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Tuesday, 15 January 2013

His Master's Voice Goes Temporarily Silent!

Happy New Year to you all.

Doesn't Christmas now seem eons ago? Here in the UK, we're also getting our first flurry of snow. And, as usual, the motorways, railway services, and airports are all slowly grinding to a halt... again! Considering we're supposed to be one of the most forward-thinking nations on the globe, we still can't seem to cope with theslightest bit of snowy weather! Still...

Alas, I start 2013 with some bad news, for UK readers. I apologise to my non-UK fans, but I hope you will still read this article nonetheless.

One of the last surviving major retail companies, HMV, went into administration yesterday - 14th Jan 2013. HMV, for non-UK readers of my blog, is the big music, game and movie retail organisation. There are 237 branches across the United Kingdom, who employ around 4400 staff. Yesterday, Administration started, and whilst stores remain open today, the future of HMV now looks decidedly shaky.

Now, I'm not going to go into why HMV has failed. Nobody can say exactly why, and any discussion of "why" is going to be moot. What I wish to really talk to you all about, is you - the customers. HMV was the last great high-street DVD/Blu-Ray company, and where I and many other people would buy their films from. Yes, Amazon is great, and I've used them too, but HMV were a great high-street company. One I've worked for in the past, and one I've got a lot of respect for.

HMV sold genre cinema. They championed horror films, and had a dedicated horror section in almost all of their branches. Likewise with anime and foreign-language films too. As such, their potential passing-away, is going to damage the UK horror and world-cinema industry quite heavily in terms of what films are available and what films get released over here.

The saddest thing I find, is that once HMV goes - and right know, it's looking extremely shaky that a buyer will make a deal and buy them up - there will be no competition. Once HMV goes, other than online sites like Amazon, UK film-purchasers/collectors will only be able to buy films from supermarkets. Online companies will be able to charge whatever they want, and free delivery could soon disappear also. What's to stop Amazon from raising prices and charging for postage as well?!

In the UK, most supermarkets only stock a small-to-medium-sized range of films - at best! Most only have a Top 10 or Top 20. This wouldn't be too awful, except that their Top 10 or 20, isn't based on a national chart of any kind. In fact, most supermarkets base their charts on what that store thinks will sell well, to their customers. So, unless you want mainstream, Hollywood romantic comedies, or major blockbuster titles like HARRY POTTER or TWILIGHT, then the chances of these supermarkets having what you want, is going to be - qite literally - zero. Fancy buying a complete series boxed set of HBO's THE WIRE? Looking for that rare LAUREL & HARDY film to complete your collection? Want to see why everyone raves about Carl Theodor Dryer's VAMPYR: A SYMPHONY OF HORROR from 1932? Forget it! You ain't going to find it anymore, unless you go online. And online means Amazon. A few other companies exist, but they are now few and far between, especially if you are a UK film-fan!

I love online shopping. Probably 65% of all of the films I've ever purchased, were bought online, predominantly because I import films from all over the globe, so they aren't titles HMV would have stocked anyway. The other 35% would have been bought from HMV, and a few other high-street stores. Whilst I accept that HMV's prices weren't perfect, (what retail stores prices are?), they weren't as bad as many have claimed. I've seen reports on the Net of people claiming that HMV sold new films at £25-£30 each. This is complete garbage, to put it mildly! Some occasional older and rarer titles may have been sold at their price, but such prices were few-and-far between. They were definitely not the norm! In fact, HMV had become more competitive in the last few months, than it had been for a long time. New Blu-Rays releases were selling for between £12-£15 each, which is pretty much what Amazon (and many supermarkets) were charging, and new DVD's were retailing for £10-£12 in general. In some cases, they did Two-For-£20 offers on Chart DVD's, whereby you could purchase two brand new titles - such as THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and TED for £20. On Blu-Ray, they regularly did Three-For-£20, and Five-For-£30 sales, which were great too.

