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Shopping Centre Bloodbath

There’s an old Chinese curse that goes "may you live in interesting times".

I think those times are upon us.

Now, this is something I don’t really do very often - offer commentary or opinion on current events. In all honesty, I’m as apathetic about religion as I am about politics, as I am about sports. But the past few days have shown me something that I’ve never seen the like of before. There’s a massacre going on in shopping centres, malls and high streets and the casualties are mounting daily.

No, this isn’t some kind of zombie apocalypse scenario that I’m going to write up and hope to make into a film. It’s the economic apocalypse that’s wiping several familiar names from our retail landscapes here in the UK.

I’m still stunned that Woolworths died a miserable death just shy of it’s centenary. Our Manchester shopping trips were dealt a blow with the disappearance of old favourites like the Virgin Megastores and the Warner Brothers stores. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the collapse of Comet. Every major electrical appliance I’ve bought over the past couple of decades has come from Comet. Computer system - check. My big black slab of a TV - check. DVD? CD player, my land line phone on the desk? Check. I’m really going to miss that store. It was somewhere to hide whenever Mrs P went clothes shopping in Next because they were so close.

But the news that HMV is on the ropes is just stunning - and a game changer. HMV is a necessary stop whenever I’m in a city, be it Manchester, Cardiff, London, Liverpool or even Bangor. Due to my increased travelling with the day job, I’ve been a regular visitor in the Cardiff branch throughout the last year, and whenever I’ve been to ANY branch of HMV it’s always been busy, bustling with people. I’ve never seen a quiet HMV. Ever. Nine times out of ten there’s a queue of people waiting to pay for their goods, so they’re not ALL window shopping browsers checking stuff out in-store that they’ll buy cheaper online when they get home.

I’m crossing my fingers that somehow that familiar logo will remain a constant factor in my city visits. The staff were without fail helpful, knowledgeable and kind of passionate about their subject matter, be it films or music.

The news reports suggest they’re confident of finding a buyer, but if they don’t - I’m really going to miss browsing through their soundtrack CD section and spending chunks of days exploring the DVD racks, genre by genre, finding some hidden gems for my collection, often really obscure titles, or movies I’d seen decades ago and had forgotten or ones I didn’t even know had been released on DVD.

I’m going to miss a store that has an extensive back catalogue of older films to plough through. Yes, supermarkets sell DVDs and CDs cheaper, but they only have the top 40 or whatever - and they’re based exclusively on pre-orders (what they think you want to buy, and what they’ll push you to purchase) Ask yourself this - what’re the chances of finding a disc of Casablanca in Asda?

If they don’t survive, then people like myself will be wholly dependent on online retailers like Amazon, and I have mixed feelings about that. When I (and presumably others like me) look for a movie on Amazon, I’m looking for something specific - rarely does the happy accident of serendipity happen and I stumble across something that’s even cooler than what I was looking for in the first place. And I think that accounts for a lot of the video companies’ profits. Browsing and discovery rather than the targeted sale. I’m hoping that the music and DVD industry will help buoy up the ailing giant.

But what I find hard to swallow is that as of January 15, HMV (or their administrators) are refusing to honour gift vouchers despite having been selling them hand over fist before Christmas - and worse, selling them up to the close of play on January 14. Call it what you will, it’s legal apparently - but I still call it heartless theft if the company directors KNEW they were heading into administration at the time they were selling those vouchers.

How the hell do you go bust just after Christmas anyway? That’s another thing I don’t get. Surely, digital downloads and piracy, loathsome and intolerable as I find that to be, can’t fully account for its demise. (Piracy is NOT a victimless crime, any more than mugging - and if you buy a pirated movie, you get the queslity you pay for and good luck with THAT.)

As I was pondering that last question, I hear that Blockbuster is entering administration.

Now, much as I had heard rumours that HMV were in trouble, I had heard no rumblings about Blockbuster, but somehow I’m not surprised it too is going under.

I think that the days of "renting a video for the night" are pretty much over. Seriously, when was the last time you or anyone you know did that? I haven’t rented a movie since the early days of VHS. I prefer to own my stuff. Also, I learned pretty quickly that other people never take as much care with other people’s stuff as they do their own so back in the days of tape - you risked damage by chewed up cassettes, filth left by dirty video heads, water damage to the tape, gone unreported could all have a catastrophic effect on your expensive equipment (and it WAS expensive back then). I remember renting Fire & Ice, only to find that a previous renter had snapped the tape midway through the film and stuck it back together with Sellotape. That was the last straw.

I used Blockbuster (my nearest branch is 30 miles away) to buy their used ex-rental discs. Films I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay full price for.

Really - the cheapness of just buying a disc of the latest release aside, how could Blockbuster compete when companies will send you rental movies by mail and offer free delivery on a rolling system, or broadcasters like Sky have a Box Office service (like pay-per-view) where the latest DVD releases can be beamed direct to your home for a small fee? If anything, I’m more surprised that Blockbuster didn’t have THAT business model in place than I am that they’re facing potential ruin.

Of course, a major factor in both cases could be the resurgence of people seeing movies at a cinema. Long in decline, cinemas and multiplexes have become very popular. They’re certainly more expensive, but have the added advantage of gimmicks like 3D (say what you will - it IS a gimmick and nothing more) and the communal aspect of film being, as it should, a shared experience. However big your home screen, sometimes you can’t beat seeing a film BIG.

What’d YOU guys think? Leave your comments here.

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