The Decline of the Video Store

BlockbustedThere’s a tendency among early adopters of technology to immediately declare any older paradigm obsolete and dying. Books were declared dead the moment the first e-reader debuted. It wasn’t until the third or fourth attempt that the e-reader itself survived, and even today books are still going strong, even if one major chain of book stores collapsed through poor decision making. Newspapers have been “dying” for approximately the past two decades. Nobody’s denying they have a lot of adapting to do if they want to survive, but if they’re going to the graveyard they’re taking the scenic route.

But some industries have faster declines than others. It’s hard to deny that changes in technology, and particularly changes in the way people buy and rent, have had a major impact on video rental stores. Hollywood Video shut down years ago. Blockbuster has been closing stores left and right for the past few years. There’s still one in my home town of Springfield, OR, and I think one in its sister city Eugene, but there used to be several. And I wouldn’t place long odds on the current ones sticking around forever.

Of course, while I’ll miss Blockbuster some when it’s gone, I won’t miss it as much as I already miss Mohawk Video. That name means nothing to most of this blog’s readers, save for those few who were living in Springfield in the late 80s. That’s kind of the point. Mohawk Video was one of those things that is even rarer today than a Blockbuster: a local video store, of the “mom and pop” variety. It wasn’t as large as a Blockbuster, and didn’t have quite the selection, but it had character. Standees of movie characters all over the place (Annie Wilkes as “Momma” from Throw Momma From the Train sticks in the mind), and the kids’ section was sectioned off by a giant corrugated cardboard castle. While it may not have had the thirty copies of each new movie that a chain store would have, it always had the newest ones, and had any number of obscurities as well.

Mohawk Video, of course, wasn’t killed off by any advances in technology. It died long before then, killed off by Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. The same story could be seen across the nation; the “mom and pop” stores were pushed out by the chain stores, which were able to rent just a little cheaper, have just a little more variety, and otherwise be just that little bit more convenient to the customer. And now it’s looking like it’s the chain stores’ turn.

Netflix threw down the gauntlet first. Ordering movie rentals through the mail may have seemed like a strange idea, but the absence of late fees meant there was another change in convenience to consumers. Gradually they and others added online streaming as well. Now there are several companies competing in the realm of online movie rentals. For those who have a fast enough internet connection, it’s considerably more convenient to click a button than to drive somewhere to pick up a video, and then drive there again to return it.

Not that online rentals are the only factor. As I’ve mentioned before, many people in the U.S. don’t have a great download rate. With a download rate as low as mine, the only reasons Amazon Unbox, etc., are more convenient than Blockbuster are gasoline and laziness; it’s faster to go into town than to wait for the download. So what’s the apparent wave of the future for the renter who doesn’t download? Kiosks. Little vending machines outside other store fronts, from Redbox and Blockbuster themselves. Rather than pay $3 for a 2-day rental, pay $1 for each day you rent, however long that is, assuming you have a credit card number to hold hostage. If the renter is going to be near a kiosk regularly, it is at least as convenient as a proper store.

Between the streaming and the kiosks, it’s not so surprising to see the rental store chains faltering. They established their dominance through convenience. Now other options are more convenient.

But I feel as though in this progression of convenience, renters have lost something important: Impulse. The ability to make an impulse decision is reduced. With Netflix’s mail option, it’s impossible to be impulsive; you’re deciding what you’re going to watch three days from now. With the streaming and download options, it depends on one’s bandwidth; somebody with a fast connection can decide on the spur of the moment, but those of us who have to take three hours to download a film have to choose in advance what to download. (At least, if we want full-quality video; 480p is streamable on 1.5 Mbps connection most of the time.)

Streaming and kiosks allow spur-of-the-moment decisions, but this isn’t quite the same as allowing the full range of renting on impulse. Redbox will have the latest hits to come to home video. They will not have the 1990 version of Captain America which I stumbled across in a Blockbuster once several years ago and had to check out just to see how goofy it was. They won’t have The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, which I pulled down from the shelf at Mohawk Video as a child. They’re not going to have an older classic such as Gone With the Wind. They’re not even going to have 2011’s hit movies. They have the latest hits… and only the latest hits. You want something else, you have to go somewhere else.

Digital services, of course, have that variety… but they don’t present it in a way that aids impulse shopping. You ever try to browse through an online service’s entire catalog? It’s too much… as opposed to not having enough choice, here it’s impossible for anything to stand out. The box art, if shown at all, is too small to be eye-catching, and there’s no quirky ten-year-old cardboard standee to make you wonder about some film you’ve never heard of. While there are some features that can help with the impulsiveness (I’m constantly checking Hulu’s new additions, which is small enough to be manageable), for the most part if you add something to your rental queue, it’s probably something you sought out.

