Music mogul Doug Putman is not one to ignore hard truths. Saving music chain HMV last year pushed him straight into tech giant Amazon’s path. Even then, he was well aware of the challenge he faced, just as he is now candid about the pandemic boost his arch-rival received.
“Look, the reality is – and this clearly hasn’t happened – but if Amazon and the world’s governments sat down and came up with a plan to give Amazon the best possible benefit, this would have been it,” he says. on the phone from his native Canada, where he has been with his wife and 20-month-old daughter since February, trapped by lockdown and quarantine restrictions.
Aside from the need to point out that world governments aren’t covertly plotting to crush the retail industry with a deadly pandemic – this is 2020, after all, and conspiracy theories are rife – Putman, 36, has succinctly summed up the cold reality of his current predicament.
Note: HMV chief Doug Putman says stores need time to prepare for reopening
Homebound families flock to online stores to buy everything from the comforts of home to the weekly grocery store. Just weeks before Christmas, normally a boom for HMV, Putman’s stores close next to most of its neighbors. They will open in England on December 3rd at the earliest.
Putman, who also owns Sunrise Records in Canada, says, “Almost every country has gone through lockdowns, so we’ve seen what the world looks like if it’s just Amazon and Tesco. It’s a boring, ugly place and it’s no fun. It’s pretty scary. ‘
He adds: “I practice what I preach. I personally don’t buy from Amazon. I buy clothes locally, I buy from my local bookseller in Canada – our equivalent of Waterstones. So, you know, we all have to do our part and that includes me.
I’ll be the first to tell you Amazon is useful. But in everything in life it just boils down to: if you get more convenience, do you sacrifice something and is it worth it?
‘It’s up to us to try to convince the customer: don’t go to Amazon, but to us. This Christmas will be a great test: have we convinced more people to go out and shop? Will people come when the lockdown ends? Fingers crossed.’
Putman is, for the most part, an optimist. He bought HMV from the administration in February last year with his eyes open: he saw an opportunity to renegotiate rents and keep the 99-year-old music store on the high street.
The project started well, says the self-proclaimed vinyl junkie, but the coronavirus threw the company into the unknown. “If you said a month ago, the government would close [shops] in November I would have told you, ‘There is no way; they know what this would do to the economy, to the people. And then they close. I could not believe it. I was just amazed. Baffled.
‘You could have closed in October and it wouldn’t have been a problem because it’s the same as January, March, April – it’s pretty flat. But in November we finally get this nice check. It’s one of those things where you think, “Gosh, could you have played this worse?”
He voices a very real fear among high street bosses, stressing: ‘The worst they can do now is of course in December. You would like to think there is no chance, but I think you are starting to see that politicians are just ordinary people.
‘They try to do their very best with the knowledge they have. I think they did a bad job. But they do what they can in their eyes. ‘
Many retailers have pointed out – mostly privately – that British pandemic advisory group Sage considers ‘non-essential retail’, which more or less any store that does not sell food and DIY, is ‘low risk’ when distributing the virus .
The contamination rate, they argue, remained low even as thousands of supermarkets remained open to serve armies of customers. Small stores are quieter, much easier to manage and control. So why the extreme lockdown at such a damaging time when infections are seemingly spread elsewhere?
Putman is clearly not happy with the situation: ‘It is difficult when you see shops that sell exactly the same stuff as a Waterstones or an HMV. The craziest thing is that all these big companies that are doing well are all getting the same incentives that we get – and I think that’s crazy, ” he adds, noting in particular the corporate rate holiday that gives supermarkets a £ 2 billion tax break. next to more needy chains. ‘It’s a tough pill to swallow. It’s frustrating for anyone trying to keep their stores alive, pay taxes, and do all these amazing things. ‘
But then his signature optimism comes through: ‘We’re getting through it. It’s not the best situation, but, you know, I think it could be a lot worse. ‘
Putman’s family operates approximately ’20 or 30 ‘businesses in Canada, the US and Great Britain. When he got home, he just took another punt, this time on the failed DavidsTea chain that he plans to rename T. Kettle and possibly even bring it to the UK (see box).
“A positive point for us is that, because we are used to buying companies facing adversity, we have the right mental space. There are always problems, but how do you make the most of them? Sometimes all the decisions before you are terrible. You just have to choose the least terrible. For us, the question is not whether we stay in business or not: we stay in business, but how do we get through it. ‘
Looking ahead, he says, “I want to keep every store open. I want to keep all these people working. When we bought HMV everyone told me you can’t keep more than 70 or 80 stores. That is the maximum. And of course we kept 115. It is always a job title of a landlord working with you. That’s not a threat – they also have to pay bills. But sometimes the deals just don’t add up. ‘
In the shadow of the pandemic, he says, “Look, there’s no right solution for this. The best result is: we have a vaccine that treats everyone and it goes out right away and everyone is happy. But I think we know this is going to take time.
‘It is a pity that shops will miss Black Friday [this week]. But you’d like to know this week if we’re looking at the December 3rd opening. It gives you time to prepare so that you can be sure that you are doing the right things. But what can I say? You had hoped to have a notice period of one week.
‘Let’s hope we get that notification, then nobody will panic. Because if it’s a choice between buying online or not having Christmas presents, we’re all going to end up buying online, right? It’s a simple fact. ‘
CANDIAN BOSS MAKES TEA SHOPPING PLAN
As if serial entrepreneur Doug Putman doesn’t have enough on his hands in his battle against Amazon, he’s now brewing plans to launch his brand new store T. Kettle here in the UK – the home of the cuppa.
He launched the Whittards-style company, which sells a huge range of loose leaf teas, in Canada three weeks ago after purchasing 70 outlets from struggling tea retailer DavidsTea.
Drinking to Success: Doug Putman bought 70 outlets from struggling tea retailer DavidsTea
Putman says, “It’s actually a store. So you have a hundred different flavors of loose tea, all accessories, that sort of thing. It would be interesting [to test the UK].
‘We talked about that the other day. We’re going to launch it here in Canada first – then we’ll take a look.
‘Of course it makes it easy to test where we already have a footprint. ‘You can open three or four stores, see if it resonates.
“And of course it’s not a bad time to start looking for space – rents are a bit cheaper than a few years ago.”
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