Between 1993 and 2006 I worked for MVC, Music Zone and Fopp, for the last eight years as a Store Manager. They were mostly hugely enjoyable times. Managing happy and motivated staff gave me a huge buzz, knowing that they were enjoying work despite often being in possession of a degree and a minimum wage salary. That said, there were many I managed who’d probably say I was a crap boss. You can’t please everyone. Yes, it was ‘retail’, but if you’re going to work in a shop is may as well be one that sells music and movies (I couldn’t care less about games, although we sold those too). If you’re going to replenish shelves, you may as well replenish CDs, if you have to give ‘exceptional service’ you may as well do it recommending movies, if you have to have a backlog of booking on it may as well be a backlog of new release albums, if you have to dust shelves it may as well be shelves storing product you’ve had a mad, passionate affair with for the last twenty years. Yes, customers could be annoying bastards, but then some people just are, the hours were a bit shit – working weekends and one, maybe two days off over the madness of Christmas and New Year, and despite what most people say, retail can be bloody hard work. But, the worst time of all during those thirteen years… was going into administration. Three times. Oh yes, those experiences were bloody tough. I was clearly a glutton for punishment.
During those thirteen years HMV were always our main high street ‘opposition’. This was despite them being the most expensive – £14.99 for a back catalogue CD was the norm. You could probably get three for the same price now. But it wasn’t fellow entertainment retailers who through ‘aggressive pricing’ or ‘tempting BOGOFs’ fought out a battle on the high streets of Great Britain until just HMV remained. No siree. I remember very clearly into years six and seven of my eleven with MVC the company’s profit & loss chart was edging ever nearer to being in the black. The next year was going to be the first year MVC finally started making profit, and having been with the company from pretty much year one I knew just how far we had progressed and how those first few £££s of surplus cash could not have been harder earned. But then disaster struck. No, it wasn’t Amazon or Play.com who put a halt to that graph’s progress. It wasn’t downloads either, they had only just become available. It was supermarkets. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda started selling CDs and DVDs at stupidly low prices (the sort of prices which make them less than £0 profit, or ‘loss leaders’ as they’re called) and within a year that graph’s upward trend all of a sudden took on an angle named decline.
My own career took me from the long, agonising rise (to near profit) and fall of MVC, to a brief stint with the rather unimpressive Music Zone and lastly to the wonderfully priced, temptingly merchandised and rather generous in the wages department, Fopp. All three went into administration. With MVC that rather unfortuitously happened on December 23rd. Ten years ago, two days before Christmas, the queues from the tills at MVC were of biblical proportions. We designated staff on the rota to be ‘queue managers’. YES, before you ask, all the tills were on, bags, till rolls and change in the tills were all taken care of and the staff may even have not been offering you a ‘perfect partner’ (an ‘add on’ sale offered – all part of the service) with your purchase, but it was ridiculously busy. Then we were told we’ve gone into administration. Just like the staff at HMV (and Fopp, a number of whose stores were cherry-picked by HMV when they went into administration) have just been told. You may be half expecting it, and HMV’s 2012 half-year pre-tax loss of £37.3m was a rather clear indication, but it still hits you hard. You know that more than likely you’ll lose your job in the next six to eight weeks. In a nutshell administration means the company is financially fucked. Bust. In HMV’s case Deloitte have come in and taken over – it is no longer trading as HMV or Fopp and all Deloitte are now doing is working for the creditors. They will say they care about the staff, and are ‘looking for a buyer’, but… c’mon, who is going to buy HMV? If they can’t make it work after being in business for ninety years, not to mention being the only major entertainment retailer left on the high street with a 35% share of the CD market, who can?
Now we can talk about the plight of the aforementioned retailers and why they, along with Our Price, Virgin Megastore and a few others no longer exist on the high street. We can also discuss the merits of each and which were the best (Fopp for product and price, MVC for staff). But the fact is simple. Supermarkets started the decline, online retailers pushed their heads under the water, and downloads held them down. All three, along with the fact that the vast majority of people (especially those who buy music and movies) now live their lives online, contributed to the death of the high street music retailer. If a retailer sells an item that can be easily purchased online, the ‘competition’ comes from the high street and the laptop. If the item can be downloaded too, it also comes through the air within seconds, like magic. It’s a shame weetabix, tea, biscuits and family bags of wotsits aren’t downloadable. It would be good to give supermarkets a taste of their own underpriced medicine. The end of HMV is simply a perfect sign of the times. Technology rules and people are getting lazier.
My overriding thought regarding this news concerns the staff. It is through absolutely no fault of anyone working in any branch of HMV or Fopp that the company has gone into administration. Yes, the explanation above may seem to suggest no one working for the company is liable for the current situation. I’d simply suggest that a few structural, organisational or basic business decisions might simply have delayed the inevitable for another year, two or three at a push. 4500 staff will soon, almost certainly be losing their jobs. In the next month or two customers will be returning faulty items unable to get a refund, they will be bringing in gift vouchers unable to spend them, they’ll have unwanted items and will be unable to exchange them and the levels of service and presentation may possible take a slight dip. Can I strongly suggest anyone in this situation avoids becoming angry at the staff. These people have lives, families, children, mortgages and responsibilities and are about to lose their jobs. Instead, when you buy your underpriced items at ‘closing down’ prices you show them compassion, give them a tip, a smile and acknowledge the shit they’re going through. Administration sounds like something you do in the office. Instead of HMV going into administration, try to think of it as HMV going into the grave and it’s staff going on the dole.