Most online services have some form of recommendation program, but this isn’t as good for impulse purchases as it might appear. At first it’ll seem almost random, which in a way is a good thing, although I’m still puzzled at how Hulu once recommended Black Sheep based on my having watched Glory. But as you watch more films, the more accurately the feature will reflect your tastes. And that’s not quite as good for impulsive decisions as it sounds. It’s just a program. At best it reflects your current tastes; it can’t know what you might like in addition. If all you’ve watched on a service is stoner comedies, then all it knows you like is stoner comedies. It has no idea that you’d turn out to love film noir if only you were exposed to it. But if you had been walking around a video store, a DVD cover or a wall decoration could have made you curious about something you wouldn’t have checked out otherwise. This may not be a big deal, in the grander scheme of things. Certainly many people are complacent in their tastes, and that’s as true for me as for anybody else. But it’s certainly something that’s being lost in the transition to newer rental programs.

What does the future hold? I don’t know entirely. It certainly seems possible that one day we’ll all be renting all of our movies online, and the chain stores will have disappeared completely. Maybe kiosks will remain ubiquitous, and maybe they’ll turn out to be a short-lived fad. I half-wonder if it’s possible for the “mom and pop” stores to mount a comeback now that the chain stores are falling, if they can carve out a niche in the services that streaming doesn’t provide. But whatever happens, it’s interesting to look at the changes in the industry over such a relatively short period of time. The rise and fall of the video store has taken place entirely within my lifetime. I’m not sure I can say that of any other industry.

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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16 Responses to The Decline of the Video Store

  1. Spikor says:

    Good stuff. My first job was in a Mom ‘n Pop video store, Midnight Video & Variety. I began to frequent it when I got an NES in late ’89 or so. I was there constantly, spending my paper route money on VHS Rentals when we got our first VCR in ’91. I started working there in ’95. That’s about when the first Blockbuster opened in my home town. So I got to watch it go from one of the most popular choices for West-End Monctonians, to relying on Video Lottery Terminals to turn any kind of profit. It closed for good about 2-4 years after I left for University.

    I think that one of the holes you’re speaking of, the lack of random influences present in a physical store, is filled greatly by reading blogs. There are several titles I’ve first heard of here, or elsewhere, that I’ve checked out. Of course, Average Joe doesn’t read blogs, so it’s not quite the same, but I think you get the idea I’m trying to convey.

    Something I find funny about the Online Catalogue vs. Store Shelves selection dilemma, is that I had no problem spending, literally, hours sometimes looking for a movie in a store, but if I spend more than 10 minutes looking at the Netflix Streaming menu, I give up and watch nothing.

    • I think the reason we don’t browse the streaming sites as long as the rental stores is that it’s simply not as fun. The cover art is smaller, and less eye-catching. The description is as straightforward as it gets; no pull quotes from major reviewers in big red letters. And of course you don’t get the tangible feel of flipping a case over to see what the film is about… mousing over just isn’t the same. Plus video stores just have that extra bit of ambiance with the decorations and the video playing in the store’s TV system, and the opportunity to chat with other customers and/or the clerk.

      You’re right that blogs help fill the “check out this odd thing” hole, at least among other bloggers. Of course, that blog writer still needs to find the thing to begin with.

      It’s cool that you got to work at a mom and pop store; I always figured that if one had to work retail, that was probably the retail job to work. (Of course, I just never worked retail, other than a 3-month stint at a clothing store). Mohawk Video died about the time I moved out of the neighborhood; the chain stores moved into the area pretty quickly.

      • Spikor says:

        The interesting part of working at the store, since it was also a Convenience Store, was that it was basically 100% exactly like Clerks would lead you to believe, without the rooftop hockey, or dead guy bathroom sex.

  2. Bubbawheat says:

    The chain I used to frequent in another Springfield (IL) was Family Video. Which I think is currently a moderately sized chain covering a lot of the midwest. Their biggest draws were the big 2 for $1 rentals in the middle of the store covering all the worst and most obscure titles you could imagine. It’s also somewhat ironic that when they were competing with the other big box stores, one of the other selling points for “family” video was the back room where you could rent porn. I guess the family also includes the pervy uncle. Of course, they also had free kids movies, and were surprisingly cheaper than Blockbuster though at the time the Family Video price was for 2 days while the Blockbuster price was for 5.

