Friday, January 11, 2013

How much is that doggie in the window? And what if there's no window?

HMV are cutting their prices today. They need to quickly raise cash to meet their banking covenants at the end of the month. It's not good when one of Britain's most prestigious retailers has to behave like the Trotter brothers running scared of Boycie. This is in the same week that Jessop's, the camera chain with almost 200 stores, goes into administration. This is very worrying for the people who work in these places. It's an urgent concern to suppliers who've extended credit to these outlets for the good of their own businesses.

In the long term it will also have a profound effect on the way the rest of us view products like cameras, CDs and CVDs, products which not long ago we might have called "luxuries", to use a term that seems to belong in an age when austerity was a permanent condition, not a temporary inconvenience.

We can now buy a tune without buying a record and take a picture by holding up our phone. For most people that's enough. Most people will go through life without ever feeling that they ought to have a boxed set of The Godfather, a copy of David Bowie's new LP on vinyl or an SLR camera in a nice leather case. The handful of people who still yearn for things like these will be able to buy them on the web. Once the rest of us are no longer walking past shop windows with glinting pyramids of metal and glass we'll no longer think much about cameras. We'll allow them to slip off the shopping list of our dreams. When there are no longer adverts on Channel 4 on a Friday night exhorting us to go and buy Beyonce's new record with a bonus DVD in HMV we'll slowly stop thinking of records as items that exist in physical space, as objects that have the power to quicken pulses and excite envy. That lust for objects has underpinned all consumer activity since the war and the first flickering of that lust always came by looking in a shop window.

I won't insult the intelligence of the professionals by pretending I know how to secure the future of retail businesses like HMV and Jessop's. I suspect that a lot of their problems come from being spread too thin but there's not much they can do about that. If I go to HMV in Oxford Street today I'll probably drop into the Apple Store at Oxford Circus. It'll no doubt be packed. I won't buy anything but I'll still call. It has that effect on people. Why? I suppose it's selling a product which has a rare lustre. It's not seeking to be comprehensive which makes it far less overwhelming than traditional megastores. And since Apple store aren't in every city, let alone on every corner, it's as exciting as a visit to the HMV Shop in Oxford Street used to be.

The busiest shop I went into in the week before Christmas was Daunt's bookshop in Marleybone High Street. This is always full. Its specialism is travel books but it stocks pretty much everything, without overfacing the customer, and appears to know precisely what sells to the well-heeled clientele who live or work nearby. There's no obvious discounting and the place feels more like a church than a souk. I never go in there without buying something. It's usually something I could have bought for less money somewhere else. It just has that effect on me.

I'm sure there will be shops in the future but there probably won't be so many of them. There will be a handful of places that are congenial destinations and they'll be sought out by a self-selecting group of shoppers. How chains like HMV and Jessop's find a place in that future I don't exactly know. Again I'm reminded of the old story about the countryman being asked for directions by a smart young couple in a sports car. "Well," he said, "I wouldn't start from here."


  1. I liked your comment about the bookshop. I buy 90% of my books in secondhand or charity shops. Every now and then I feel obliged to go and buy something in a 'proper' bookshop, even though it'll cost me £12.99 instead of a quid, just to try and help keep them going.

  2. 'It has that effect on people. Why? I suppose it's selling a product which has a rare lustre'

    oh come off it, its laptops and mp3 players not unicorn hair. surely once youve seen a macbook thats it?!
    the reason theyre packed is because they're defacto internet cafes.

  3. Roym, I think you're wrong. Dave hit it with the phrase, "There will be a handful of places that are congenial destinations". I remember when the original Virgin Records store, on the first floor at the end of Oxford Street, was somewhere "congenial" to go, because you could lounge all day on floor cushions and listen to records without having to buy any. And you were surrounded by like-minded people, and you looked to see what people were wearing, and doing, etc.

