Even supermarkets couldn’t get Beck to Number One

Monday March 31, 2014

You have to grow a thick skin if you work for one of Britain's supermarkets.  After all, they are regularly pilloried for everything from encouraging food waste (through BOGOFs) and alcoholism (drinks promotions) to killing High Street stores to selling horse meat as beef. But even hardened supermarket executives were a little surprised to discover their latest "crime" the other week - preventing critics' darling Beck from reaching Number One in the Official Albums Chart with his latest album,Morning Phase.

A lengthy editorial in Music Week lamented the fate of "poor Beck" because the "likes of Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda decided against giving their customers the chance to buy it". The clear implication was that these supermarkets had arbitrarily deprived "poor Beck" of the Number One he deserved.

Beck's album sold 13,819 copies in its first week to reach number four, 2,730 copies behind the Number One, Bastille's Bad Blood. Is it conceivable that the supermarket buyers got it wrong and that with their support, he would have sold an additional 2,730 copies and reached Number One?  

Unfortunately not.

To suggest otherwise, say the supermarkets, is to fundamentally misunderstand who they are and their contribution to the music market.

Beck's sales were disproportionately dominated by pre-sale and core fanbase Monday purchases which we can assume the supermarkets would never have been able to capture. Sunday and Monday sales accounted for 43% of sales. Likewise sales were disproportionately digital with a 43% share of sales going to non-physical formats. That meant the addressable physical market was necessarily smaller. With an additional 2,730 sales required to deliver him the Number One slot, it would have meant every single full-range supermarket (ie non convenience format) in the country would have had to sell at least one and maybe two copies  of the Beck album that week. As one buyer put it, "Our customers are most likely to be females aged between 25 and 45 who only buy four or five CDs a year. Beck is unlikely to be one of them."

The Music Week piece mused wistfully that "Unlike with the likes of HMV and the independents whose fates are tied to those of the record labels supplying them, supermarkets can pick and choose what kind of products they support." The point is correct, even if the sentiment is misguided. Supermarkets argue that it is their skill in selecting precisely which products are appropriate for their customers which enables them to deliver huge numbers on the right kind of product.

In the event, the performance Beck's Morning Phase has vindicated the supermarket view that it was never likely to be anything other than a specialist sell. Week two sales more than halved to 5,512. Week three sales halved again to 2,906.

Between them the nation's supermarkets sold £188m worth of albums in 2013, a quarter of the market. Recognise us for what we do well, say the supermarkets, rather than criticise us for not stocking albums our customers simply do not want.

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