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Target, BJ's Wholesale Go Blu-ray

One of the elements that has helped preserve the format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray has been that no one in retail has taken a side.

Until now. Target, the second-largest retailer in the nation, has decided to carry only Blu-ray players, although it will continue to sell HD DVD movies along with Blu-ray movies in its stores.

Some studios have chosen one format over another; Universal Studios is exclusive to HD DVD while Sony, Fox and Disney are exclusive to Blu-ray. But retail outlets have chosen to offer both formats and let the public decide.

Target announced its plans in a very brief statement to the media: "Target is committed to providing our guests with exceptional technology solutions. Blu-ray is one of many solutions that our guests will find at Target.

"We are not proclaiming one format vs. the other as the preferred consumer technology, and software will continue to be available to our guests in both the Blu-ray and HD DVD format. We are simply merchandising Blu-ray hardware as the initial foray into this exciting category. As with all of our merchandise, we will track guest feedback and adjust as necessary."

Target plans to carry one Sony Blu-ray deck, the $499 BDP-S300. It also sells the PlayStation 3, which has Blu-ray playback, and it carries the HD DVD add-on drive for Microsoft's Xbox 360 console. Sony recently cut the price of the PlayStation 3 by $100, to $499.

On a much lower-key note, BJ's Wholesale Club, an east coast warehouse store that competes with Sam's Club and Costco, also announced it will sell Blu-ray DVD hardware only at its 170 stores. It will continue to offer HD DVD hardware on its Web site.

The news comes just weeks after video rental chain Blockbuster decided to offer only Blu-ray titles when it expands its high-definition DVD offerings this fall. But the Blockbuster plans only involve 1,700 of its 7,000 national stores.

The two camps are in a near-constant trade-off. HD DVD boasts exclusive titles like the hit series "Heroes" while Blu-ray has exclusives like "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." NPD Group puts Q1 hardware sales, excluding the Xbox 360 drive and PS3, at 47 percent for HD DVD and 52 percent for Blu-ray.

Ross Rubin, director of research for NPD, said at this point, the pricey HD DVD formats are too expensive to really appeal to mass merchants like Target and Wal-Mart.

"Given the price of players this holiday season, it's probably not in Target's sweet spot, or any mass merchant's sweet spot yet. The big box retailers are going to play a larger role in the format war this holiday season," he told internetnews.com.

Still, he said Target's decision sets a precedent, and if Wal-Mart decides to come down on one side, "that would certainly add to or shift the momentum to the side chosen."

Both sides could use some momentum. The market research firm Parks Associates found that less than 10 percent of consumers surveyed were even aware of the two formats.

However, it also credited Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and digital set-top boxes with raising awareness of the new high definition format and predicted more than 32 million Blu-ray and HD DVD players will be sold in the United States by 2011, an 85 percent increase from the 4.9 million units estimated to be sold in 2007.

Rubin isn't surprised.

"The formats are still relatively new. Both groups understand that there's still significant competition from the DVD, it's been enormously successful. It will be a huge challenge to move the industry past that, and the format wars aren't helping."