The Choice Is Yours…

Wednesday, April 4 2012
The Choice Is Yours…

It was once one of our industry’s biggest retail brands and now, sadly, the Choices name is set to disappear forever.

Here former Choices UK staffer David Jones reminisces about the company, its foibles and its strengths…

The news that Webb Ivory has gone in to administration has prompted your esteemed editor to ask me to pen a few words on the old Choices UK group. Although I’d worked in the video industry from day one, having fond memories of, among others, selling the Charles and Diana wedding video to the major catalogue companies (if my memory serves me well, it was released on BBC Video and sold in by Pye Records – can it really be 31 years ago?

I didn’t join Choices UK, or Home Entertainment Corporation (HEC) as it was then known, until April 2000, following Carlton’s decision to close down my then employer, Direct Home Entertainment (DHE).

Truth be told, at the time, I didn’t know a great deal about HEC. After joining them, I began to understand what “under the radar” really meant. Without a doubt, HEC was a very major player in the video industry. At its peak, it had 230 stores, serviced something like 3,000 convenience stores, had approx.18 per cent of the video rental market, employed 2,500 people and had a turnover in excess of £160 million. As I said, a major player indeed.

It was formed in 1985, as Video Box Office, supplying video rental titles to third party convenience stores. It opened its first store in 1986, adding a mail order division in 1991. In 2006, this mail order division alone generated £55 million in turnover, helped greatly by games and games console sales. It floated on the AIM market in 2001.

I guess things started to go wrong in, I think it was, 2006, when it experienced something of an annus horribilis, from which it never really recovered. The rental market was starting to decline, which affected the performance of the stores. The stores were the real cash cow of the group. At the same time, the ill-fated decision was taken to start a TV home shopping channel and a new computer system was installed. As anyone will tell you, when investing in a new computer system, two things are certain to happen, it will be late and it will be over budget. In this case, it was very late and it was considerably over budget. I remember being told that in any normal year, when the stores were performing well, the group could have absorbed one of the TV channel or computer system problems. However, the stores weren’t performing well. It was pretty much downhill from there. Around about this time, the company started a LOVEFiLM type operation but that also haemorrhaged cash, which I think was the norm, until you reach something like 100,000 subscribers. Unfortunately, the group didn’t have the cash and ended up selling this nascent business to LOVEFiLM and distributing the DVDs for them. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but had we been able to see this part of the business achieve profitability, who knows…

When it went in to administration, in August 2007, it still had something like 170 stores and employed 1700 people, 400 at the head office in Peterborough.

The above just gives you the numbers, it doesn’t tell you what HEC was like to work for. As I mentioned at the start, I didn’t join them until April 2000 but I can honestly say that I loved working there. Indeed, I wished I’d joined them earlier. I may not have enjoyed six years of the daily 164 mile drive I had to make, from my home to the office and back again but I genuinely enjoyed working there.

In many ways, it was a strangely old-fashioned place to work. The men were expected to wear ties, which I never had a problem with, although some did. Indeed, I well remember going to a meeting at the BBC with a colleague. Coincidentally, we bumped in to our md in reception. My colleague was not wearing a tie. The next day, back in the office, I had a call from the md, telling me in no uncertain terms that when visiting suppliers, we were representing the company and, as such, in the future, I was to make sure my colleague wore a tie. I also remember, shortly after joining, the md (it was another MD) ringing another colleague, who was responsible for the warehouse and systems side of the mail order division, asking him if he was really sure he wanted the six sellotape dispensers he’d ordered from stationery. I’ve heard of micro-managing but blimey that seemed a bit extreme. Bearing in mind, this self same mail order division had cost the company nothing to acquire and generated around £10 million turnover in the first eight months. This self same md also queried the number of biros my colleague ordered. I also remember from the first Christmas, because mail order demand had gone through the roof, every member of staff was expected to do his or her share of packing in the warehouse, including the chairman and directors.  

On the flip side, this was an organisation with over 2,000 employees and I swear the chairman and board of directors knew the Christian names of all of them. However, woe betide anyone who addressed the redoubtable founder and chairman Mr Muspratt as anything other than MISTER Muspratt. Addressing him by his first name (Iain) was absolutely verboten. Another quirky thing that amused me at the time was at Christmas every member of the Peterborough staff were told to convene in the warehouse and the chairman and directors handed out Christmas presents to EVERY member of staff. The above stories may make you think I’ve mistaken 2005 for 1955 but, to be honest, I didn’t mind it one bit. Much of it made me smile but I didn’t really mind these quirks.

Although I had semi-retired at the time, I was desperately sad when Choices went in to administration. There were hundreds of bloody good people working there who lost there jobs through no fault of there own. Still, isn’t it ever thus? Although, from choice, I only worked part time for Webb Ivory for a couple of years, I was again sad to hear that just under 60 people had lost their jobs when they went in to administration recently. In the two years I worked for them, I grew particularly fond of the marketing team in mail order and also the design team who put the brochures together.

Disclaimer time : The above is a totally personal view and my memory being what it is now, I may have got some of it wrong but hey ho, it’s my piece and I’ll write what I want.

Tags: , ,