Miles of aisles

Its biggest rival is rebranding, and sales of its core products are in steady decline. Can a new store format revive the fortunes of HMV? Clare Dowdy
braves a Black Country shopping centre to find out

Its biggest rival is rebranding, and sales of its core products are in steady decline. Can a new store format revive the fortunes of HMV? Clare Dowdy braves a Black Country shopping centre to find out

What is it about shopping centres that makes them so bad for morale? A September Monday morning spent at Dudley’s incongruously named Merry Hill suggests that the nation spends its time listlessly traipsing around these oh-so familiar environments, with their wrist-slittingly predictable range of outlets. Two-storey Merry Hill boasts three McDonald’s outlets, three Carphone Warehouses, and a brace each of Claire’s Accessories, Millie’s Cookies and Clinton Cards. Surely such a mix would underwhelm even the most hardened mass-market consumer.

So, when a retailer trials a new store concept in a location like Merry Hill, shoppers’ hearts must soar. And HMV’s new look is certainly a breath of fresh air – and a far cry from the dreary Virgin Megastore downstairs.

It’s no secret that dedicated music retailers are suffering more than most. In June, Mintel’s Pre-Recorded Music report estimated a 14 per cent fall in sales between 2002 and 2007, driven by digital downloads and supermarket price-cutting.

The 250-strong HMV chain isn’t the only brand to recognise that it’s got to increase its appeal to high street shoppers. Earlier this year, Virgin Megastores launched a new concept in Manchester’s Arndale centre courtesy of Checkland Kindleysides, intending to roll it out across its 127-strong chain.

That plan has been scuppered (more’s the pity for CK) as Virgin Megastores’ management buyout team plans to transform the chain into Zavvi, using Caulder Moore.

The Merry Hill Virgin Megastore’s interiors would certainly benefit from the facelift. Its layout is more akin to a supermarket than a music store, and its exposed ceiling is intestine-purple. Upstairs at HMV, things are so much cleaner, brighter and more enticing. The new look was created on the back of Venturethree’s branding work, which pivots on its ‘Get closer’ slogan. The interiors are by Dalziel & Pow, which, interestingly, made it to the last three (along with JHP) on the original Megastores job, according to Virgin Megastores’ then head of design and display, Cathy Kebbeh. The 743m2 HMV is all brushed concrete flooring, shiny white merchandising units, back-lit signs and zoning. The chain has done away with poster-filled windows (so last century) in favour of a 5m by 3m plasma screen running the latest promotions, trailers and ads from the world of music, film and games.

HMV store manager Stuart Smith says the previous layout ‘was cluttered and the ceilings were very low’. Now, the doorway is wider, the ceiling is white, and the walls are lacquered in black to give the impression of depth. A particularly pleasing graphic feature is the cinema-style signage dotted around.

Zoned delights include the Games corner with its black, plastic brick-clad wall and exposed ceiling for that industrial feel; and the Childrens (sic) section, which has low cork stools rammed up against a plasma screen showing the inevitable Disney product. This is drowned out, however, by the pop music coming from the main area (Pulp on that Monday morning).

But, despite the Xbox Live, the LoveJuice franchise, the social hub complete with Apple iMacs, the ‘cool stuff’ gadgets wall, the Games and the kids’ sections, a few CDs remain.

It’s old hat, of course, to just think about music. These places bill themselves as entertainment destinations, and dwell time is key to their success. As Mintel says, these shops ‘also increasingly see themselves as being in the “entertainment” market, with DVD sales eclipsing those of CDs’.

‘The aim is to encourage more people to visit in the first place, including younger customers, and then for them to spend more time while they’re there,’ says an HMV spokesman. The company doesn’t have dwell time targets as such, ‘but it follows that if you attract new or lapsed customers, who may not have otherwise been inclined to visit, or if they stay longer once there, they are more likely to make some purchases,’ he adds.

The new look may entice the shopping centre’s regulars to give HMV a whirl, but whether it could induce anyone in their right mind to make a special trip to Merry Hill is another matter.

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