A welcome return for HMV… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes checks out the newly opened hmv shop on London’s Oxford Street, combining market research with nostalgia.

As some of you may know I host London sightseeing walks from time to time – these combine my love of history and London. It also allows me to re-trace my footsteps from my childhood and share my London memories with others.

One of those memories which isn’t part of my walking tour portfolio at the moment was visiting the HMV shop on Oxford Street. In the 1980s the HMV store located at 363 Oxford Street was a ‘go to’ destination for me. It was a 15 minute bus ride away from my flat and as a music fan it was a place I spent a lot of time in. And spent a lot of money in. It was the place I would head to when I wanted to buy new records on the day of release or to supplement my record collection with back catalogue classics. For the younger readers, records are what we call vinyl now. I still have most of my record collection and it provides a vivid reminder of the HMV store.

LL1For London history lovers the 363 Oxford Street store was the very first HMV shop and opened in 1921. It was opened by composer Edward Elgar and rapidly became a core part of the Oxford Street retail estate. Over the years it flourished but had periods of being closed and, indeed, it was shut in 2019 when current HMV owner Doug Putman saved HMV from bankruptcy. Putman had to restructure the firm which included shutting some stores including Oxford Street. Since then the site has either been empty or operated as an American Candy Shop. Its absence was certainly a loss for Oxford Street.

For me and many others it was great to see the shop re-open as The HMV Shop on Black Friday. Under Putman’s control HMV is on a roll creating a successful retail formula that blends pop culture, music, experiential shopping and competitive pricing. There are 120 HMV stores in the UK now. It has also moved into Europe opening a store in Antwerp recently.

The Oxford Street store was often described as ‘iconic’ and it makes sense that the ‘new’ HMV would want to re-open the site. It is part of London’s history and has played a pivotal role in the music scene over the years. Being back in Oxford Street gives HMV a focal point and creates a destination store for a new generation. Given HMV’s current success and the breadth of its retail estate the HMV Shop in Oxford Street will also benefit from the acquired experience gained from the other shops in regards to products, suppliers and themes.

LL2I popped into the shop last week to take a look and bring back some memories. Although the tour guide in me stopped outside the shop before going in to admire the blue plaque affixed to the shop – it bills the shop as ‘The World’s Most Famous Music Store’. The plaque was unveiled in April 2000 by Sir George Martin and tells the story of The Beatles cutting a 78rpm disc in the shop’s recording studio which led to them getting a recording contract. This really reinforces the history and credentials of the site.

Music is not unexpectedly a theme that runs through the store today. One of the first product collections I saw was a range of music themed t-shirts featuring bands like the Sex Pistols. The store also has a performance area billed as Live & Local which will be a showcase for bands and performers. This also plays to the point that this shop and the others in HMV’s estate have recognised that shopping in a physical store has to be an ‘experience’ for consumers and the shop is presented with this in mind. It is well presented, feels spacious and is easy to shop as there is clear signage highlighting the different themes within store. I visited on a Friday afternoon and the shop was busy, but it was still easy to move around and browse the shelves.

The store is set over a number of floors with the top floor majoring on vinyl, CDs and other related items like record players. I have read elsewhere that it will carry over 7,000 vinyl albums. This is a significant commitment but also reflects the importance contribution vinyl has made to HMV’s success. The albums are arranged to encourage browsing – music fans love searching and finding the records they want and HMV have recognised this. It is details like this that enhance the shopping experience. Seemingly HMV is happy to see customers look before they buy and overall I suspect that consumers are likely to trade up on a store visit as they shop.

LL3The shop is also set up to be fun and engaging – a key part of this is display. For example a plush range is sited under a sign reading ‘You Make Me Plush’.

I think HMV has also recognised that consumers are also micro influencers these days – fun signage like this becomes shareable content and I can imagine a lot of people who visit the HMV Shop talk about their visit on their socials. I know I did!

