The Re-Tale of Retail: HMV, community and the future

With the news of HMV’s demise today, following close on the heels of Jessops, Game and other similar massive retail chains, I’m seeing a couple of interesting things converging.

When I was little, I remember an independent CD shop and videogame shop on my high st. But the prices were so expensive that there was almost no chance I’d buy anything there. I went for a wander because they had interesting music playing or good conversations taking place. Atmosphere, I guess.

But with price as the ultimate decider (perhaps ironically in a time of such economic prosperity), the chains took over and were inevitably superseded on that front by the online stores. Amazon Prime with 1-Click or Steam being just about the ultimate incarnation of the most efficient transaction itself.

So when even the biggest high street stores can’t compete on price, speed or reliability, what’s left?

This is the point where I’m frustrated by the blindness of those retailers who dodged such a question in recent years but also see opportunities that smaller traders can take advantage of and potentially change the face of the high st forever.

Community

Be part of something. The HMVs and Game stories I remember were full of incompetent careless staff, huge queues, impersonal experience and an old-fashioned dynamic. They turned customers into a commodity as much as the objects their fans loved.

Whenever you host the gates to something people adore, or something they’re using to define themselves, you capture an incredibly powerful asset. And those are the natural social objects that drive immediate conversations between the people they are important to.

In the old record store, you might start to recognise familiar faces when you drop by. But today, Twitter, Foursquare, online community tools can all be combined to bridge online and offline. Smart continuation of this in the shop itself, as well as the space for your community to stick around and stimulate an alternate revenue stream (coffee etc) could open some big doors.

Make your audience your subject and people love to pay attention to themselves.

Mobile

There was a time when people went to the pub just for somewhere else to be with familiar faces. Today, coffee shops often offer a similar ‘third place’, but largely without the familiarity or community aspects. They’ve harnessed the idea as cynically as previous chains used price to help them scale.

But both mobile workers, players and thinkers are craving new places to spend time. If you’ve ever had a coffee in the Rough Trade record shop in East London, you may know what I mean (check out amazing article from two years ago about that here.) If you own a physical space on a high street, you should start thinking about it like that.

Why the hell could you never play games in Game?

Old-fashioned trends

The personal touch. Growing up, every Saturday I cycled to the small village near my house with my Dad and brother and we visited the butchers, the bakers and the little newsagent. Like the people you work with, you started to see this group more often than some of your best friends.

They knew who we were, knew what we were generally upto, knew our preferences and knew if we were in a rush. And even if it was just the artful craft of anyone in that service industry, more than that — it seemed they cared.

Forget cookies and ingenious analytics, there is an old-fashioned appeal to this that won’t change. Coffee shops smartly try to emulate it but independent shops have the true opportunity to realise it. And matched with community focus, it’ll not just be the guy behind the counter who’s pleased to see you, it could be a bunch of locals.

There’s also another interesting old-fashioned factor here. Patronage.

In the very old days, a rich duke might sponsor an artist to do their work. I think we’re seeing a similar mainstream version of this when it comes to supporting organisations. The awareness that you’re voting with your cash seems to be more widespread than ever before.

For example, I pay for Spotify because I like the product — but also because I think the company Spotify and its ‘why’ needs to be supported. I subscribe to projects like The Magazine, NSFWcorp and The Kernel (although that’s a more nuanced story) because I believe journalists will create the new news models that work for the future.

The same attitude could certainly extend to supporting the guy you know runs the shop you love in town and a company you really want to exist on the high street — and no longer have such a temptation to just buy the stuff elsewhere around the block.

To ensure this, such indie stores can’t neglect their online front either, an easy blind spot, but again it’s the community that will differentiate there. Not to mention all the current online possibilities around things like affiliate codes.

 

Why do you work?

Finally, a last point that’s somewhat related to this and I’ve been meaning to write up for a while (and even more since reading Culture Shock

Why does every business need to relentlessly pursue million after million? Why is your mission just to make more and more money rather than any other answer to the question: WHY?

These indie stores could have a very easy answer to this — they love their subject matter and enjoy being part of a community with similar tastes. As long as they make the money that satisfies them alongside this payment, there’s no need to scale up and become the new HMV.

I think that some people with this inclination have been pushed out of business over recent decades by the rise of the big chains. Their personality type has been either harnessed elsewhere or crushed and withered by the reality that it was almost impossible to maintain in such a world.

But the shifting nature of the high street, the increasing opportunity represented by a less homogenous competition offline and the powerful opportunity to represent even the smallest brand *online* may change this.

In time, maybe we’ll also see more of this on the macro level. For example, if I write #retail, why doesn’t that automatically link to a hashtag page in the way a hyperlink is universal, potentially developing incredible semantic linking over time? Why isn’t it built in throughout your whole OS, throughout every OS?

Twitters mission was to become a global pulse. Today, it’s to become a second screen shilling TV ads. That shift in “why” feels just as meaningless to me as the difference between the indie store with a real goal, a reason to exist, and the big chain driven by the same metric as an oil baron.

But that’s a whole other story.

Thanks to Simon Bisson, Matt Cross, Duncan Geere, Sean Fleming, David Clare, Craig LeGrice and others for good tweets that inspired this post.

 

- Max Tatton-Brown

January 15th, 2013

  • Ellen Leith

    Let’s hope that’s the case. In lots of ways that makes sense, but whenever I see a new independent open on the high street, my heart sinks for them. It’s such a hard space to inhabit and the rent alone is forcing many to shut up shop.

    There was a lovely little independent sweet shop in our town which managed to survive (even pushing out the chain which saw their survival as an opportunity to move in), for more than 7 years. But even with the love of the local kids, a friendly atmosphere and becoming a meeting place for young mums with tea and cake too – it just couldn’t survive the heavy rent and no matter how bland-faced or dull its staff – the pulling power and dumbed down pricing of its competition.

    Take libraries – I love them – everything about them, yes even the faint damp dog smell – but I haven’t been inside one for several years. The same “love” is often felt for the
    local favourite independent – but who can survive that?