trade is still going. Stronger than before. Retailers that have evolved to exceed customer demand, have continued to grow, albeit at a more moderate, controlled rate.

The homogeny of the high street is depressing. So many town centres are the same. Same chains – all peddling the same crap in the same way – followed by charity or betting shops, filling the boarded-up carcasses of the independents that the chains have chased out of town. It used to be fun exploring another town, whether it was clothes, records, whatever. It was the thought of finding the unexpected, or something different to where you lived, that made the effort worth it. That element of local exploration is deteriorating as rapidly as Nick Clegg’s popularity or dignity.

Due to these unique boutiques closing down, landlords try to recoup rent from those still trading, and price the independent or ambitious – some would say criminally niaive – new store owner out of the market. So where do they sell their wears? Online. No rent, rates, taxes, significantly less overheads and it is where you are shopping already! As I said, it isn’t rocket science.

Pride in provenance and produce has seen the rise of the premium-priced farmers markets.

Pride in provenance and produce has seen the rise of the premium-priced farmers markets.

The high street used to be the hub of the town, and in some cases it is thriving. And the one category bucking the trend and fighting back against the all-encompassing supermarkets, is that of farmer’s markets and locally sourced produce, particularly in the more rural areas of Devon, Cheshire, etc. The provenance of food, especially given this week’s alarming horsey burger headlines (not to mention the bolt-through-the-head quantity of jokes relating to it – all hilarious, by the way), is something that the consumer is now more savvy about. Not only is the shopper more willing to pay the premium for the quality of the produce, it is the experience – trusting the seller, most likely the guy who grew/reared it, drove it there, and sold it with a pride on his or her face.

There is a lot to be said for the much-fabled, seratonin-releasing ‘retail therapy’ – but ask yourself if you’ve ever been as satisfied with a purchase by pressing ‘click’, as you have been being handed a bag by a smiling member of staff that has helped you for half an hour? I had some excellent service at a Levis store recently. A week later I went back in to the store and made a point of telling the store manager how good it had been. Why? Because they might not be there for long. But that’s your choice.

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