Tuesday, January 15, 2013

High Street Voice

And lo, it came to pass, that HMV is to bring in the administrators.

The age of the High Street has been coming to pass since the 1990s, when councils fell in love with out of town shopping centres, and shoppers fell in love with not having to pay over the odds car parking prices for city centre shopping. Sure, the streets of central London and England's second city Manchester may look exceptionally busy, but this is the era of massive increases in Internet commerce, and once tourists/day-trippers/hipsters are taken out of the equation, both major shopping centres look pretty ho-hum.

Just as "the smoking ban did it" is not a valid response to the question "why are dozens of pubs closing every month?", so "the 'net did it" can't be accepted as an answer for the demise of specific stores or the general concept of "The High Street". In short, it's a long and complex list of reasons. Ultimately, nobody has been outside banging the drum for city shopping for decades now. Out of town developments are cheap to build and easy to fill. Councils then engage in a PR love-in with concepts like pedestrianisation, 'street furniture' and café culture 'redesigns'. Being Britain, the results are almost always complete disasters, especially when most councils refuse to provide free parking, even on weekends.

Whilst Mary Portas might be well paid for telling people how to suck eggs....I mean, how to reinvent the town centres, the reality might be very different to that looked at from a purely cold faced economic stand point. Maybe, just maybe, HMV is close to death because it was suffering the same disease as Woolworths, and managed to find better medication? They could have died off simultaneously had one not chosen holistic medicine once a week.

Woolies stopped attracting shoppers, by and large, when shoppers stopped understanding what on earth the store was focused on selling. In the Internet age being a "root about" shop isn't attractive. Woolies sold XBox games, DVDs, pick 'n' mix sweets, children's clothes, toys, with a restaurant tucked away upstairs and a garden centre shoved into a corner. Like Wilkinsons, but in an unattractive jumble sale sort of way.

For HMV, dealing with Amazon, Spotify, live streaming and all the rest of it was to fling itself into panic mode, jerking around with new identities like a drunk man trying on fancy dress. Of course nobody could have predicted how quickly consumers would kill off CD singles, but HMV held on to them amongst computer consoles, headsets, books, box sets, chart acts and oddly specific specialist sections ("BBC Spoken Word"), and from outside their stores began to resemble one of those very wooden warehouse style shops which always has window displays selling Stone Roses, REM and Alanis Morrisette for £1.99. Was HMV the first place to go for the latest album release? If not, at what point did that happen?

The very idea of having "a High Street" is looking more and more as a notion of crazed nostalgists. The free market and those who subscribe to its teachings have seen off the traditional pub, defeated the greengrocer and the butcher, and now tick off electronic retailers and general stores. HMV will sit alongside Rumbleow's and Dixons and Jessops and JJB, all faded brands and pub quiz questions now. The reason isn't just one of "death by on-line shopping", it's as much a lack of focus by the stores themselves as it is a natural turning off the light by capitalism's Spending Corps. Had HMV focused on, perhaps, DVDs and box-sets, it could have streamlined itself into a new kind of retail experience. Maybe 2013 was just the year the growths became incurable cancer?

One thing seems very clear now.  In Town Halls across the country, there are local elected officials grappling with the questions put to them by the economic downturn, the reduction in Government funding, and less popular town centres. Most of the glossy prospectuses produced by consultants on behalf of Town Halls speak of "reinventing the High Street". I can't help but wonder if this is just woefully, almost embarrassingly, out of date.