HMV: End of an era?

The news that HMV is calling for administrators is hardly a surprise. As with Comet and Jessops, the question in my mind is “What took so long?”

It’s a cruel irony that I’ve seen some significant improvements to their London Oxford Street and Piccadilly stores in the last few months, especially in vinyl stocks. But that doesn’t really offset the issues I’ve been having with them lately. For incidence – none of the stores seem to have put much effort into being places that anyone would want to spend time in. The constant drone of over-loud pap-Muzak pervaded the entire experience, often distracting from what I wanted to buy. The vinyl sections up until a year ago were badly kept, with old bent/warped stock that was in a perpetual state of disordered chaos. This got better in the last few months at the Piccadilly store, but still wasn’t great.

Even finding CD’s was a chore, at Christmas time in the Westfield Stratford branch I was unable to find anything from the shopping-list of well-known artists we had compiled, except for Susan Boyle’s latest. The cheaply-published and packaged best-of’s offered for remaining artists on the list were hardly good gifts and often didn’t actually contain the ‘best’ of said artists’ output. DVD’s and BluRays were easier to find once I could navigate the crowds, but again I only had a 50% hit-rate. The eye-watering queues at the tills also didn’t help, especially for what should have been quick lunchtime purchases!

For me and my household, despite (always) being on a budget, price doesn’t have to rule the spending decision. Part of the fun of building our music and movie collection has been the voyage of discovery, and the sense of a good shopping experience. If the in-store experience is bad or even just merely indifferent, then that infringes on my perceived quality of the product. If the store doesn’t care about its contents, then why should I, unless I really know something they don’t? Certainly in that case I won’t order online from the same store – likely I won’t order anywhere at all until I find a store that does have it, and cares about it. In short – we tend to buy what we are looking for, or discover on the way – not always the cheapest, and rarely online.

An interesting angle on this was found when I took on the project to upgrade my grandparents’ tape collection to CD. Their collection has a surprising number of quality albums from the 80’s and 90’s, none of which I was able to find on CD in the high-street, HMV included. Given the amount of work involved in converting a number of old tapes to CD, restoring them to “like-new” quality levels associated with CD on the way so that the transition is an improvement as much as a necessity, it is usually far easier and more cost-effective to replace with store-bought new copies. The artists get more royalties, the stores get more sales, and I save myself hundreds of pounds in time, software and electricity doing the conversions myself – that’s a win-win situation! This ‘shopping-list’ style of shopping lends itself best to online retailers now – but even online only about 75% of the content is available, and I’d rather support high-street stores where I can actually physically browse, interact with staff, etc etc. In other areas of life I’ve had fabulous conversations with staff and patrons, even leading to increased sales (“hey, you’re looking for Curved Air, right? i just found some over here!”) and offers of real work. That won’t happen if I buy my music on Amazon!

Another negative experience, and one that pervades all the ‘big’ electronics/media stores I’ve encountered recently, is that there’s no real try-before-you-buy facility, especially on things like headphones and media players. Where such facilities are offered, staff tend to be rushed and pushy, and the range of equipment available for real-world comparison is usually much smaller than that available for sale in-store. Where kit is available for demonstration it’s broken, or priced at such a premium level that I couldn’t afford it even if it were the right thing – many “Beats” or “Bose” headphones for example are easily outperformed by (sometimes significantly) cheaper competition, but with no way to test this there’s no way for the consumer to sort the genuine star-players from the dross.

Seems to me that a lesson being missed here, and one that seems to be in common with Comet, Jessops and HMV, is that there’s a level of basic sales service, and customer experience, that is being missed. Sure, the economic situation isn’t helping. Sure, online sales are taking their toll. But the stores I choose to frequent for such things, especially music, are those like Sister Ray and Music and Video Exchange in Soho, where passion, care and above all, content, are king.

If HMV passes, that leaves small independents a niche. If they (and we as consumers) can exploit that, it could be a very good thing for the music industry as a whole. If they don’t, then physical music purchases will likely become a niche, and consumer electronics will likely follow behind, beyond what the marketeers can tell us all we should be buying next. Sad times. I enjoyed the variety and excitement in these markets in the 80’s and 90’s, and I’ll miss them now they’re all but gone.

Forget new equipment: buy a good brush!

Everyone posting online gets so worked up over cartridges, decks, belts, cables, even styli… and yet so many of us (myself included) seem to overlook the basics – keeping our precious black discs clean.

I thought I had it licked… a gentle wash in warm water with a little dishwashing detergent, followed by a wipe over with a soft, lint-free cloth.  This worked very well in the short term, but on the second or third playing I found some discs were starting to pick up dust again.  So I looked around my local music stores for a record cleaning brush, and nobody seems to sell them any more, even if they do sell everything else a vinyl junkie might need!

So I did some online research and found a RODEC cleaning brush from West End DJ, for the princely sum of £10. Not a bad buy, and it’s remarkably effective.  I have no idea what some of these discs have been through, but the amount of fine white or grey dust that this thing lifts out of even clean-looking LP’s is quite astonishing.

Otherwise it’s hard to review a brush really, but the convenience of having a brush in its own stand that prevents further dust pickup is nice to have.  A model that uses carbon fibres might well be better, but what I have is good enough and the sonic results of playing cleaner discs are clear enough for me!

No loan service for choosing mobile phones?

I’m inspired to write this as I watch a colleague growling and gnashing his teeth at a recently purchased mobile phone.

Something that’s often perplexed me is that whenever I’ve been in the market to choose a mobile phone, the handset/network choices were explained in detail on paper, and even by enthusiastic fans or salesman.  Yet no mobile phone reseller has ever offered me a loan phone that I can take home and try to live with for a week to assess the hardware, software and network performance.  When I’ve asked about this, the salesmen have basically just shrugged their shoulders and said it’s not a service they can provide.

I for one would be more than happy to pay for a week’s worth of contract for the plan/phone I’m testing, and it could help prevent me buying the wrong thing and ending up blaming and flaming the network, the store or the manufacturer for my trying to use a phone that clearly wasn’t designed or intended for that particular purpose I’m griping about.

Surely I can’t be the only one who would like to think carefully about tying myself to a contract I can’t escape from for two years – so I wonder why this kind of service isn’t available?  Are the shops or network providers scared that they or their products will have their flaws exposed for all to see?  Or do they simply get more money out of unhappy people who end up buying one or more handsets after realising their phone doesn’t actually meet their needs?