HMV heads into administration: About time

Like most British readers, I’ve shopped in HMV. I used to shop more in the Virgin Megastore nearest Tottenham Court Road on Oxford Street, just because I spent a lot of my initial adult years living in and around the Euston/Bloomsbury area. Virgin was nearer.

Quickly though, time marched on.

Shopping at music stores became increasingly annoying when I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Or when the stupid store layout didn’t quite make sense.

The pricing always annoyed me too. Occasionally I’d find an album that I sort-of wanted to buy and have to wonder why it was being charged at £12.99 only to discover it priced at £9.99 a few blocks down the road in another shop. Sadly, it was really, really easy to commoditise HMV and other music shops in my mind.

It was the same with DVDs. Commodity product. I remember walking into an HMV a good few years ago and being astonished to find the music portion of the store reduced to (what felt like) about 10% of the shop floor, with DVDs occupying the other 90%.

The writing has been on the wall for a long, long time.

There were substantial opportunities early on. Just think about the mobile phone brands who’d have loved to ally themselves with a well known music retailer to combat or at least compete with iTunes. Yeah. That never happened. HMV is a good British company: That is, it just sat staring at the wall whilst the competition helped itself. And when the time came to try and compete with the new players, HMV did so in the most traditional of British ways: Politely, poorly, slowly and ultra half-heartedly.

Let’s not even bother mentioning the other elephant in the room beyond a quick hat tip: Amazon. Yes, let’s move on.

I’ve oft commented that the major benefit of an HMV store at the airport was as a reminder to buy a particular album, track or movie on iTunes. That’s how I used the store over the last 4-5 years. I’d throw a cursory glance across the store shelves as I strolled through LHR Terminal 5 and if I saw anything of interest, I’d resolve to check it out on iTunes. Or Spotify. In fact quite often I’ve actually bought a track *in* Terminal 5 after seeing it in HMV.

There wasn’t much HMV could do about that. I’m not about to buy a “compact disc” or a “digital versatile disk”. The only DVDs my family has bought in the last 5 years have been “Tractor Ted” episodes that, unfortunately, haven’t quite found their way to iTunes yet. If the boutique producers are reading, definitely think about it. I had to buy the DVDs on Amazon then rip them on to the Apple TV so that little Archie can get his tractor fix.

I’d have liked to have seen a heck of a lot more innovation from HMV. I did always wonder why they didn’t seem to take more of a route toward fostering the teenage communities that tried to hang around the stores that I saw. If you were into music, HMV was a draw — but there was nowhere to sit and look dramatically dejected or depressingly handsome in the hope of attracting the opposite sex. I’d have liked to have seen how HMV would have fared if they’d turned their stores into teenage hangouts — a music store crossed with a local ‘diner-style’ place where you could buy drinks and meet your friends.

In 2010/2011 the company knocked out a digital offering that was, sadly, laughable. I remember listening to a poor HMV representative on Radio4 having to justify his existence to the news presenter who simply couldn’t understand the point of “HMV Digital” in the context of the overwhelming competitors such as Apple and Spotify, to name just a few. I think the guy had to resort to pleading that HMV was a household name and, er, therefore had a good chance.

They ran out of time. Arguably the opportunity for meaningful innovation or evolution was lost the moment the banks became properly involved. They were hardly like to let HMV do anything broadly different.

I hope the employees — who could well be out of a job shortly depending on what the administrator does — will be able to swiftly find alternative employment. Perhaps there’s a VC circling ready to pick the company up for next to nothing. The shares were reportedly worth just under £11m!  Freed from the day-to-day shackles of the banks, a private equity player could conceivably do something stimulating with the business.


The Telegraph piece today gives a good overview and they link to a fascinating piece in The Guardian from 2004 demonstrating the now very familiar Great British innovation policy of wait-n-see-until-its-too-late. Here’s a choice quote from the company’s then CEO, Alan Giles:

“We are determined that when all the conditions look right, HMV will be a major player in the market just as over the decades we successfully navigated our way through transitions from 78 to 33 LPs, from vinyl to CD and from VHS to DVD. It is just another medium and format for people to consume.”

Who’s next on the High Street chopping block?


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