    • I think I’ve heard of Family Video through other nostalgia-oriented sites. I think you’re probably right about the range of their chain.

      Funny bit about the pervy uncle. Sounds like otherwise it was a pretty good store to go to, though… I’m not aware of any other places that had free kids rentals.

  3. le0pard13 says:

    I think I most remember the small video store in Culver City of the Reagan 80s. The stacks filled with VHS tapes, the monitor near the ceiling by the front playing something you’ve never seen before, and the knowledgeable clerk behind the counter recommending things you’d never give a second look toward. It really was the good old days. Wonderful look back, Morgan. Thanks for this.

    • I didn’t have much opportunity to take advantage of personal recommendations. I was too young when the locally-owned store was around. Then when I was renting from Blockbuster, the clerks were too young…

      Even so, that seems to me like something that really had value in the old days. Can’t get personal recommendations on a streaming service… not real ones, anyway.

  4. Gene says:

    Ten years ago there were 4 video rental places in my town (Lebanon, Indiana) and now there is just one, Family Video. There parking lot almost never has more than two cars in it, which I have to imagine one is the employee’s. I don’t know how they stay afloat but they’ve been there a while. I have even resorted to digital copies of movies I buy rather than having a hard-copy disc. I most commonly use Vudu or Netflix for online streaming of movies I would otherwise rent.

    • From four to one is a pretty steep decline all right.

      I’m still buying hard copies for purchases (aside from some freebies), but when it comes to rentals, I’ve mostly been downloading lately.

  5. ruth says:

    I don’t really miss ’em as I barely have time to go to a brick n mortar store anymore but yeah, it’s still sad to see ’em go.

    • Time is definitely a factor in their decline, all right. It was easy to spend half an hour at the video store when I was younger. Not so much nowadays, even without factoring in travel time.

  6. The Blockbusters near me (i live in nyc) have all shut down permanently about two years back now—to me it just meant that i had to do a more thorough check for any mom and pop stores that might still be in existence. Fortunately i have stumbled across one or two that when i have the money too be able to do so, i will frequent as much as i can–however because i don’t actually live near enough to the actual location of where they are I’m not able to rent the way i’d like to but i will buy previously viewed DVD’s there like nobody’s business! Seriously i will grab like an armful of movies and drop as much as i can afford to spend (generally whatever’s in my pocket at that time) and buy the dvd’s then. Not being a current Netflix subscriber (altho that could change in the near future–i think i’ve been saying that for a good couple of years now tho and i think i eventually will end up as a subscriber if only because its prob a lot cheaper in general) but those prev. viewed dvd’s that i’ll look through very carefully and examine are generally the closest i’m able to get to when i was a kid/teenager and being dropped off in the local video store near where i grew up and milling about the asiles and taking my sweet time looking at the shelves and everything that was on those shelves. I very badly miss those days where there were back-rows of very odd-ball vhs boxes to investigate. Bizzare looking comedies and sci-fi movies that you had to really go out of your way to look for…miss them! Doing what i do tho is i gotta admit the next best thing because there are people behind the register and it is often very nice to be able to exchange words with the guy or gal ringing you up about whether or not they’ve seen the thing you’re about to take home with you. I mean I do miss the days of word of mouth recommendations tho–when the clerk can be like “ohmygod you know what i saw that was just completely nutso and you’ve gotta see it???” but honestly being able to stumble onto something yourself and being able to recommend to someone else can be nicely satisfying too. (provided you’re able to stumble onto something that no one else in your circle has actually seen of course)

    Still tho, with netflix i imagine you can’t beat the parking at least!

    • AS far as impulse watching goes tho—i think youtube has kind of replaced that “I’ll just grab this because its here on the shelf” feeling that i used to get when getting something completely random off the shelf. With youtube there are a lot of movies and old tv shows that are very very very randomly thrown up there and sometimes it is in that same aww the hell with it i’m gonna watch this mindset that i will end up watching something that i’ve never heard of on youtube…and before you know its 7 in the morning and you’ve been up all night watching reruns of Newhart from 25 years ago that still really hold up damnit!!!! Impulse!

      • You know, I hardly ever even go to YouTube any more, unless I’m looking for something specific. For some reason it just never caught on with me.

        I get what you’re saying about browsing through the used DVDs at a video store. Certainly some gems to be found there. I do the same at local pawn shops; they don’t have the same ambiance as a video store, but they’re about the only place with that same haphazard selection.

  7. Pingback: News Bites: Superhero Smorgasbord | Morgan on Media

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