That the music retail industry is in trouble is no secret. When we look, however, at what happened to major music store chains over the last five years it may become much clearer how serious the crisis is. Here are some highlights:
- In 2007 Richard Branson decided time was up for Virgin‘s music Megastores and sold his chain of 125 stores in the UK and Ireland in a management-buy-out to a team of executives. The new retail brand Zavvi took place of the Virgin name that after thirty years vanished from High Street in the UK, particularly its famous flagships on Oxford Street and in Piccadilly Circus in London. By 2009 Virgin closed the last of its stores in the US. Stores in other countries were also closed while a few stores may still be found under the Virgin brand in France, Greece, and in the Middle East.
- Zavvi survived no more than a year. It was dependent on a unit of Woolworths (Entertainment UK) as its primary supplier and with the collapse of the veteran retail chain, Zavvi ran into serious difficulties, forced into unfavourable new trade agreements. It entered administration in late November 2008 and within 3 months the chain ceased to exist. 14 of its stores were sold to HMV, 7 others and all stock sold to Head Entertainment, and all remaining stores were liquidated.
- The once giant American music retailer Tower Records got into troubles already in 2004 when it sought bankruptcy protection and was doomed just two years later in 2006. Great American Group that bought the retailer in an auction soon declared its plan to shut down the music retail chain. All US stores were closed by the end of 2007 and in the following three years many stores overseas were sold or closed down. The stores in the UK closed in fact already in 2003 (Virgin took over its flagship in Piccadilly Circus but as noted above it did not last long).
- And now we hear that HMV is in trouble and struggling to keep its head above water. It is threatened by an increasing debt and a difficulty in keeping with terms of a bank loan. To be accurate, it is since January that news of troubles at HMV have been coming in about unsatisfactory sales results over the holidays shopping period and three consecutive warnings of dropping profits. First it announced plans for the UK and Ireland to close 40 music stores along with 20 book stores of Waterstone’s that HMV Group apparently also owns. Then it became known HMV intends to split Watesone’s from its core business in music, video, and games ; this prospect sale is still in negotiations. Analysts predict that break up is inevitable but still express concern that this will not be enough and HMV will be forced to close more stores to avoid administration.
Explanations given by analysts for these misfortunes are probably not surprising many: the growing shift of consumers to digital download of music, video and games, and the tight competition from stores like supermarkets that sell discs at low-cost. While retailers started offering their merchandise online on their websites several years ago they were quite unprepared for the trend of digital download.
As implied above the problem is centered on but not limited to music. More than ten years ago music chain stores have actually transformed into entertainment media stores in order to expand their business and not be reliant only on music. Yet, the retailers could not cope with the fast technological developments in this field during the years 2000s that altered consumer behaviour patterns. This is not just about low price but also convenience, flexibility of choice and immediacy. True, especially in the early Internet years but even nowadays items can be obtained for free on the net and this phenomenon poses problems for many in the industry, perhaps mostly to the artists. This issue is complex with legal ramifications beyond the scope of this article-post. However, the whole field encompassing the different types of entertainment media has progressed considerably and broadened in the past five years and it would be too simplistic to attribute it squarely to price.
Music stores should not be given up too quickly. There are certain things about the stores — the sights of loaded stands of products, colours and sounds, movement on the floor and buzz — that the Internet and various electronic devices cannot provide. Many private stores, small or niche stores, may still remain but the chain stores were the real engine of this retail industry. It is worth investing much more effort to create a new model for music or entertainment media stores that will retain some of their more traditional virtues in new forms and yet offer new benefits. I suggest two dimensions for development in which strong advantages can be created: personal customization and social interaction. These can be sources for strong shopping values and enjoyment.
Consumers want to choose more freely their favourite songs and create their own song compilations. They are much less willing to wait for record companies to produce albums and compilations based on their judgements. Consumers are less tolerant towards albums that contain 2-4 really good songs and 8-10 mediocre ones. The choice has to be delegated more extensively to the consumers. This phenomenon is becoming stronger and wider.
