The Ups and Downs of Retailing

On a lunchtime break down Oxford Street recently, the winners and losers in retailing were brought into sharp focus.

On one side of the street, the former HMV flagship store. I used to be a huge fan of the brand, having spent much time and money browsing the tantalising rows of CDs and videos combining the hottest artists on the planet with wonderfully obscure artistes from back when. If you were into music and film it really was the place to make impulse purchases, and over the years I gave my credit card regular workouts, adding to the audio and video collections that have given me endless pleasure for many years.

So how could such a dominant retailing icon have come to the brink of extinction? How could they have missed the online boat not just once, but twice? Even now, having been bought out of receivership, their website is not transactional, so I'm off to sites which stock a reasonable range and that deliver to my home a few days later. No surprise then, that the store closed and a pale imitation, with poor signage and lighting, and a fraction of the stock previously carried is just about hanging on near Bond Street.

The original site is now the flagship store of Sports Direct, one of the most successful money-making machines the high street (and the out of town locations) has ever seen. Interestingly, whilst the layout of the ground floor is a welcome departure from the cramped and crowded souk-style bazaar we've all learned to put up with, the other floors are sadly reminiscent of the standard Sports Direct décor. It's as if the designers have been instructed to tart up the visibility at ground level purely on the basis that once inside, the poor old punter can put up with the usual shabitat style.

Something of a welcome relief, then, to cross the road to the Marks & Spencer where it's much quieter, but there's a disappointing familiarity about the merchandise. Despite all the protestations and the glossy advertising featuring people we can all apparently relate to, the goods don't seem to change much any year. If results are the main criterion, Plan A doesn't seem to be resonating much with today's consumers. Whilst we can all attest to the need for sustainability, are we really engaged with it enough to buy the same sort of safe stuff every season?

So here's my formula for success for each of these British behemoth brands. Sports Direct needs to attract a new, more up-market, affluent audience by adopting M&S attitudes, décor and service ethics. This way, they will increase their margins, and we might get a marginally more enjoyable shopping experience.

Conversely (and I'm not talking trainers here) M&S could do with a bit of Mike Ashley-style entrepreneurialism and a dash of Philip Green product range flare to drag the clothing into the twenty-first century.

And HMV? Despite all its woes, it's still a great brand with the potential to become a major player in the wider field of audio and visual entertainment, but time is running out. By persisting with an offline-only retail sales strategy, they are condemning the business to an eventual grave. Let's hope they can turn it around before it's too late.

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