HMV Closes

The HMV in my town closes its doors for good today. The retail shutdown has been coming for awhile, as predicted by other location closings in the west, and I’ve dropped by the store on Spring Garden a couple of times since the Nothing Held Back! Sale has been happening. And I think I’ve figured out one key reason why the business fell on hard times—beyond the two more obvious ones: the economy and online consumption of music, film and TV.

HMV (an acronym for “His Master’s Voice”) was the first record store I spent any real time in. When I was a teenager in the UK, I haunted the location on Oxford Street. I preferred it to Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus and Virgin Records at Oxford and Tottenham Court Road, simply because it was easier to find things. The prices were all roughly equivalent.

HMV Oxford Street some 30 years ago

It’s the UK version of HMV that’s gone bankrupt, and that’s a sad testament to the times. The retail operation, in one form or another, has been around almost as long as recorded music.

The Canadian version of the business, independent from the UK, is doing just fine, thanks very much, according to this “good news” Maclean’s article. Just not in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I suppose.

In the MacLean’s article, president and CEO of HMV Canada, Nick Williams, says in order to distinguish the business from online retailers and the juggernaut that is Wal-Mart, they’ve had to focus more on “specialty items.”

I don’t think I’ve ever quite understood what that means: specialty items. If it means a lot of useless merch, like The Dark Knight Rises packaged with a cookie jar, then why would I be interested? Why would anyone but a casual, non-specialty seeking gift-buyer be interested in a buying a DVD that comes with a cookie jar?

And that’s my point. In responding to these genuinely diabolical retail threats, HMV Canada has become much more generalized in what it offers, not more specialized.

Taking the store here as an example: It used to be all about music, CDs and some vinyl. Then, a few years ago, they started to give more space to electronic gear, headphones and the like. More t-shirts. Graphic novels. And a lot more DVDs and Blu-Rays, movies and box-set TV shows. Lots of different stuff, hoping to catch the interest of a broader range of consumers. It’s become a gift shop for people who like entertainment. It’s not about providing specialization, it’s about providing common-denominator options for people who don’t really know what they’re looking for when they go in the store.

A certain nostalgia for those teen record-store hauntings in central London, as well as a genuine appreciation for buying tactile, physical media—CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays—kept me dropping by HMV in Halifax. The bargain bins kept me checking, but if I found a gem it was rare. HMV just reminded me how much crap gets churned out every year in the entertainment industry, later to be sold off at “3 for $20”. The way they do it, it makes everything they sell feel like disposable widgets.

And those bins offering deals on Paul Blart: Mall Cop are opposite racks with items available only for a ridiculous mark-up.

Yesterday evening, the second last day of the store’s existence in this town, many catalogue DVDs and Blu-Rays were still only 10% off of their $29 or $34 price. Given what those same items are going for on Amazon, either new or used, 10% off is a bad joke.

HMV has been pricing itself out of the market for years. The expenses of running a national retail operation might have required that, but at no time did I feel the store was really doing much to capture my particular dollar.

I’m not a business person, but it doesn’t take one to see that the internet has changed things forever. I have sympathy for these operations, the large and the small. They can’t stay afloat appealing just to my particular interests.

But I think in their desperation, HMV might have missed its chance to engage the communities in which its stores are located, providing the personal experience people get when they go to Select Sounds, Taz Records or Obsolete Records, the other, independent media outlets in this city.

I’m sure those local guys are finding it tough, but they’re still open. They’re offering real “specialty items” and less crap. They’re thinking about what it takes to get more than the casual gift-buyer through their doors. I don’t get the impression HMV is thinking.

Even at its final breath, HMV’s Halifax store didn’t realize I was in there to spend money. This disconnect bodes ill for the brand’s future on this side of the pond.

HMV Spring Garden Road, January 25 2013

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.