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Friday, 18 January 2013

Service without a smile

I toyed with upping this as the subject matter for some could be considered a bit raw, but then as usual I've went for honesty rather than diplomacy.

The subject is of course the ongoing saga of the demise of HMV, and by extension the plight of the High Street store/chain.

I've been reading with interest all the news stories and the announcements that have been coming from the chains ivory towers, and while I accept that we have a changing economic landscape that has made it difficult for high street stores to compete with online retailers and supermarkets, and that downloading, both legal and illegal, have had an impact, I also can't help but think that there's one piece of the jigsaw that is being deliberately left from the picture.

That missing piece is that the customer service from the store was rather crap.

Someone that I know used to work for the company around twenty years ago, and he witnessed an introduction of a change in how they employed people.
Those with degrees and a college/university background were deemed to be the future, and the recruiting was aimed at bringing them into the fold.
My friend found himself in the position of training people with a degree in horticulture to get them up to speed so that they could be fast tracked into managerial positions.
Managerial positions that were now out of his reach as he no longer met the remit for making an application.
In the long term that led to the stores being staffed in the main by people who didn't have much of an affinity for what they were selling.
In time we lost the music mad kids who had snagged their dream job of working in a record store, and in their place we got the cool looking students who were virtually just shelf stackers.

Now that's not to have a dig at them individually. There's nothing wrong with stacking shelves, and a job is a job after all.

However with their introduction the chain between the music loving customer who was looking to engage with the music loving employee was broken.
Now some may well deny this, and then mention that they know someone who was a passionate music/film lover who worked their fingers to the bone for HMV, and of course there were people like that employed by the company, but only a minority really, and they were there more by chance than anything else.
The rest I am sure where hard working to, but working hard at other things rather than meeting the needs of their customers, and this where they fell down as a company.
They were no longer meeting the needs of the customer.

I've seen so many comments mentioning that this is the end of going in and browsing the racks and getting the thrill of finding that rare to get treasure, but honestly, when was the last time that happened in an HMV?
Part of the attraction of that was also about the interaction involved.
If you couldn't find what you were looking for, and asked someone working in the store about it, then you could have expected a recommendation for something similar of they didn't have it, but that knowledgeable service vanished twenty odd years ago along with most of the music loving staff.
HMV had become a faceless outlet that was akin to a fast food restaurant that only had what was uber popular on the menu.
It was bland and characterless.......and expensive.

I've personally asked for assistance in the Argyle Street HMV on more than one occasion. and found my queries about where something may be, or if they had it in stock, to be met with a shrug, a muttered dunno, or on one request for information I got nothing at all in return.
The person stacking the DVDs may have well been that deaf dumb and blind kid who plays a mean game of pinball, although they wouldn't know who that was.

It really was a heartless outlet that over the years has shed much of it's connection with the product they had on their shelves.
The bottom line is that once they failed to employ people with an affinity for the entertainment that was on offer it was all downhill for them.

I can't reiterate enough that this is not about the employees, but about decisions made in boardrooms.
Other high street stores may well do themselves a favour and think about how much attention they pay to customer service, as it is a fact that in this economic climate the difference between making a sale, or not, could be down to what sort of direct interaction that is provided as an alternative to the cheaper option of clicking on a button at home.

As an aside I should add that any criticism of the HMV store should not be carried over to FOPP who appear to have exactly the type of people that should be employed to sell music.
Passion and knowledge still wins over a funky haircut and low slung jeans accompanied by a diploma in political studies in there.
The HMV bosses should have acknowledged that earlier and acted on it.

In fact all the high street stores need to realize that going out to shop now is no longer a necessity, and therefore they need to promote the social aspect of it as a reason to actually do it.
They can't do that if they continue to employ people who can barely crack a smile and know next to nothing about the product they want us to buy off them.

….and now a little addition to support what I have just written.
I had passed on the rough draft of it to my friend Gavin Carroll, who worked for HMV (albeit over twenty years ago), and in reply he sent a wonderful message that highlights what we have lost when any record store closes.

With his permission here it is here.

