Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The future of the High Street: a tale of two record shops

The demise of HMV last week was a stark reminder of how much has changed on the British High Street in such a small period of time.  How we purchase music is a useful lens through which we can understand what is happening to our town centres and potentially what the solutions might be.

Previously, before the days when we could buy music online, we feared for the survival of independent record shops who were being squeezed out of existence by the corporate behemoths of HMV, Virgin Megastore and Borders. Now, however, there is no longer a recognisable High Street multiple shop that specialises in music, and this says an awful lot about how we have transferred our music consumption and indeed our broader shopping habits from the High Street to the internet.

HMV represented the last major chain High Street music shop

The threat faced by small record shops in the early noughties was highlighted by the then-seminal Clone Town Britain report, published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) in 2004 and updated in 2010. These publications lamented the loss of identity and the destruction of local distinctiveness by the gradual take-over of town centres by national chains. These concerns seem strangely anachronistic from the far more perilous situation that High Streets face in 2013. Many people in the UK would just be happy with a full town centre in 2013, never mind worrying about whether the shops were local or not.

The retreat of retail from High Streets is alarming when when one considers the recent figures from the Centre for Retail Research. Since 2007:

   231 retailers have ceased to trade
   23,284 stores have closed
   209,127 jobs have been lost

These figures include well known names such as: Comet, JJB Sports, Game, Borders, Barratts, T J Hughes, Jane Norman, Habitat, Focus DIY, Floors-2-Go, the Officers Club, Oddbins, Ethel Austin, Faith Shoes, Jessops, Adams Childrenswear, Principles, Sofa Workshop, Allied Carpets, Viyella, Dewhursts, Woolworths, MFI, and Zavvi/Virgin Megastore, Peacocks and now HMV.

One of the many reasons for these casualties is that the business model for retail has been transformed by the maturity of internet shopping. After many years of trying, retailers have  finally learned how to sell things to people online just at the same time that the world seemed to switch from ugly beige desktop computers tucked away in spare bedrooms to laptops and then to smartphones and tablets which could be used from the comfort of the sofa. Clearly, this shift to web based purchasing (as well as theft!) of music has hit the multiple record shops hard.

This has meant that we have seen a substantial erosion of the commercial base of the average High Street. The loss is staggering and the Centre for Retail Research figures do not include the downsizing of big name retailers such as Mothercare and Thorntons who seem to have drawn the Siegfried Line at the provincial cities (such as Cardiff) and out of town locations to make sure they do not become the next casualty. This additional pressure is leaving the traditional High Street in many towns with a highly questionable commercial proposition.

Rather than take over our High Streets and diminish High Street distinctiveness as NEF feared, the retreat of multiples has actually created a kind of dispiriting void which, in many towns won't be filled by retail at any time for the foreseeable future.  Record shops were probably one of the first sectors of the High Street to be affected by changing consumer trends so perhaps other small retailers, Local Authorities, regeneration practitioners and policy makers can learn from record shop owners?

What is impressive is the way that, as a sub-sector, independent record shops have banded together. Between them they have gradually nurtured within their customers an intense loyalty. This is perfectly illustrated in the growing success of the annual National Record Store Day which has grown into a celebration of these stores, the service that they offer (which can’t be matched online or in a supermarket) and a way of promoting the virtues of the immersive ‘in-store experience’.

Independent record stores are taking innovative steps to attract new business and foster a sense of loyalty

Moreover, independent record stores have focused on a niche by concentrating on selling vinyl and not singles, games or DVDs. Critically, the indie record shops have met the specific needs of their (often knowledgeable) walk-in customers, whilst supplementing this with online sales to create an offer that is gaining, rather than losing, momentum and has outlasted its corporate rivals.

Whilst most successful High Streets require a good balance of independent businesses and national chains to be successful there is much that can be achieved from small businesses when they work collectively, collaboratively and imaginatively.

What is interesting is that these traders have targeted the quality of the experience, both in bricks and mortar experience, online experience and the social media campaigns that remind people they are still there.

Perhaps this progressive approach by one group of retailers could be broadened throughout whole towns to create a culture of regeneration that depends upon on collective, collaborative and imaginative initiatives? Certainly a ‘whole town’ approach that promotes the importance of the experience at every level is going to be something that flourishing town centres will all have in common. Those that can’t grasp this, I’m afraid will go the same way as HMV.


  1. I certainly agree with your final point about the merits of collectivisation and collaboration for small retailers but the lack of an HMV (and Virgin, Our Price, etc. before it) potentially poses more of a challenge to independent record stores than if it were to have continued trading.

    I recall my uncle Nick Todd, former owner of Spillers Records in Cardiff, welcoming the location of MVC (remember that?!) on The Hayes immediately opposite Spillers (before it moved to the Morgan Arcade) because it brought music-buying customers to the Hayes allowing Spillers to compete with it directly on price and the shopping and browsing experience. Nick felt MVC could not compete and so relished its presence over the road. Certainly Spillers was invariably cheaper and a more enjoyable, unpredictable shopping experience with punters talking about their purchases, gigs they had been to, new bands and the like. In contrast MVC was sterile, bland and didn't generate interaction between punters. And more expensive.

    So to say that "we feared for the survival of independent record shops who were being squeezed out of existence by the corporate behemoths of HMV, Virgin Megastore and Borders" is slightly reductionist. It was never as simple as that (incidentally, Borders, too, has come and gone from The Hayes). The presence of these chains offered a platform for an independent to compete. By there being none left not only removes the competition but also the platform. Graham Jones in his splendid book 'Last Shop Standing: Whatever Happened to Record Shops?' lays the blame for the demise of independent record stores at poor business planning on the part of some, a race-to-the-floor attitude by distributors, and changes to urban design. Changing shopping patterns and downloading are but two of several factors

  2. I can't see on-line retailing diminishing in its popularity so perhaps we need to re-assess what our high streets are going to be about in the future, Although technically challenging, I do wonder whether we should take a leaf out of our continental neighbours and bring more residential use back into the high street which may go some way to supporting local retailing as well as tempering the late night binge drink culture which many high streets also suffer from ( I must be getting old....!!)