HMV, Jessops, Blockbuster – victims of the wired world

HMV, Jessops, Blockbuster – victims of the wired world

HK Central Building HMV Group shop

HK Central Building HMV Group shop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

HMV is in administration, Jessops is closed, and, in the last few minutes, we hear the Blockbuster is going into administration as well. It sounds as if the bad old days at the start of the recession of the death of Woolworths and Zavi are back with us. In reality, these three are symptoms of the wired world.

Jessops was the first of the three victims. It had been troubled before: it avoided administration a couple of years ago through a debt for equity swap. I have to say that as a larger than average consumer of photographic supplies and equipment, I put my hand up here. My first digital SLR, a Nikon D100, was purchased from Jessops in 2001. My second, a Nikon D2X, also came from Jessops. When I moved on to the D3, though, Jessops didn’t have them, as they were only available through ‘professional’ suppliers to members of NPS — Nikon Professional Service. Having rung up Gray’s of Westminster to check availability, my camera arrived by courier 24 hours later.

It was the ability to get you any lens or any camera which was anywhere in Jessops in the UK which set the Leicester-founded company apart in the 1980s and 1990s. I once bought a second hand 35mm lens from Jessops. It turned out to be faulty, so I rang them up and they had delivered to my local store three second hand 35mm lenses for me to choose from as a replacement. When I bought my wife a Nikon D70, I wasn’t happy with the kit lens that they had in store, so they sourced the kit with the higher quality lens from Glasgow. It arrived within 24 hours.

Back in the day, this was a beyond-heroic level of customer service. eBay and Amazon, however, have led us to demand more. Now, if I want a second hand lens, I can not only choose the one I want, but also how much I’m prepared to pay for it. Buying on eBay can be a bit scary, but, then, there are people who would never buy a second hand lens at all.

If looking for new, Amazon will not only offer me one of the best prices on the market, but will also offer me a selection of dealers who will sell me the item for less. eBay’s returns policy may be a bit hard to navigate, but Amazon allow you to print off a single sheet of paper, stick it to the box, and hand it in at a local garage or post it, and the money is back with you in a few hours.

Jessops wasn’t a badly run shop by any means. Its staff were generally knowledgeable, loved cameras, were polite and did whatever they could to help. The trouble is, the goods they were selling were all branded goods available anywhere in the world. With the likes of DPReview to tell you whether a camera was any good or not, and to help you decide which particular Nikon you wanted, spending half an hour talking to the assistant was no longer as valuable as it once was. If you were still in doubt, Amazon’s own user reviews would help you make your mind up, usually with much more assurance than you would ever get by examining the goods yourself in store.

HMV was the next to topple. Starting with 78s, HMV successfully navigated every development in music reproduction until the iPod. 78s, LPs, reel-to-reel, 45s, the cassette, CD, the ill-fated DAT, and Laser Disc, not to mention Beta, VHS, DVD, HD video and Blu-Ray. All of these, of course, were physical media — but why buy the media when you can buy just the music?

Personally I still prefer CD to MP3. I like to listen to a whole album, and I like to be able to look at the sleeve notes. There’s no doubt, though, that if you’re out and you hear something you like, perhaps using Shazam to find out what it is, you can download it straight to your iPhone for less than a pound without even having to think about it. HMV had a great range, but if you wanted a little-loved track recorded in 2001 by a super-model, they almost certainly wouldn’t have it. Quite possibly iTunes wouldn’t have it either. The double whammy is that if it didn’t exist as MP3 at all, either Amazon or eBay would be able to broker it for you — all without getting up from the cafe table where you heard it.

Blockbuster must have come as no surprise to anyone who recognised the causes of Jessops and HMV’s demises. For a long time it made sense to rent DVDs from Blockbuster because it was more convenient than filling up your attic with films that you watched once and probably wouldn’t watch again even if they were on TV and you hadn’t got anything else to do that afternoon. Amazon’s experiment with Love Film was all very well where you mail the films back, but it’s still fairly awkward. Then the streamers began. Cable was the first. Virgin’s early selection of films to rent via cable wasn’t always amazing, but it was a lot more convenient on a Friday evening to leaf through their offering than to nip down to Blockbuster, plus you didn’t have to go back to return the film. Apple came along with films that Virgin didn’t have, and then Netflix with a convenient monthly subscription, with LoveFilm getting into the world of over-the-wire downloads through LoveFilm Instants. If you really wanted to own a film, you could still get it, but you would be more prone to get it from Amazon than chancing your arm with Blockbuster.

In a buoyant market, Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster might have survived a little longer, but only a little. Specialist photography shops like Calumet will continue to serve the very high end camera users who spend thousands of pounds every year on equipment, and where repair, rental and short-term loans are as much a part of the offer as stock and advice. HMV’s space on the High Street is more likely to remain empty for ever. It’s hard to add value through human contact when the physical object you sell is shrink wrapped, can be previewed online, and delivered instantly through 3G. As a rental shop, Blockbuster was already the tail end of a tradition which is now almost completely died out, as far as the consumer is concerned. When I was a child my parents rented their TV. We knew people who rented their furniture. The name RadioRentals harks back to a time when the good old valve wireless was an item too expensive to own. It is customer affluence — symptoms of a rising market — as much as anything which has killed the entire rental market.

It would be odious to try and predict the next High Street victim of the wired world, particularly when thousands of jobs are on the line. It would be a brave pundit, though, who argued that, with these three gone, the rot was stopped and the remains of the High Street was safe, even for a while.

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