Now that's what I call progress: Lessons lawyers should learn from HMV

My first LP was Rio by Duran Duran. At least, that’s what I like to tell people, conveniently overlooking the Bucks Fizz album I had bought a year earlier. Before then most, if not all, of the music I listened to was recorded onto cassette tapes from Sunday night’s Top 40 on Radio 1, complete with inane voiceovers and sudden pauses. To be honest, I can’t remember if I bought it in HMV, but I know I didn’t buy it on the internet because it barely existed.

This was a time when your first music purchase, any music purchase, was a memorable experience.  The excitement of taking the vinyl out of its sleeve and the static it created; blowing it gently to get rid of any fluff as you put it on the record player and lined up the needle; lying on your bed with the album sleeve following the lyrics; then having to get up half way through to turn it over.  All joys deprived today’s youth.

I guess they have other joys, like easy access to hundreds, if not thousands, more bands and artists than I could ever have imagined; cheap, even free music; helpful suggestions for music they might like from iTunes or Spotify; and, the only one I would really have liked, music on the go without having to take an extra bag to carry it all. 

That, of course, is progress.  I think it’s sad my daughter is unlikely to spend her Saturday mornings in the record store browsing, flicking through the album racks.  She probably won’t care less.

HMV, the 91-year-old music chain and the last one standing since the incursion of supermarkets, Amazon and downloads killed off Our Price, the Virgin Megastore and Tower Records, has called in the administrators.  It may or may not be saved, but this is immaterial in determining whether or not the music market has changed:  it has, quite obviously, become unrecognisable from the one I knew in the early 1980s.

If you’d asked me back then if I thought this was a good idea, if you’d asked anyone if they thought it was a good idea, most would have said no.  Change is difficult, even if it’s good change.  Despite the emotive memories of vinyl, bit by bit I have become someone who downloads most of her music and no longer owns a record player (although I still have some LPs and singles stashed under the bed). 

That’s the way of progress, rarely does it explode on unsuspecting bystanders, creating a massive shift in behaviour overnight.  Rather, it creeps up on you, catching  you unawares, until suddenly you find yourself in a totally different country without ever realising you were leaving the last one.

And so it is and will be in the legal market.  Music retail and legal services may not appear to have a great deal in common, apart from one very crucial aspect:  the consumer.  Yes, if you do sophisticated market segmentation they may appear quite different, but today’s spotty teen downloading 50 tracks a day is tomorrow’s personal injury claimant, divorcee or, if they’re very lucky, homebuyer.

Unless they are an aficionado, or are looking for something particularly specialist, this next generation of consumers will want to purchase and probably browse online and they will expect a competitive (not necessarily cheap) price.  They will have thousands of options at their fingertips so will be able to choose the product or service that’s right for them, because it’s the cheapest, the best, the most flexible, the most reliable or the most efficient or, ideally, all of these.

This is where high-street legal practices need to pay attention.  In the first place, longevity is no guarantor of success.  HMV was about as old as you get on the high street, but that didn’t protect it.  Jessops, the specialist camera retailer, had been around for 80 years and Comet for over 70 when they closed their doors for the last time.

Secondly, you can’t compete on price.  HMV tried it and ended up with stores nobody wanted to visit and products people could buy cheaper online. High-street firms will be undercut left, right and centre by banks and retailers who can, even though lawyers may not like the analogy, pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap.

Thirdly, being an expert is no longer enough or even a requirement.  Jessops found that consumers came to them for their specialist knowledge, but then bought the same products cheaper online.  But even this is an anachronistic model: more and more information is now accessed via the web, particularly by younger people who regard the internet as the natural place to find the expertise they need as well as the products and services they want to buy.

More to the point, more than 95 per cent of the British public has direct or indirect access to the internet, but only a minority can afford a lawyer, an ever-shrinking minority thanks to legal aid cuts. Against this, your attachment to the traditional way of doing things will count for little

It’s ok to be nostalgic about the old days, although were they really that great?  I miss my record player and browsing through the record store, but I listen to a far wider range of, arguably, much better music than I used to and I don’t have any storage issues. 

A few people probably will miss the opportunity to shake hands and exchange small talk with their solicitor (even if they’re being charged for it) but more people will have access to the law than ever before.  That’s real progress, and it can only be a good thing.   

Posted in: Consumer rights

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