The problem for me, is the customers, of which I include myself in this. Anyone who has ever worked in retail will have some horror stories of one sort or another, about bad, rude, insensitive or just obnoxious customers. It's inevitable. I've got plenty. And before anyone lambasts me, I know most customers are nice, decent, kind and understanding people, so please, please, please don't get me wrong here. I'm not suggesting for one moment that the majority of customers are rude or bad. I'm talking about the very minority: the arseholes, the ingrates, the morons. The people who have IQ's only marginally bigger than their shoe-size, and whom you have to worry as to how they get out of bed each day, and manage to be able to dress themselves properly! We've all seen them. The customers who ask truly dumb questions. I'll give you an example:

If you're into computer games, you will have probably heard that GRAND THEFT AUTO V is being released in the Spring of this year! It'll be one of the most hotly-anticipated game releases ever. When I was working at HMV over Christmas, I was asked by this one particular individual, the following:

Him (standing beside giant, 5ft-tall standee with release info on it): "When's this out?"
Me: "Sometime in Spring 2013."
Him: "When's Spring?"

Oh for fuck's sake?! Are you kidding me?! Really?!

Same customer: "How much is this, mate?" (The game was HALO 4 on XBox, with all stock clearly priced at £40, or thereabouts).
Me: "It's £40."
Him: "Can I have one for free?"
Me: "Yes. You give me £40, and I'll let you take one for free!"

He left the store, scraping his knuckles along the way. I mean, seriously, have human brains shrunk so sharply in the past few years, that customers have resorted to asking truly vacuous questions, that even the average five-year-old child would find mildly insulting, if they had to answer them? Have we reached the nadir in Customer Services where people need every little thing explaining to them? I know the Education System is supposed to be in dire straits, but this is taking the piss a tad.

Okay, now I'm aware that some of you will be thinking to yourselves: "Hang on a minute, Pooch. Not everyone has the same standard of education you do. And not everyone will have been lucky enough to be as well-read, or as fortunate as you. And have you considered that this guy, may have some kind of mental retardation?"

And you'd be right in arguing that with me.

I shouldn't take the mickey out of him. He may well not have been as fortunate as I have been - and I have been fortunate, if I'm fair with you. And yes, he might have had a low I.Q. due to some kind of retarded mental faculty. But, I doubt that that would have been the case. I mean, I've met and served customers with real mental health issues such as those with impaired cognitive functions; people with manic depression; people who appeared to have schizophrenia and other similar mental impairments. I've served people who were blind, deaf, and with other severe disabilities, so I am acutely aware of how to deal with people who may not be as lucky as myself. Plus, as someone who themselves suffers from Severe Depression and Suicidal Ideation, I know what it's like to not feel like you are "normal", or "different" - whatever "normal" and "different" might be to the rest of the world!

In my defence, though, this did not seem to be the case with this guy. I think he was just genuinely stupid. Six cans short of a six-pack, so-to-speak. But that's not my point.

My point is, that some customers seem to be devoid of any kind of intellect. They ask you mind-staggeringly dumb questions. They don't engage their brains, before they engage their mouths. It's one thing to ask a stupid question, or to not realise something because you made a minor error in judgement. It's another, though, to ask something that is so surprisingly dumb, so brain-numbingly obtuse, that it beggars any concept of brain-power! And so it is, today, on the Internet, that I have seen "customers" moaning about HMV, and what it did wrong.

I've seen people say "Well, I never shopped there", and then proceeding to whinge about everything that HMV allegedly did wrong. I've seen people write on online Forums, that they are glad HMV is shutting its doors (although this isn't actually the case, in the first place), and saying that all the staff were idiots who knew nothing. I've read comments from people who are angry that they can't spend their Christmas gift of HMV Gift Tokens now, because the Administrators have been called-in. (For those who don't know: any company that is in Administration, will almost-always cease allowing vouchers, tokens and gift-cards to be used, as such devices count as "store credit", and therefore even though the company already has your money, you become one of the many creditors that that company now owes money too. As such, you are way-down-the-list of creditors, and in many cases, you probably won't see your money again.) I've also seen people whinge that HMV didn't do this, or didn't do that, as if "this" or "that" was going to somehow magically transform HMV's viability overnight.

