Retail has little interest in the compact disc. If downloads were the nail, streaming is the hammer. Seeing a mass merchant’s CD section drives the point home, however.
Over the years I’ve seen the decline of the CD at a Target store near my home in Nashville. No matter what I am buying, I take a few minutes to walk to the CD section near the electronics in the back of the store. Books, DVDs, and CDs have a dedicated area. But while books and DVDs have ceded little space, CDs’ footprint has consistently dropped, about 50 percent in (I’d guess) the last two or three years.
Just eyeballing the racks (in the above photo) I’d estimate this Target store is carrying about 120 SKUs on the short, sparsely-populated shelf and a single end cap facing the aisle. Some spaces on the shelf are empty. Target stocks a few units of each title.
Few units of each title are on hand, a reflection of (a) weak demand and, I assume, (b) a just-in-time inventory system that allows Target to replace a sold unit quickly and, as a result, reduces the chances of running out of a title. Few SKUs are recent releases. Some are “greatest hits” collections. There are a few NOW That’s What I Call Music compilation of hit songs and a couple of Kidz Bop albums. Greatest hits compilations have been heavy in the product mix for years. I recall spending $5 for 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection CDs by The Supremes and The Four Tops. Why not? They’re $5 each.
What’s interesting here is the cause and effect. CD sales have not fallen as a direct result of shrinking shelf space. Over the years I’ve been told (by labels) that mass merchants have reduced CD space to reflect Americans’ waning interest; if U.S. sales dropped 25 percent, shelf space shrinks accordingly. To understand the difference, think of Tower Records’ bankruptcy and closing. When Tower Records closed, the number of retailers selling CDs dropped instantly. In these cases, CD sales decline until consumer demand can shift to other retailers.
Target hasn’t given up on the CD, though. Just last year, Target released an exclusive version of Timberlake’s Man of the Woods album on both CD and vinyl. This release didn’t have the fanfare of The 20/20 Experience — I didn’t even know about it until I wrote this article. A better-known example is Target’s partnership with Justin Timberlake for the release of his 2013 album The 20/20 Experience; the album sold 968,000 units in its first week. Target released an exclusive version of Taylor Swift’s RED-six bonus tracks-in 2012 and helped push its first-week sales to 1.2 million.
But a national retailer shouldn’t give much space to physical formats. Americans spend little time listening to “owned” music such as CDs and MP3s. In the first quarter of 2019, only 12 percent of the time spent listening to audio went to owned music. (See Edison Research’s chart below.) People have shifted much of their listening to streaming. Audio-only services like Spotify and video-first YouTube had a combined “share of ear” of 25 percent of listening in Q3 2018 (according to Edison Research). The mix skews digital for the younger demos. The older the consumer, the more time is spent listening to radio.
As CDs take a small footprint, Target has become a one-stop shop for vinyl LPs. LPs almost nearly as much space as CDs. There’s a small but varied selection of LPs, frames for hanging LP artwork on walls, turntables, and wooden crates for storing LPs.