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Group Says Wal-Mart, Target Mandate New-Release DVD Purchase Limits

26 Jan, 2010 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Wal-Mart Stores and Target Corp. have apparently begun limiting quantity purchases of new-release DVD movies to five copies per title — a move that further underscores an emerging sellthrough window and could pose a serious challenge to rental kiosks.

The world’s largest retailer, and Target, which represent two of the largest retailers of new-release DVD and Blu-ray Disc movies for the studios, instituted the policy Jan. 26 in time for the weekly new releases, according to Ted Engen, president of the Video Buyers Group, which represents more than 1,000 video stores.

In contrast, Best Buy typically advertises a five-copy limit on new DVD releases in its weekly ad circular.

Although representatives from Wal-Mart and Target were not immediately available for comment, Engen said he confirmed the new policy in calls with the retailers and VBG members.

Wal-Mart has had a five-unit limit on new-release DVDs but left implementation of the purchase restrictions to individual stores and managers.

Eric Wold, analyst with Merriman Curhan Ford who covers Redbox and Netflix, said that in calls with Target and Wal-Mart stores, the retailers are implementing the restrictions from one-to-four weeks after street date.

Separately, Steve Turk, owner of Video Theater in Post Falls, Idaho, said he noticed for the first time a sign at Wal-Mart posted among Tuesday’s new releases highlighting quantity limits on DVDs.

“They have signs around the new releases (Surrogates, Saw VI, Whip It, Michael Jackson’s This Is It) stating this limit along with “No Dealers Please,’” Turk wrote in an e-mail. “Looks like they’re trying to lay the groundwork for a sales window.”

The quantity limits could put a serious damper on kiosk operator Redbox, which employs significant resources purchasing embargoed new releases from Warner Home Video, Universal Studios Home Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment from Wal-Mart, Target and other retail sources.

The studios last year imposed delays to kiosks on new-release content from 28 days and up, a move that triggered litigation from Redbox.

“Those retailers were a major source of the units they were getting for studios that are on workaround,” Engen said. “That [limit] is going to dry that up pretty dramatically.”

The Redbox relationship may not be as benficial to Wal-Mart as it has been in the past, said Pali Equity Research analyst Richard Greenfield.

“We believe Wal-Mart has facilitated Redbox’s work-around efforts over the past year mainly due to the return store traffic,” Greenfield said. “Initally, those benefits to Wal-Mart far outweighed the cannibalization Redbox was having on Wal-Mart’s retail DVD sales at the back of the store. However, as Redbox grew exponentially as a consumer brand and with consumers learning that they could rent from one Redbox in a Wal-Mart, but return to another location (where they do not even need to go into a store, such as a 7-Eleven with the Redbox sitting outside), cannibalization has grown and the return-trip benefit is slowing.”

Still, Wold said company-wide implementation by Target and Wal-Mart would just require more visits by the Redbox field-service staff to get the needed copies.

“By no means would this be a deal-killer or hurt Redbox,” he said.

A Redbox representative declined comment.

In addition the move appears to be another stone in the studios’ foundation of a sellthrough window ahead of rental. Warner earlier this month struck a deal with Netflix, whereby it gave the online DVD rental pioneer increased copy depth and catalog titles in exchange for delaying shipment of new releases for 28 days.

Engen said the limits return emphasis on traditional distribution channels, including revenue sharing, and allow the studios to better assess where their titles are going.

“How many units truly are being sold in the rental industry, and what are the real sellthrough numbers,” he said. “This is just another card by the studios to get vending and everybody else into that sellthrough window.”

Ralph Schackart, analyst with William Blair & Co. in Chicago who covers digital media, said the new restrictions underscore studios’ desire to retain control, ultimately through digital distribution, which he said does not have first-sale doctrine safeguards.

“If the studios continue to implement restrictive windows, it moves them closer to digital, [where the] economics are nearly 300% better [than physical rental],” Schackart said.

Engen said Redbox could still find increased copy depth availability at other retailers, including Sam’s Club, which Engen said typically charges more for movies than parent Wal-Mart.

In addition Wal-Mart earlier this month said it was closing 10 Sam’s Club locations across the country and cutting 1,500 workers.

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