I showed this Blockbuster Video membership to my daughter once last year after finding it while cleaning out my desk. I explained to her the archaic way Gen Xers, older millennials, and Xennnials used to watch movies.
I’m not sure she appreciated it, so let me tell you a similar story to what I told her.
I got my membership card during the Christmas holidays of 2001 when I lived near a Blockbuster Video in Pensacola, Florida. On school break, a few classmates had let me persuade them to show them the classic “Canadian Bacon”.
I kept the membership over the years that followed and often would go to the Blockbuster in Peterborough, Ontario where I grew up and my parents still live, and sometimes the one in Brantford, where my grandparents, three of whom were still alive in those years, all lived, along with extended family.
Putting on a movie was just what you did in our living rooms, even if you’re all trying to have a conversation. The TV would be on, or a movie, whether you were listening to it or not. One day we were at my grandmother’s on one end of Brantford on a blizzardy Christmas Eve. I want to say 2004 or 2005. It was particularly dangerous driving conditions and I remember my brother and I felt relieved when we finally got there.
We were going to rent a movie for the two of us to watch in the basement at grandma’s and something else for my parents and her to watch upstairs, and perhaps a third movie thrown in for good measure. We took our time picking them, then waited our turn in line for a pimple-faced teenager or perhaps college student to ring up our rentals.
He swiped my card, reacted to what he saw on the screen and then tells me “sorry, but your card doesn’t work here”.
Me: “Why not?”
Him: “Because you got it in the States.”
Me: “How does that affect anything?”
Me: “Look, I’ve been using this card for years up in Peterborough, and have never had a problem until just now.”
After a lot of pressure, and back. and forth he agrees to finally try doing something else and then his new excuse for why this won’t work is because I haven’t used the card in 90 days, regardless of where it’s from, so it’s “no longer in the Blockbuster system” according to him.
Me: “OK, let’s get me a new membership then.”
Him: “We can’t do that either because [blah blah blah, some other answer that made no sense].”
I don’t remember if I asked him whether he was new, but by now I just assumed he was. I also wasn’t planning on leaving empty-handed but eventually caved in and we left. During the ride home, without our videos, mind you, I regretted not escalating things because I knew the kid digging his heels in back at the store was completely wrong, but back then I didn’t know what a Karen was but if he had let me talk to a supervisor or someone else who had worked there for more than a week, they might’ve been able to ring me up no problem.
So, we had braved the icy roads in bad visibility back to Grandma’s in order to entertain ourselves indoors, all for nothing.
The next time I had a chance back in Peterborough, I drove over to one of the two Blockbuster stores there, and before looking for anything I wanted to watch I immediately asked a cashier if she could ring my card up to see if it works, you know, so as to not waste my time again.
“Sure. Hold on.” She scans it, types something in, gives it back to me and says “All set.”
“Wait, what? So, I am a member or I’m not?”
“Well, your card was inactive, so I activated it. Good to go!”
I told her about what happened recently in Brantford and she suggested maybe the employee there was new or had never encountered an “expired” foreign Blockbuster Video membership card before to know that it’s easy to update.
Never Assume A Business Model Will Always Work
I realize this was a very first-world problem, but in the years that followed, whenever I heard of Netflix delivering DVDs to your home for you, I thought “this is going to give Blockbuster a run for their money.” I was not someone who had the foresight to think Blockbuster would ever disappear and the same way they migrated from VHS to DVD, they’d adapt to future methods and preferences of content rental.
I specifically remembered (I wouldn’t say that I “never forgot”) that icy road night when I came back empty-handed, and it’s given me a lot to think about regarding customer service, and how I treat my clients to this day in my own business.
AKA “don’t be like that Blockbuster employee”. Find a solution.
That business model allowed for people to have their time wasted and just accept the disappointment. The chain was rooted in a concept and model that wasn’t prepared for changes in either the formatting of the product or the means of consumption by the consumers. It was a perfect system for a very limited set of options, for a very specific and limited time.
I was listening to a very interesting podcast called Land of the Giants, and one recent season was all about Netflix and one episode in particular called Who Really Killed Blockbuster? When Netflix approached Blockbuster to sell their company to them for an amount of money that sounds silly today, Netflix was basically laughed out of the room.
I am not going to go listen and find out what the term was, but Blockbuster also basically worked into their revenue model a certain amount of “customer disappointment”, only stocking a certain amount of new movies, etc… and over 70% of their earnings was from … late fees.
And of course, the rest is history.
Authors Who Expect Things To Stay The Same May Be in For a Rude Awakening
But more importantly, whenever I think of this cultural monolith of yesteryear, I think of authors.
Where else did you think I was going with this?
I constantly talk to writers and authors who leave money on the table, thinking that just because print books have not gone extinct like video rentals did that this is proof that it’s still the way of the future, or that it will never be disrupted…
…but yet not embracing other ways of delivering their content.
I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of print books. To compare them to video recording, rental, and distribution technology is to compare pineapples and bananas.
Neglecting to have your message or story in the capacity that fans and your audience want it is something the content creator does at their own peril.
Every book of yours that you refuse to make available digitally, IN ADDITION TO (not instead of) print, you’re basically being like that pimply-faced Blockbuster employee in the old-school business model of content distribution and telling your fans, “sorry, screw you.”
OK, the kid probably didn’t say “screw you” to me. But it felt that way. A little bit.
I forget about it until something about technologically changing the market reminds me of that night.
Either way, how would you explain video rentals to your kids who’ve grown up accustomed to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, and other streaming sites?