'The change of employment policy was one of the first acts brought in after a head office management shake-up. Ironically one of the last acts by the previous (very long standing) management was a customer service drive!
HMV was the public's number 2 favourite high street retailer after M&S at that time - and was also the number 2 high street retailer to work for - in terms of pay, conditions, benefits, career opportunities and overall job satisfaction. HMV management ran a nationwide customer service push, to try and overtake M&S and succeeded! For a brief few weeks they were #1, but then changed management - drove out their knowledgeable staff, drove away their customers and eventually drove the business into the ground.
Shame - prior to 1991 it was a great place to work. I ran a vinyl section, which I was informed when we first opened the store, would be reduced in size to make room for more CDs as vinyl was being phased out. No chance, within 12 months I had increased the vinyl section x 4 times the size! But HMV allowed me to do that, because I knew what I was doing and was selling records in massive quantities. They took a risk on a teenager, because it was about the music.
I came to HMV with a decent music knowledge, but they taught me so much more. Our store manager would pop up out of random nooks and crannies and throw an obscure title or artist at you - if you didn't answer within a couple of seconds he would punch you (not hard or bullying - he was a nice guy). If you did answer correctly, he would then zone into more detail such as release dates and related artists and product. Get that right and you would have to recall from memory the catalogue number of the product. But fair play if you did exceptionally well, he would buy everyone a round on your behalf in the pub that night... yes we used to go for a drink after work together EVERY night!
They operated a great staff loan system - you could borrow any 3 items from the shop per night - in addition to the mountain of promo freebies we were given and expected to listen to for new release product knowledge. Again the store manager would randomly check our nightly staff loans and question us on our choices. If we knew too much about the 3 choices he would make us swap one of our items with another member of staff with different music tastes, and then have us discuss our thoughts on the album the next morning in the staff room before work. It was great opportunity though to discover new music outside of your comfort zone, without any expenditure ... way before the internet! I discovered a lot of music that way that I still listen to now!
Most of all though I learned from my customers.
If someone requested something that I wasn't stocking, I would get it in immediately for them. I would also ask them about related artists and releases and start stocking those. The customers would come back with their mates, proudly having an 'in' at the HMV store. Their mates would start requesting stuff too and I was more than happy to oblige. Lots of guys from indie bands would request their own albums, just to see them displayed on the shelves at HMV - but someone would always buy it, otherwise they knew it would never be re-ordered again and that made the band look bad.
It was great my vinyl section was ALWAYS busy, there were crowds of kids and everyone was really friendly and respectful to me, because they knew that I looked after them. There was a great A-Z pop/rock and a big Hip Hop section, Metal of various genres & sub genres!, Rock N Roll and Rockabilly Psychobilly sub genres, Indie/Alternative, Punk etc. But the really big one was the Reggae/Ska/rocksteady section - that just exploded! The store was quite close to Brixton so we had a lot of Dreads coming in, with various requests. Including Linton Kwesi Johnson, who pretty much curated that section with his choices! Jet Star was the big Jamaican music supplier at the time - they quickly picked up on how much product I was ordering from them through The Cartel ( I think they were distributing at that time?). So Jet Star started dealing to me directly - their van would pick up new release stock and back catalogue reissues direct from Jamaica at Heathrow airport every Tuesday. I was on their delivery route that morning - a big van packed full of tunes that none of the Jamaican community in the UK had heard yet. I would buy tonnes of it and it would be 80% sold the same day!
Anyhow - I've just realised how much I've been gassing on here. Sorry for the essay!! I wasn't telling you all that trying to brag - just highlighting how great HMV once was. How it used to be completely about the staff and how that management decision 22 years ago has had repercussions which have now finally brought it to it's knees.
It was quite amazing really to have got so caught up in those old memories - sorry if I bored you along the way.'

Now of course, as mentioned, this trip down memory lane from Gavin, is based on his experiences from just over two decades ago, and while it highlights that it took that long for the chain to go from number one to administration, it shouldn't be considered as the sole issue that has led to these dark days, as the reasons that HMV are also giving are just as valid.
However it is worthwhile considering all the angles, and this one, that indicates a move away from giving the customer what they wanted, is one that doesn't appear to be getting invited to the wake.

Here's what is left.
Love Music (Glasgow)
I would urge people to avail themselves of the professional customer service skills that Sandy and his team still have before we lose them to.

PS. Has anyone noticed that supermarkets are now selling second hand CD/DVDs/Games?
Where is it going to end?

and PPS. If anyone wants to add links to other record stores that are still operating then please feel free to do so in the comments section.


  1. In Edinburgh we've got the fantastic Elvis Shakespeare (, Avalanche, Hogs Head and Vinyl Villains.

  2. I though Avalanche had bitten the bullet?
    This was based on their own statement that they released saying that they would be closing in January.
    Good to hear that they are still hanging in there though.

  3. I forgot to mention Mono in Glasgow.

  4. Avalanche are still going. I think that was just a temporary thing.

  5. Hopefully some of the smaller independents will see an upturn in business as the HMVs close (if they do).
    Although it probably wont be much as most HMV customers will just go online.

  6. I enjoyed reading that, think it's more to do with expansion though rather than employing qualified youngsters. I remember going to Bruce's Record Store in Duke St where you'd often find the man himself. The place was small , intimate and you could ferret through the singles and albums without the piercing gaze of a begruntled security guy or camera. Way back in the late 70's the record shops were the hub where the punks and skins met, but now all the Emo's and Goth's choose a railway station! The atmosphere in HMV was a disgrace, it had lost touch with quite a bit of it's origins I think. It should have at least tried to embrace the subcultures and it did hee haw for the cities it grew in. HMV's problem was that it grew too big, those massive stores were ridiculous, with workers running around aimlessly looking for your stuff. The problem with the internet v real shopping is that if you want something you google it and there it is. People now want that in store, they can't be arsed looking, so these poor wee gopher employees literally hit the floor running, and at the end of the day, are too fucked to even listen to music let alone buy it!

  7. They could have had the best of both world.
    Big stores sectioned off into sub sections.
    Part of the issue is that they all want to streamline everything to the bone.
    You know I'm all for the worker Shaun, but I'm sorry. I never ever seen anyone in the last few years scurrying about in an HMV. More like pockets of two or three flicking their hair and giggling at an in joke at the end of the least busy aisle, and that was just the male staff.
    Totally agree that we live in a era where no one wants to browse expect online.
    The effort to spend a few hours looking through CD/Album racks is long gone.

  8. Your a fudd,mr fuck back again,sensible thing you said all day.but you refuse to promote my punk band! Why

  9. That you upsetting the punks again Mainy

  10. It would appear so Pete.
    I have them on a rota. The punks get their turn on a wednesday now.
    The New Romantics a Monday, Mods on a Tuesday, Rude boys on a Thursday, Glam rockers on a Friday and then I leave the weekend open for the indie kids.
    Monday is obviously a slow day though. There's not many New Romantics about.