In the retail – e-tail war detail could be the decider.

So, HMV is in a state of meltdown yet again and with today’s profit warning following a Christmas trading period that turned out to be more of a turkey than a gift, it all looks pretty glum for this once retail icon.

In fact HMV is one of two high street retailers that I feel deserve a kick up the arse right now.  Both are frustratingly short of a few tricks that would counteract the biggest threat to their future.  The other is no-brand WH Smith, whose stores are dismal, amateur, badly lit, over stocked, over-priced and poorly staffed.  There’s an irony somewhere in the fact that HMV’s sister business Waterstone’s is the one showing WH Smith how its done.  Smiths may be in growth mode right now, but it looks like the short-term market-trader kind of success that begs questions like “So what do we do for our next trick?”.

Compare the two – On the brightest day a visit to WH Smith can make you feel like ending it all.  A bit like a church hall jumble sale, the mess of books, school equipment, magazines and sweets(?) and lord knows what else, trying hard to be all things to all people and succeed in being nothing much to anybody.    Waterstones, on the other hand, with their founder back at the helm, have single-mindedly established their authority in a sector where authority is everything.  These days Waterstones are ticking all the boxes, with knowledgable and intelligent staff and meaningfully stocked shelves (no pick n’ mix sweets in grubby pots here).  They have even mastered the trick of using their High Street presence to establish the authority they need to succeed on-line and with a million plus e-book downloads under their belt I have no doubt that both clicks and mortar numbers will follow.

Like Waterstones, WH Smith and HMV have both encountered the Internet challenge, but while WH Smith firstly buried its head in the sand, hoped it would go away, then muffed the response, HMV, like Waterstones, are focussing on doing things in-store that only in-store can do and using on-line as a sort-of take-away format – well almost.  And that’s the rub.  They aren’t getting down to the detail quite as I would have hoped.

For one thing, despite the live music elements they have added, they haven’t really mastered the brand community thing and they are missing some of the small practical things could make doing business with them easier and more fun.  Take for instance the art of the demo.  A focus of all record stores in the past and certainly a useful community building tool today.  Remember the Saturdays (That’s the day of the week not the band!) spent in the listening booth at your local record store listening to Friday’s releases and deciding what to spend this week’s pocket-money on?

When vinyl went out of the door, so it seems did the listening booth – replaced, admittedly by HMVs listening posts, which were fine, but then … silence!  Sure, they’ll play a CD in the store if you can get close enough to the check-out for your request to be heard, but it’s not the same as sharing a set of headphones with your mates in a sweaty booth.

Maybe they think they have that one covered with their in-store radio (Is it live? – I’m not sure), but they kinda’ come out of that looking like the guy who invented 6-Up – just a natz short of success – not enough interaction, which they could have built-in even with an AsLive solution.  They also miss the same trick on-line because, except for a few albums like Jessie J’s latest which features her brilliant Price Tag video, you can’t listen to even samples of selected tracks before you buy.  In the store they make great play (excuse the pun) of introducing new acts with short, on-shelf biogs, but if you can’t listen to the music, you have to risk £10 to buy the album blind (or is it deaf?) which, when we are all being austere, is a non-starter really.

To WH Smith I say, before turn yourself into a Moroccan bazaar, I suggest you don’t copy Woolies, because we all know where that gets you, pop across to Wilkinson instead and see how multi-category retailing is done cheerfully and tastefully (and with staff that you’d consider striking up a conversation with).  Oh and switch the lights on.  Reading in bad light is bad for anybody’s eyes.   HMV on the other hand need to write a thousand times “retail is detail”.  Put yourself in your customer’s shoes, get the little things right, tackle these and I’m sure you’ll find your days will be brighter.

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