U.S. retail giant Best Buy has opened the doors to its first U.K. store, marking the start of its ambitious European expansion plans, which it says will see eight to 10 U.K. superstores open in year one and the creation of approx 8,000 British jobs by 2015.

Located in Thurrock, Essex, the first U.K. Best Buy store was unveiled to selected media ahead of its public opening on Friday (Apr. 30).

Like its U.S. counterparts, the Thurrock store -- which occupies 50,000 sq ft and is situated in a retail park approximately 40 minutes' commute from London -- sells a range of high-end audio and visual equipment alongside a sizeable provision of entertainment product, including CDs, DVDs and computer games.

Music Range Of 1,500 CDs

While CDs account for the smallest share of entertainment shelf space, with an approximate catalog of 1,500 CD music titles set to go on sale in the inaugural Thurrock store, Best Buy's U.K. bow, nevertheless, brings a much-needed boost to the beleaguered U.K. music retail market following the collapse of entertainment retailers Zavvi, Borders and Woolworths in the past two years.

Scott Wheway, CEO, Best Buy Europe, tells Billboard.biz that physical music sales are still relatively healthy in the U.K. compared to "most other music mature markets where music is disappearing from the established channels." BPI data this week showed CD album sales down 6.7% by value year-on-year in 2009.

"We felt that it was important to keep a core mix [of music CDs]," he adds.

According to Wheway, the next round of U.K. Best Buy stores to open - beginning with the introduction of outlets in Hedge End, Southampton and Merry Hill, West Midlands in June this year - will also contain an approximate provision of 1,500 music titles in addition to a small provision of music DVDs. That number will be continuously reviewed in response to sales and customer response, says Wheway.

"We'll learn quite quickly about how people behave with this catalog," he tells Billboard.biz. "We're in active conversations with the vendors and there are different things that can still be done to try and extend that catalog," Wheway goes on to say, citing CDs being burnt to order as one potential area of future expansion.

Alongside the initial provision of 1,500 CD titles, the first U.K. Best Buy outlets will each stock approx 3,500 DVD titles.

Four More Stores This Year

Although the company has not announced exact opening dates, in addition to the forthcoming Hedge End and Merry Hill stores, U.K. Best Buy outlets will open in Aintree, Liverpool later this summer and Croydon, south London this fall. A further U.K. store will open in Cribbs Causeway, Bristol in Spring 2011.

"We're trying to do something different here," Marc Spence, Best Buy's U.K. head of entertainment, tells Billboard.biz. "We're trying to take entertainment product into a big box out of town [retailer] and that hasn't been done successfully in the U.K. before.

"But we firmly believe that managed the right way it will be a success. The key difference is that we don't see this as an add-on. Entertainment product and music is absolutely integral to the Best Buy business."

Talking With Labels On Retail Exclusives

U.K. music consumers visiting the Thurrock Best Buy store will be able to choose from a range of budget catalog titles priced from £2.99 ($4.50) to £5.99 ($9.20), alongside new titles which carry an average price of £10.99 ($16.80).

With its music provision reminiscent in style of former U.K. high street retailer Woolworths, the inaugural U.K. Best Buy also contains an in-store top 50 chart (compiled by Best Buy) as well as 'cool albums you might have missed,' 'urban classics' and 'children' displays. Customers are also able to access 30-second music previews of music titles on sale in the store via digital listening booths.

There are no immediate plans for Best Buy to follow its U.S. lead and carry music and DVD retail exclusives in the United Kingdom, although it is something that the company would "like to introduce in the future," says Spence.

"We are working with our American colleagues at looking at things that they have got exclusives on," he goes on to say, adding the company is currently in talks with Universal Music Group as well as other (unnamed) label partners about following the lead of mass merchant Tesco earlier this year (Billboard.biz, Feb. 22) and launching retail exclusives in the U.K. Tesco released a Simply Red exclusive Feb. 28.

"I do think that exclusivity is something that we'll try to make work here," says Spence.

"Our scale is obviously going to be smaller because of where we're starting from but it's something that we wouldn't rule out," offers a more cautious Wheway.

Digital Expansion With Napster

Wheway and Spence cite Best Buy's future entrance into the U.K. digital music market in conjunction with the Best Buy-owned Napster service as one likely avenue of expansion.

"That's one definitely for the future," Spence tells Billboard.biz, although he declines to identify an exact time frame. A Best Buy U.K. site is currently live at www.bestbuy.co.uk but it does not currently allow visitors to make digital music purchases or order physical product for delivery.

"We know where music is going and we know that digital is obviously the future. But is that five years [in the future]? Is that ten years? We don't know," Spence continues. "But we will be working with Napster to build a Best Buy digital proposition."

Prior to launching its first U.K. outlet, Best Buy partnered with U.K. cell phone merchant Carphone Warehouse in May 2008, paying £1.1 billion ($2.1 billion) for 50% of that company's retail interests, to create Best Buy Europe. In addition to its U.S. operations, Best Buy also owns retails outlets in China, Canada, Turkey and Mexico.