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Retailers Criticize HD Launch

15 Aug, 2006 By: Jessica Wolf

LOS ANGELES — A panel of high-end retailers took backers of the two high-definition disc formats to task Tuesday, Aug. 15, during a discussion at the annual DisplaySearch HDTV conference.

They are on the front lines of adoption, setting up elaborate floor displays in their stores, setting up educational seminars, trying to guide their early adopter consumer base through the early launch of both formats.

Most panelists called the initial rollout of both HD DVD and Blu-ray a “disappointment,” thanks to software glitches for Blu-ray especially, constrained hardware availability, and HDMI compatibility issues for 1080p technology.

Everything was too rushed, said David Workman, executive director of the retailer organization Pro Buying Group. “It was almost a race to string the tightest noose and, unfortunately, we are left as retailers to take consumers and guide them through this land mine and hopefully no one's feet will get blown off,” he said.

What's even more frustrating is that the introduction of high-definition discs could have been the easiest content introduction because it was building off the very beloved DVD format, he said.

“This whole high-def DVD launch is probably the worst execution of new technology,” he said.

The Blu-ray software coming out of the studios right now is “sub par,” and its not playing well in store displays of gorgeous 1080p sets, said Casey Crane, CEO of Ken Cranes's Audio Video, which operates nine stores in Southern California.

“What we are getting is not better than DVD, and is a far cry worse than what we were using to demo 1080p,” he said. It's not the players, he said, adding the picture quality from the players looks great with demo discs.

Jim Pearse, SVP of merchandising for Ultimate Electronics, a mid-sized chain operating throughout the Midwestern United States, and Bjorn Dybdahl, President of single-store Bjorns in San Antonio, Texas, agreed, noting that the quality, amount and kind of titles that are available now are hampering adoption of high-def discs in both formats.

Dybdahl said he was very disappointed at the quality of software he had to use for an in store seminar for 150 customers when the Samsung Blu-ray player came out.

“We opened up five titles and salespeople said, ‘we're going top demo this? What are we going to talk about for two hours?’ he said. “Luckily the Samsung person came in and had a beautiful demo disc we could use; otherwise the software was very disappointing it didn't look any better than a DVD.'

Bjorn said his store has spent the last year-and-a-half educating its customer base about the new formats and “our sales have not been where they should be.”

Still, the future for both is very strong, Casey said.

“But right now, the expectations are higher than what we are delivering,” he said.

High-definition discs will be more of a 2007 product as more manufacturers come in to the market, Pearse said.

The software issue is a quality-control one that came from the rush to market, Workman said. That should be rectified for future releases, he said, noting Buena Vista Home Entertainment's stunning Chicken Little and Chronicles of Narnia Blu-ray titles.

Things have been a little bit better at Amazon.com, said Noah Herschman, director of audio/video for Amazon.com.

“We're one of the largest DVD sellers in the world,” he said, “We've got people who really love movies saying we want to buy this.”

Amazon is format-agnostic and offers promotional deals like 10% off software titles with the purchase of one of the format players.

“It's actually been a pretty good introduction in terms of our presales,” he said.

Software quality issues are a temporary hiccup, said Jim Taylor, SVP of the advanced technology group for authoring house Sonic Solutions, which works with Blu-ray discs.

He and other backers from both formats spoke later in the day at the HDTV conference.

“The packaged media formats will be the ultimate utility for high definition,” he said. “They don't have the same constraints as cable or satellite providers when it comes to packing content into pipelines.”

In fact, two thirds of U.S. households with HDTV sets do not subscribe to any kind of high-def content service, or are not hooked in for over-the-air high-def viewing, he said.

There will be more than 200 HD DVD titles out by the end of the year to help draw the all-important early adopter, said Mark Knox, adviser to the Toshiba HD DVD promotion division for Toshiba America.

And, once users actually get into watching high-def content on their HDTV sets it becomes more and more addictive — they want more, and next-generation discs will provide that, he said.

“It's certainly as good and in many cases better than [high-def] content you get from other sources like cable or satellite.”

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