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Friday, January 11, 2013

How much is that doggie in the window? And what if there's no window?

HMV are cutting their prices today. They need to quickly raise cash to meet their banking covenants at the end of the month. It's not good when one of Britain's most prestigious retailers has to behave like the Trotter brothers running scared of Boycie. This is in the same week that Jessop's, the camera chain with almost 200 stores, goes into administration. This is very worrying for the people who work in these places. It's an urgent concern to suppliers who've extended credit to these outlets for the good of their own businesses.

In the long term it will also have a profound effect on the way the rest of us view products like cameras, CDs and CVDs, products which not long ago we might have called "luxuries", to use a term that seems to belong in an age when austerity was a permanent condition, not a temporary inconvenience.

We can now buy a tune without buying a record and take a picture by holding up our phone. For most people that's enough. Most people will go through life without ever feeling that they ought to have a boxed set of The Godfather, a copy of David Bowie's new LP on vinyl or an SLR camera in a nice leather case. The handful of people who still yearn for things like these will be able to buy them on the web. Once the rest of us are no longer walking past shop windows with glinting pyramids of metal and glass we'll no longer think much about cameras. We'll allow them to slip off the shopping list of our dreams. When there are no longer adverts on Channel 4 on a Friday night exhorting us to go and buy Beyonce's new record with a bonus DVD in HMV we'll slowly stop thinking of records as items that exist in physical space, as objects that have the power to quicken pulses and excite envy. That lust for objects has underpinned all consumer activity since the war and the first flickering of that lust always came by looking in a shop window.

I won't insult the intelligence of the professionals by pretending I know how to secure the future of retail businesses like HMV and Jessop's. I suspect that a lot of their problems come from being spread too thin but there's not much they can do about that. If I go to HMV in Oxford Street today I'll probably drop into the Apple Store at Oxford Circus. It'll no doubt be packed. I won't buy anything but I'll still call. It has that effect on people. Why? I suppose it's selling a product which has a rare lustre. It's not seeking to be comprehensive which makes it far less overwhelming than traditional megastores. And since Apple store aren't in every city, let alone on every corner, it's as exciting as a visit to the HMV Shop in Oxford Street used to be.

The busiest shop I went into in the week before Christmas was Daunt's bookshop in Marleybone High Street. This is always full. Its specialism is travel books but it stocks pretty much everything, without overfacing the customer, and appears to know precisely what sells to the well-heeled clientele who live or work nearby. There's no obvious discounting and the place feels more like a church than a souk. I never go in there without buying something. It's usually something I could have bought for less money somewhere else. It just has that effect on me.

I'm sure there will be shops in the future but there probably won't be so many of them. There will be a handful of places that are congenial destinations and they'll be sought out by a self-selecting group of shoppers. How chains like HMV and Jessop's find a place in that future I don't exactly know. Again I'm reminded of the old story about the countryman being asked for directions by a smart young couple in a sports car. "Well," he said, "I wouldn't start from here."