The Sad State of Media Retailers

April 22, 2012 by  

I was just shopping at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Palm Beach Gardens over the weekend and was more shocked than usual with their periodic rearrangement of the store, which I think is only done to force shoppers into areas of the store they might not normally wander through in search of their preferred book sections. What shocked me so much was the CD and Video section, which had been almost cut in half. When I stepped into that section, the first thing I noticed was the complete lack of music CDs, other than a very small wall display of Top Ten merchandise. That was it. Apparently, Barnes & Noble is out of the in-store music retailing business, or at the very least, they’re testing the concept before rolling it out across the country.

When I was through, I drove across the street to the Gardens Mall to make a visit to the Apple Store. An additional shock was waiting for me in the absence of the FYE CD and Video store. Apparently, it closed a few months ago and there’s already someone else in that space (update–the FYE store at the Town Center Mall in Boca Raton recently suffered a similar fate–dunno about the Wellington Green Mall store as I haven’t been there in a few weeks). What this means is that folks in Palm Beach Gardens have lost their last major outlet for retail music. With Blockbuster Video in its own death throes, it won’t be long before walk-in video rental stores will go the way of vacuum tubes, tailfins on cars, and customer service.

What the heck is going on? Well, it seems pretty clear that retail media stores are another victim of the Internet, changing tastes, and other entrepreneurial innovations.

Anyone who owns a portable media player, such as an iPod, is likely well aware of the rich selection of content at locations like the iTunes Store, Amazon on Demand, etc. These are terrific sources for popular content (for obscure jazz, not so much…). Who needs to get in their car and drive to a mall or shopping center to locate the latest Lady Gaga CD (heaven forbid!)? Nope, just buy the tracks you want from one of the online services and you can have them right this very second (unless you are a fan of obscure jazz, as I am). I guess I’m showing my age, but I don’t buy Top 40 stuff. I love going to a CD or video retailer to thumb through the merchandise to be inspired. I like to call it the thrill of the hunt. If the CD retailer, like the late, lamented Tower, Virgin Megastore, etc., carries a large inventory, it helps me discover new artists, or new releases by existing artists. Maybe my favorite guitar player is a sideman with another group. I might never know that when searching online. I am a member of eMusic.com and download many wonderful things, but I’m sure I’m missing out on many more interesting titles that I would be happy to pay for, because they don’t usually list the sidemen, so I’m shopping blind. For old fart jazz fans like me, there are now only two reliable sources of jazz music at retail: J&R Music World in New York City, and Jazz Record Mart in Chicago. I was recently in Chicago for a quick weekend getaway, and spent several hours (and several hundred dollars) at Jazz Record Mart—I was in heaven. But I digress…

Online services like NetFlix have just about killed Blockbuster and its competitors. They’ve done this in a couple of ways. First, as above, people are willing to wait for their movies to avoid going back out after they’ve gotten home from work, so the mail-order concept works great. Now, they’ve added a download on demand element for those who just can’t wait for their movies to come in the mail, yet don’t want to hop in the car to drive to a local movie rental store. Satellite media providers like DirecTV are offering pay-per-view services on titles released the same day on DVD/Blu-Ray Disc media.

For those who are willing to leave their home, enter the movie kiosk. Found at grocery stores and other high-traffic retailers, you can get titles for as little as a dollar a night. How can Blockbuster survive against this kind of competition?

The music and movie retail industry continues to reel from the constant change they have been experiencing since the late 90s. First, it was the bit torrent explosion, which was tamed to a great extent with the advent of the iTunes Store and its competitors. Today’s music buyer doesn’t want to buy albums. They want to buy only the songs they want to listen to, and the music industry, working from a 100-year business model, is still trying to get their arms around this new way of doing things. It seems pretty clear that today’s retailer could care less about how I shop for jazz recordings—not when they can set up online stores and sell the latest Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana MP3 files without the need for costly real estate, troublesome clerks, and holding inventory that may or may not sell (my beloved jazz is mostly in that second category). Basically, just turn on the server and watch the money roll in.

It’s a brave new world out there, which has left the traditional music and movie buyer in the dust, as the retailers and music industry chases after the well-heeled tech-savvy customers who are the future of their business. Just another reason why it sucks getting old(er).

This article originally appeared in October, 2010 on the Palm Beach Business website.