LL4There is also a real commitment to key categories like plush with substantial space given over to the category. There is a confidence that good product displayed well will sell. For example there is a wall of Kenji plush which is supported by an illuminated panel of character art. The plush itself is bright and colourful, creating strong visual impact. On my visit the fixture was also tidy and well kept – another small detail but I think HMV has recognised display sells and staff make an effort to keep things presentable.

I also suspect HMV works hard with suppliers to curate space like this and keep stock levels high. This requires a good working partnership, but also access to suppliers which know their category well and also ones with a good handle on pop culture. Beyond music, pop culture is the cornerstone of HMV’s offer. It has a well informed buying team, but the team also recognises the value of building up a rapport with suppliers. HMV also recognises the positive role licensing can play in the business.

LL5It was interesting to see categories like personal care and toiletries featuring in-store.

Supplier Mad Beauty was featured with gift orientated products using licences like Friends, Minnie Mouse and The Nightmare Before Christmas. These gift sets are probably in-store as a nod to the Christmas season, but also reflect the fact that licensing programmes now embrace a variety of products and HMV is alive to this.

I think retailers in general terms are being more flexible in their approach to product and more open to try new categories in-store, recognising that consumers shop in different ways. Indeed at HMV, as noted earlier, browsing is welcome and products like Mad Beauty’s are perfect pick up items for browsers.

LL8It was also good to see a variety of licences and genres supported in-store. From my own perspective, it was good to see Wallace & Gromit on shelf with a number of products from Half Moon Bay’s gifting range on sale. These included 3D mugs and water bottles. This is a good example of how licensees like Half Moon Bay have recognised that it is worthwhile trading up product specs, recognising fans are seeking out more authentic products and ones that enhance their fan experience. It was also good to see HMV adding in artists like Steven Rhodes into the product offering. I suspect part of the appeal that HMV holds to consumers is its eclectic mix of brands, but brands that have been well chosen to reflect current trends. Pop culture fans are rather like record collectors and are fans of the art of browsing. Discovering new brands and products is part of the shopping experience.

As noted earlier, HMV has built up good relationships with suppliers and in some cases taken this cooperation further by curating branded areas. For example, there is a TruffleShuffle collection in-store at the moment primarily focused on Christmas jumpers. Featured brands include The Goonies and The Simpsons. Similarly card company Hype is featured with a branded spinner. Hype has a good eye for licensing with a portfolio of pop culture classics that includes Hello Kitty, Pusheen and Snoopy. There was also a well stocked collection of calendars in-store which included a number of licensed products sourced from genres such as music, gaming and animation.

LL6Other genres and categories that HMV is highlighting include anime, gaming and graphic novels. It was also good to see a solid commitment to board games in-store – this is a category that fits in well there, but is also one that offers potential for licensing. Licensed products that featured in the category included a Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Super Mario Monopoly special editions.

It was also good to see HMV looking to tap into successful categories like gaming in new ways – it was selling arcade style gaming machines featuring Pac-Man, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Very good display items, but also ones that work well for superfans looking for something special. The large format store also allows HMV to include larger items like these. Similarly it sells a range of licensed lighting products including the likes of PlayStation, Minecraft and Pac-Man. Bigger boxes with higher margins, but also items that make a positive contribution to the overall aesthetic of the shop.

LL7Unsurprisingly there is also an ongoing commitment to leading pop culture brands like Funko – there is a dedicated space for Funko coupled with a commitment to surprise and mystery boxes; these are items that appeal to fans and give fans a reason to visit a store again.

Given its location I think the customer mix also includes visitors to London including overseas tourists and the product mix includes ranges and brands that have an international appeal. This is where heritage bands like The Beatles play a strong role. There is also further scope for HMV to dial this up with special edition product that calls out the location.

Overall it was a really positive shopping experience for me combining market research with nostalgia. It has also given me a new idea for a walking route and theme for 2024: London & Licensing… bookings opening soon.

Well done to HMV on the shop opening – it looks like a successful return to Oxford Street and a welcome fresh addition to the street.

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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