    The Biba store on Ken High Street did the same, and maybe the Joseph stores at one time - and perhaps the Apple stores are like that now. You don't just go to shops to buy things.

  4. Spent many a childhood Saturday afternoon at the big Biba. Don't think my mum could afford much there but it was a magic place to hang out.

    Ditto what Huw said about bookshops. I buy most of mine used now but the other week I popped into the lovely Harvard Book Store here and bought a pile of new ones just because I've heard they're having trouble.

  5. You old softies. I'm the opposite. What makes me buy books in Daunt is the fact that everybody else is doing it and I don't want to be left out. I find empty shops embarrassing. They've got the smell of death about them. I was in a favourite old shop the other day and said to the proprietor "how's business?" and then I realised the place was empty. He must have thought I was taking the mickey. And as far as the Apple store is concerned it may well function as a daycare centre for certain people but that doesn't account for thousands of people inside and the lines of people who are waiting outside before it opens.

  6. I am one of a dying breed of consumers who will walk into a record shop on a weekly basis (usually on Monday evening) and come out with something on CD. I also have what I call my 'London list' of albums that I haven't been able to source locally but might feasibly acquire the next time I am in the Capital.

    There was a time a couple of years ago when I got fed up with HMV and I stopped going in there. Then for some reason I went back and I had a really good conversation about Jimi Hendrix with the guy behind the counter.

    After that I began making small talk with some of the staff. Some of these people know a hell of a lot about music. One of the clerks in the London Trocadero branch of HMV recommended Phil Manzanera's debut solo album - Diamond Head - to me. At that point I don’t think I even had a concept of Phil Manzanera as a solo artist. A month later I went back to that branch and brought the album on CD. It’s fantastic and something I would have never considered purchasing.

    Once, before one of the Word Magazine’s meet ups, I walked into the HMV on Oxford Street. They were playing Bob Marley. Me and one of the counter staff were enthusing about how great it sounded. On another occasion the topic of conversation was the Scottish pirate rock band ‘Alestorm’ and their song Death Throes of the Terrorsquid.

    I don’t want this all to go. It has value. It makes life better.

  7. For me shops of any kind are vastly overrated. My prediction is that at some point we will not have a high street at all, because goods will be sold cheaper over the internet from a warehouse or someone's garage, simply because they do not have to pay shop rents.

    I don't consider this a bad future. The craziness of consumer society, and the excessive purchasing of goods we don't need is, I think, contributed to by people just 'going shopping', and liking that small endorphin hit of purchasing something. (I know I'm sucked into it when I'm in a shop and I hate shopping more than most people, so god knows what it's like for people who do like shopping.)

    Anything that people really want to purchase they can get online. I sometimes like browsing old bookshops, but not so much so that I wouldn't rather see the end of shops. It's my hope that without the goods being so on show we might decide to do something else more productive instead.

    (I'm actually not quite as grumpy as that last sentence sounds...)

  8. Not everyone has the wherewithal to shop on the internet. I don't have a credit card and pay for everything in cash. Many of my co-workers do likewise.

  9. I still like the sociability of shops, and I like having physical things. Last time I was in HMV, the doors were wide open and it was sodding freezing, plus they had a CD, DVD and a game playing at the same time in a small store. I spent my gift voucher (not redeemable online, a silly move) and left fast. I still miss the staff recommendations on the edge of the shelves at Our Price.

  10. Sadly, people feel entirely justified in going to shops to choose, then the internet to buy. This comment on Yelp about a trendy independent opticians in Brighton called Bromptons, illustrates the conflict.

    From Laurence O, London. "I received some of the rudest customer service I have ever come across here. I was making note of the make and serial number on a pair of frames for my own reference, when a member of staff physically snatched the glasses from my hand and snapped "No. You don't do that here. This is a shop, not a showroom".
    I was entirely within my rights, and was extremely angry to be spoken down to like a child. My advice would be to avoid this snobbish, overpriced place entirely, and save yourself annoyance and money by shopping online."