Blogs & Comment

Why big chains like HMV are losing to the little guys

Big-box chains beat out independent stores by undercutting them on price—but with the best deals now online, they have less to offer.


(Photo: Loudrocksurfer/Wikimedia)

A few months back, a revelation hit me while I was hanging out on Queen Street West, one of Toronto’s trendy shopping districts. On this particular walk, I had popped into the Silver Snail and HMV, both purveyors of pop culture that sit across the street from each other. The Silver Snail, a storied and independent comic book shop on the strip, was packed with customers while HMV was not. If tumbleweeds could exist in downtown Toronto, they would have been blowing through that store.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Visiting the two stores has long been one of my official time wasters. While I was working at the nearby CBC building, I’d spend many hours perusing stuff in both during my lunch hours and on the way home in the evening. Just about every time, it was the same thing: a bustling ‘Snail, an empty HMV (which ironically employs a security guard).

I’ve been going to the ‘Snail to buy comic books since I was just a Young Avenger. Not only do I credit comic books with improving my reading comprehension skills (having pictures explain the words is a great educational trick), they also made me into what I consider to be a fairly decent driver.

As a kid, I’d hone my bike-riding skills by darting through downtown traffic on the way to the ‘Snail and then back again to my home, a half hour away in Parkdale. My mother would probably have been mortified to learn that I was doing this on Saturday afternoons—she probably figured I got my comics from the corner store—but I’ll be damned if I didn’t learn how to read cars and traffic lights at an early age, a skill that has paid dividends ever since I got behind the wheel.

Over the years, the Silver Snail made an interesting transition. Throughout the ’80s, it devoted more and more floor space to Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. Into the ’90s, it started stocking large numbers of card games, such as Magic: The Gathering. During those years, and especially the past decade or so, the store has been veritably overrun with toys and collectibles. Comics were slowly but surely ghetto-ized into the back of the store.

About 10 years ago, I interviewed comics legend Todd McFarlane, who commented on this trend. He applauded comic book stores like the ‘Snail that had managed to transform themselves into successful pop culture repositories from dingy dens for nerdy fetishists. Not only were games, toys and collectibles higher-margin products to sell, they also appealed to a much larger—and more respectable—audience, he said.

That’s why today, the Silver Snail is almost always packed. With comic books now firmly ensconced as Hollywood’s go-to blockbuster source material, retailers that have made the transition are booming, or at least seem to be judging by the number of customers they’re serving.

Then there’s HMV. Pop culture retailers—those that sell music, books and movies—are going under faster than you can say iTunes, and HMV is no different. The finances of the British parent continue to free fall while the Canadian unit was sold last year for a measly $3.2 million to a restructuring firm. That’s a pittance for a nationwide chain with an established brand and 121 locations.

But the purchase price may actually have been overvalued, if my visits to that Queen Street West store was any indication. What did I do in all that time I spent there? I certainly didn’t buy anything. Indeed, HMV served more as a physical world catalog for things that I wanted to buy online. I’d go in and see what music and movies were new, and then look them up on Amazon or iTunes—where they were inevitably cheaper—and buy them. Then I’d walk out empty-handed, which I’m sure made the security guard suspicious.

There are doubtlessly a growing number of people like me—certainly the continually rising sales figures for digital music, movies and books is evidence of that.

The revelation, then, is that the Silver Snail is much better positioned for the future than HMV or a host of other pop culture purveyors—see Borders, Blockbuster and so on. The little independent store transitioned to non-digital physical goods a long time ago, which will insulate it as comic book sales inevitably go completely digital (no other medium lends itself as well to tablets as comic books).

The big chain, on the other hand, has been slow to do so. To be fair, HMV is trying. Walk into a store now and you’re as likely to see T-shirts, mugs and posters adorned with rock band logos up front, with the CDs and DVDs being pushed to the back. Still, it may be too little, too late.

I brought this up because of the news Wednesday that the Silver Snail has finally found a new location. With the store changing owners, the ‘Snail will be moving onto Yonge Street near Yonge and Dundas Square, another busy retail area in Toronto. The best part is that it’s moving into space that used to be occupied by HMV’s flagship store.

One business, unable to embrace the future, shrinks in size and gives way to a leaner, smarter one. It’s the way of the world, but it’s also almost poetic.

Aside from that, there is also a cultural shift going on. For much of the 20th century, cultural products—movies, music, books et al—were sold in small, independent stores by knowledgeable and invested staff. Over the past few decades, the sale of such goods migrated largely to big-box multinational chains, where employees couldn’t care less about answering customers’ questions or concerns.

Now, another migration is happening. Most culture is still being sold by multinationals, only online this time, but there is a bit of a mitigation if not a reversal of the previous trend. Smaller retailers such as the Silver Snail are regaining their relevance; they may not be able to compete with online sellers on price, but they can certainly provide better service, information and shopping experiences. In light of this, we may just see more small retailers sprout from the ashes of the big box chains.