There’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.