Belfast Telegraph

Hmv and Waterstone's shops in Northern Ireland are likely to escape the cull announced after disastrous Christmas trading figures for its parent group, it has emerged.

YESTERDAY was Black Tuesday for the HMV Group, when the books to CDs entertainment giant reported almost a 13% fall in sales in the crucial five weeks to January 1.

Like pubs, the run-up to Christmas is crucial for an entertainment retailer like HMV. Like pubs, the cold and snowy weather has been ruinous to

HMV, and now the chain is set to shut 60 stores, including 20 Waterstone's - though it emphasised such a toll would encompass less than 10% of its overall estate. It also looks unlikely that the cull will reach Northern Ireland.

Waterstone's has been relatively robust, suffering just a 0.4% fall in sales, which underlies the unpredictable nature of the retail business. Who could have foreseen that books would be a hardier proposition than music and DVDs?

The possibility of HMV Group off-loading Waterstone's - perhaps to its founder, Tim Waterstone - and concentrating on rescuing HMV has been raised by analysts.

But radical surgery will still be necessary, even if Waterstone's does leave the HMV family.

While book stores face the challenge of the Kindle and digital downloads, there is no rampant trend of illegal book downloads in the way illegal music downloads have undermined the raison d'etre of the music business - to sell music.

And while online retailers like Amazon often sell at lower prices, particularly for second-hand books, a bookshop like Waterstone's will still retain some charm for shoppers in a way that arugably, an entertainment store like HMV does not.

If HMV subjects how it sells music in HMV to close scrutiny, it might decide to emulate the personal feel which Waterstone's strives to create through handwritten staff recommmendations and the stocking of books of local interest.

As if to confirm HMV's difficulties, the music industry organisation BPI yesterday said album sales fell by 7% in 2010.

In the past four years there's been a 22% fall in the number of music lovers prepared to shell out for a set of 10 tracks by their favourite artists. CD sales were down by 52.9m to 98.5m. Yet digital sales did not show a corresponding rise, and went up by only 18.2m to 21m.

Yet popular artists endure, even while musical format fashion changes. Take That's Progress was the biggest-selling album of the year, and shifted 1.8m copies.

Such big sales should comfort HMV, though they are unlikely to take the pain away completely.