Belfast Telegraph

Black Thursday gives music chain the blues

Yesterday was Black Tuesday for the HMV Group, when the books to CDs to 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 offloading 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 leaves 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 music business.

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 arguably, an entertainment store like HMV does not.

HMV might decide to emulate the personal feel which Waterstone's strives to create through handwritten staff recommendations 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 went up by only 18.2m to 21m.

Yet popular artists endure. Take That's Progress was the biggest-selling album of the year, and shifted 1.8m copies. Such sales should comfort HMV, though they are unlikely to take the pain away completely.