It's all a bit "me, me, me" and it annoys the hell out of me!

The biggest, and possibly stupidest, complaint I've seen, is when people have suggested that all HMV needed to do to save themselves, was to be more competitive on pricing: to lower their prices to those found on the Net, and ergo, they would see more customers through their doors, and ergo, have made more sales, and made more profit.

No, people, that is NOT how a retail business works! You can't just lower your prices, and therefore make more profits. It's not that simplistic!

A website, has little to no overheads. You create the site. You get the stock. You have a paying and delivery system, and then you let people pay for, and deliver the stock to them. It requires minimal outlay. And as long as people buy stuff from you, and as long as you can get their order(s) out to them, in a timely fashion, you'll probably be successful. The rest, is then about promotion. Get  your website name out there, and promote the hell out of yourself. Once people know you, and trust you, they will probably buy from you. Your site can remain open 24/7, come rain or shine, or major crisis of any other sort.

A bricks-and-mortar retail store, however, has a lot of overheads. One, it needs a lcoation site. Other than actually finding somewhere to rent, which can be a hassle in itself, you'll have to rent your premises. Renting costs mucho casho! You often have to pay three-to-six months in advance, and you'll usually find yourself on less-than-favourable terms with the landlord or lettings agency. Secondly, you then have to stock the store with your goods. You have to secure them, to stop them from getting stolen, and you have to display them nicely, making everything look attractive. You also need to make sure you have sufficient quantities of stock available, for purchase. Next, you need to staff your store, and heat (or cool) it. If your store is open Mondays to Saturdays, from 9am-6pm, then you need to be staffed during those hours.

You need to be staffed during those hours, even if you get no customers coming through your door.

You need to be staffed during those hours, even if you are making no sales.

Essentially, you need to be battle-ready, just in case someone comes in to buy something.

And this, is before you even actually open your doors, and invite people into your business!

You will obviously need to promote the hell out of your business, and persuade people to come and buy your stock from you (rather than any one of hundreds of your competitors - both on the high-street and/or online)!

Now, let us say, that you are a well-established retail store, that isn't doing too well - such as the predicament HMV have found themselves in recently. You've tried lowering prices. You've tried expanding your stock range. You've shut some of your less profitable branches. You've reduced your staffing levels to the absolute bare-minimum. You've negotiated a "sale-or-return" deal on most of your stock, which is where you are sent stock without having to pay for it first, and then if you sell it, you pay for it, but if you don't sell it, you can simply return it back to the distributors for free. You've expanded the kinds of stock you sell, to include stuff that you wouldn't normally have chosen to sell, such as snacks and drinks, and other types of goods. And you're still competing with businesses who...

1) Pay no Corporation Tax (or at least evade paying it, or pay so little that it becomes moot), and/or
2) Will sell the same products you do, but at below cost price, and/or
3) Are online, and thus, don't have the overheads that you do

... and you soon see, that things get tough. Customers don't care who you are. They just want what you're selling, but at the cheapest price possible.

If your prices are even a few pennies over your online competition, they moan you aren't as cheap as your rivals.

If you don't have a particular item in stock, they complain that your online rivals always have it in-stock, even if you explain to them that just because a website advertises a product, it doesn't necessarily mean they do actually have it available right-there-and-then to purchase.

If you open your store, and (hypothetically) for an hour each day, no one buys anything, you've still got to have your business filled with staff; with stock available to purchase, and heated or cooled to the appropriate temperature - even if no one is doing anything, and the tills aren't ringing! Likewise, if the weather's very cold, very hot, or very wet. If there are no customers around town, you can be the best shop with the best products in the worlds, and you won't last long if no one comes in!

