Bigger isn’t always better

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Daniel Todaro, managing director of field marketing agency Gekko, on the future of the high street and why so many big retail brands get it wrong

So, HMV has been handed a dramatic lifeline by Canadian restructuring firm Hilco. Along with potential support from no end of major labels (Universal Music, Warner Music, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, Warner Brothers) all seemingly willing to club together, there may just be a light at the end of the tunnel for the embattled retailer.

However, while we allow ourselves to be swept up in the sentiment and nostalgia around HMV and the subsequent delight at this proposed rescue package. We can’t ignore the events that led us to this point, nor the fellow high-street retailers that seemingly will not be as lucky to find their white-knight investor.

With Comet, Jessops and Blockbuster also calling it a day, we can’t lose sight of the fact that some serious errors in management led to the dark days the retail sector is currently experiencing.

How did these brands get it so wrong?

Once upon a time, HMV had a culture of cool. No place more so than the flagship Oxford Street store in London, to which a visit provided a sense of wonderment unrivaled on the high street – a unique haven of entertainment.

The browsing experience was an event in itself: a destination shopping trip for the whole family. Like the best in-store experiences, it could be legitimately considered a reward or a special treat (if the kids had been good, of course).

But cool is fleeting, particularly with management so out of touch with consumers. What’s particularly frustrating is that HMV offered consumers the opportunity to engage with enthusiastic staff that were passionate about what they sold.

They were authorities on music, film, gaming and tech, helping consumers make informed purchasing decisions. Instead, in what was probably the most symbolic epitome of HMV’s problems, management banned long hair and tattoos and told staff to smarten up. What better way to suck the personality and character out of your brand advocates on the shop floor, and the store as a whole.

Retail is a journey, one that must engage the consumer with above-the-line marketing and through to the shop floor experience. What many of these failed brands (perhaps Blockbuster aside) did not recognise is that with so much choice from competitors across the retail spectrum and online, they did not connect a desirable product offering with a unique customer experience that made people want to keep going back.

If HMV is to make the most of its ‘second chance’, it has to start with people. It’s time to remove heads from the sand, and work on getting that ‘cool’ back. I find it incredible, still, how the vast majority of high-street retailers are too afraid to give their in-store staff just a bit of freedom to go out and express themselves a bit on the shop floor. HMV has a great platform to re-launch from, it just simply cannot revert back to its vanilla retail proposition.

The onus isn’t just on HMV, however. We all have a role to play in restoring the brand to its former glory. Not just for HMV, but for high-street retailing in general.

It’s all well and good lamenting these retailers’ entering administration, but I imagine many of us are guilty of taking the easy option and bowing to the global mass-merchant online retailers far too often.

As a nation of shoppers, in the UK we’re blessed with choice, choice to purchase from a specialist focused on a specific category. If we don’t make the most of that opportunity, it’ll be gone before we know it.

In austere times, we do want value, but just be careful what you wish for. Bigger isn’t always better, and the possibility of shopping solely through mass merchants will lead to less choice within a category, less expertise and less fun.

Nothing can replace the in-store experience, whether it be a local butcher, the Sunday market or even a multinational entertainment retailer. The speed and accessibility of etail is great, but a world where only shopping is entirely confined to online?

Give me a horse burger any day…

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