Perhaps as some analysts claim there is less justification for the large space of stores we have known so far. Stores may restructure and re-allocate floor space between product displays and personal self-service stations. A shopper will be invited to sit on a stool in front of a flat screen at his eye-level and use a multimedia programme to search and scan the store’s wide selection of music pieces as well as films, TV series episodes or games and choose whatever he or she likes. When the shopper completes, for example, to create a song compilation to his/her taste, an instruction will be given to the computer system to burn it on a CD, DVD, Blue-Ray disc or alternatively be saved on some other memory device such as Disk-on-Key. Appropriate payment arrangements may be devised including advance deposits and pay-as-you-collect at the cashier or pay with credit card at the station. Sessions may be limited in time.
Why doing this at the store and not at home? First, it may be because of powerful utilities of the multimedia programme that makes the shopping experience smoother and more enjoyable — well-designed graphic displays of items planned with consumer search behaviour in mind and friendly tools for building and displaying at any time the content of the shopper’s basket. The display may incorporate information structures such as a matrix or table of a relatively large variety of items , a “ribbon” mounted across the screen (moved left and right) for quick scan in a narrowed-down set of items, or “wheels” that include possibly artists in an inner tier and song pieces in an outer tier. Second, the programme may allow playing songs or showing short samples from film in live-streaming directly from the store’s library (if the system works on an Intranet it may work faster than on the Internet). Third, when required the shopper may consult with a personnel adviser, assuming hopefully that the store employs people expert in various genres of entertainment.
It should be remembered, however, that there are different types of shoppers. We may distinguish primarily between (a) those who come with a more clear and well-defined plan of specific songs, artists, TV programmes etc. that they wish to find and buy, and (b) “explorers” who have a more general idea, perhaps only at the level of a style or genre, of what they want and whom in the “old days” liked to browse through items on display with their fingers. For consumers who do not have well established preferences and who even seek surprising discoveries the old format was simpler and easier to explore and probably less time-consuming compared with a computer application. A multimedia programme with a search engine may be less advantageous for them. In order not to lose those customers the store will have to devise more creative solutions, combining intelligent computer-based cues and guiding tools, physical displays even if more limited than before, and human advice.
Notwithstanding, there are types of music pieces and areas in which it should be sensible to offer physical copies on display. For instance stores can continue to offer films, live concerts, TV series by season, and games as ready-made products. In addition, areas like jazz and classical music should still deserve special rooms with most space allocated to displays of physical items to accommodate usually more conservative habits of amateurs of these types of music.
Consumers of entertainment of sorts, especially younger ones (say under 30), prefer to sit in front of the computer at the comfort of their homes, sometimes for hours, surf the network for various music and video pieces. They also like to download pieces onto portable devices such as MP3 players, smartphones and tablet computers. But they do not truly perform this activity all alone. Conspicuously as they sit on their own with the computer they often communicate with friends and relatives, consulting and change ideas or recommendations talking on the phone or chatting in social media communities.
So why not offer these consumers a more lively social way to interact with friends face-to-face in a store? For that purpose, special sitting sets for 2-4 people can be installed in special areas of the store (not to disturb other customers). At the set a small group of customers-friends can sit together, use each his or her multimedia application to explore and examine favourite pieces while from time to time conversing with each other on their findings. This setting offers people a more natural, direct and open way of socializing, and it has a good chance of producing richer shopping baskets.
These are two directions for developing a new model for music or entertainment media stores that I conceive as promising from a consumer perspective. More generally and beyond the proposed directions, stores will have to create benefits that enrich the whole experience of shoppers during their visit and that the Internet and personal electronic devices (i.e., for online sales and digital download) cannot in their capacity replace (e.g., contact with expert staff, events, sensual stimuli in the store’s scene). For stores’ owners and managers, the goal is clearly to convert shoppers into happy customers who enjoy returning frequently to the store(s).
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
“Branson sells Virgin Music Stores”, BBC News, 17 Sept., 2007
“Zavvi placed into administration”, BBC News, 24 Dec. 2008
“Tower Records victim of iPod era”, Associated Press at MSN Money, 10 Oct. 2006
“HMV prepares for split to stem rising debt“, Financial Times FT.com, 28 March 2011
“HMV in its third profit warning of this year”, The Guardian (online), 5 Apr. 2011