Your rent bill and staff overheads remain the same, but if you aren't making sales (whether it be for an hour, an entire day, or longer), then you're still having to spend money. Your rivals online, however don't. They can just sit back and wait for things to happen. On top of all of this, you have other high-street competitors who will happily sell the same things you sell, but at below-cost price. In other words, they sell these items at less than it costs them to buy in, because such items aren't their core business, and in essence, are simply trying to get your customers through their doors, via temptation.So how is all of that fair?

The answer is, that it isn't fair. It's a very unfair fight. Moreso, when your customers expect you to be as good as, as cheap as, and as reliable as your internet-only competition. It's a distinctly unfair playing field, in which HMV has to compete (or fight), with its opponents having a distinctly unfair advantage over them. But your customers don't care about that. They just want their music, games and films as cheap as possible, and don't want to pay for you to actually house all of that stock in a building in a suitable city centre location. Nor do they want to pay for you to have great, knowledgeable staff who really know their facts inside-out.

Is it any wonder, then, that HMV are effectively losing the battle, after a tough few years of fighting? Amazon has become the de-facto standard by which almost all Internet companies are rated against. Amazon has many pluses: its prices, its stock range, its customer service. And all of that, is on top of the other major benefit that HMV can't offer: people can buy from Amazon at any time of day or night, because Amazon is always open! HMV does have an online presencem, and has tried to compete, but it simply can't. The might of Amazon is just too big, too dominant, too ingrained into people's psyche and mindset.

And I haven't even mentioned that Amazon delivers everything to your front door, so you don't even need to leave your home to get your goods!

I love browsing (and buying) in HMV! I love handling the goods, reading the back-covers, and seeing if a film grabs my attention enough to buy it. I've made many choices of horror films, in this manner. Some of my favourite films have been discovered in this fashion, and it's one of the joys of browing in a high-street store. You get to expand your choices, and discover new stuff you might previously have never heard about! That's something you can't do online. Lots of sites have reviews, but Amazon's review system is deeply flawed. Too often, I see reviews by idiots complaining the item wasn't what they expected, because they simply failed to read about the product, or because it didn't turn up on time for little Jimmy-Lee's birthday! Come on folks, this isn't what the review system is for! The staff have also recommended stuff to me, and when I worked there, I liked being able to recommend stuff to customers. That was one of the great joys of the job! Sharing your own love of films (or games, or music) with other people, and expanding on their love of that stuff too!

Remember in the early days of the Internet, when there were numerous different search-engine providers? Do you remember the likes of Alta Vista, Google,,, and many others? Now, when you search online for something, which provider do you use? I would suspect that - if you are anything like me - you just use Google. The Oxford English Dictionary has decided to include the term "googling" in their latest online version of their tome, because it has become common-parlance for people doing searching on the Internet. We all just "Google" it!

As such, any other Search Engine provider has to try and compete against a well-established and ultra-efficient search engine with the might of Google, and for the most part, they lose out, because Google is the Goliath in the world of Search Engines, to everyone elses David.

Well, HMV is still a well-known and trusted brand. After trading for almost 92 years, it would be a real tragedy to see them disappear from what little remains of our high streets. I will miss them greatly, and I really hope that someone, somewhere will have the money and business sense to rescue them, and maybe spur them onto become bigger and better! The world of film will be a lot smaller without a high-street presence, and I know that genre cinema will flounder without them too.

So, if you take anything away from this blog post, it is this. Shop at your local businesses, be they tiny, little independent stores, or branches of big chain companies that sell lots and lots of stuff under one roof. Just every once in a while, buy something. If they give you good service, tell them. Without your business, and in the current economic climate, there's a high chance that these stores may soon disappear forever from your high-street, without you, and you will be left with only being able to browse and buy for your films online. Trust these shops, and value them, as once they have gone, they won't be making a return, ever again! Here in the UK, we've already lost one company this year, and we're only two weeks into 2013. I don't want HMV to be the second victim!

For that would be something genuinely unforgiveable!

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