Yesterday it was announced that HMV, the only large record store chain here in the UK, is going into administration. So, unless someone steps in to save them it’s likely the stores will all close and the staff will be made redundant.
If they’d paid attention to the changes Waterstones has made in the last two years they might just have survived.
Here in Leeds we have two great little indie record shops (hello Jumbo, hello Crash) and I am an infrequent but happy shopper at both. What they excel at is friendliness, recommendations and what’s now being called ‘curation’ – good signposting of what’s new or hot right now. I walk in and the moment I cross the threshold I am responding to what they’re highlighting and it’s more fun to browse.
The experience in HMV is nothing like that as I discovered when I went in to the Leeds store at the weekend, my first visit in about 5 years. Pricing banners all over the place, discount stickers on everything, the same display cases and dumpster diving ethos it always had but made ever more desperate by the lack of pull and amount of pushing it seemed to be doing.
The thing is, as a bookshop lover, I don’t understand why it’s like that.
I mean, it’d be great if they looked at Jumbo Records and thought, ‘What can we learn from the fact that this store is 42 years old in 2013, is much loved by dedicated fans and local musicians (who celebrated its 40th birthday in style :)) and is surviving the pricing wars?’
But hey, we live in the real world. So, more pertinently, why weren’t they looking at Waterstones and learning their lessons from another chain that has had to learn to curate and persuade it’s customers that they should buy more costly items sometimes as well as just more of the cheap stuff?
What struck me most in HMV at the weekend was how broken it was as a browsing experience.
I walked in with a list and then moved around looking for the things on the list. There was no curation, no table of things the staff are currently loving, no handwritten notices recommending something from the back catalogue that could just catch my eye. No equivalent of the display of cloth bound Penguin Classics. No display of soundtracks for recent films to cash in Les Miserables, no Bond related corner to bring all the music, games and DVDs together, no stand highlighting recent prize winners (how many people picked up an Orange or Booker title last year because it was made so easy for them in Waterstones I wonder?). Not even a sniff of ‘If You Liked X, You Should Try Y’. There was definitely no local corner or connection to events happening around the city.
The thing is, when I walk into Waterstones or Jumbo I don’t go in with a list. I go in with an idea of what I am looking for and often I buy other things in there I didn’t know I wanted. I’m presented with a host of different mental conversation starters and I engage with them. Inside my head it’s a buzz of ‘I’m really not in the mood for another book on WWI split narratives and anguished love but that red cover over there, what’s that? Oh okay, it’s a reissue of that thing I read last year but ooooohhhhhh that just has to be the new Julian Barnes essay collection. I HAVE TO HAVE IT. Okay…. what’s that over there….?’ I might be silent the entire time but I am actually communing with the forest, or in this case, the signposting.
Waterstones did lose their way for a bit and pile them high and cheap with 3 for 2 tables everywhere and every store feeling the same whatever city you happened to be in. In the end though, they realised it was the quirky, personal feel that their customers wanted to pay for, not a bargain basement megastore and they brought that feeling back into the stores. Hell, they even got that feeling out on Twitter. (Seriously, I love you @WstonesOxfordSt. :))
By making browsing so cold an experience HMV has made the same mistake Waterstones made earlier, turning made every conversation about pricing and buying there vs ordering from the internet. It’s nuts. I know when I walk into Waterstones I can get Les Miserables or any other book for peanuts on the web. But what keeps me going in there is the interaction they’ve re-created. I want pretty artwork and fancy covers, I want to feel like a collector, I want to know more about prizes and small presses and backstory, I want to feel welcomed and guided. I want the layout to look mostly the same each week but the conversation to be ongoing. Dialogue rather than transaction.
Ironically, Jumbo gets this and always has, Waterstones has learnt it the hard way… and HMV is a giant that turned out to be a dinosaur.