Blockbuster is leaving the building

“Just sales, no rentals.”

Starting this past January, that’s how customers were greeted as they entered my South Side Chicago neighborhood Blockbuster store. Video rental was out as the store began its “moving sale.”

So proclaimed the banners outside, though this was more than moving a few storefronts down in the same shopping mall. One of the two “new” addresses given tracked at 6.97 miles south (as the GPS files), the other 4.84 north. As any South Sider knows, heading north into Cubs territory might as well be another country.

Later in the month, additional signs more accurately described the situation as a “store closing.” The addresses had been other Chicago locations that had not closed.

What caught my eye, though, was how Blockbuster positioned the change. In effect, it was leveraging this closing (and others) to rebrand itself as Blockbuster Total Access. A reimagined cross between Redbox and Netflix.

My first reaction?

Maybe not a bad idea. After all, Netflix didn’t seem to want to be Netflix anymore (at least not by mail), so why not take its place? So that provided the heart of this new Blockbuster pitch. Rent discs shipped to/from your residence via U.S. mail, drawing from your list of preferences. Your Queue.

Clear and simple. Mostly. Until other wrinkles were folded in, including drop-off and rental options from the physical stores themselves, tiers of membership, and more choices that naturally need a lengthy “terms and conditions” link.

I felt sympathy for the staff attempting to tout this latest corporate cure to skeptical customers. They’d been down other corporate promotion paths during the past year, implementing a succession of plans that too often got bogged down in the fine print.

One of my favorites last summer offered an entire month of free rentals after renting just one new film at the regular price. But the rules involving the freebies (each was one-at-a-time, one-night-and-back) brought back the stress of missed returns and subsequent late charges.

Didn’t corporate realize such concerns had made the competing “no late fees by mail” an attractive alternative model in the first place? I once overheard a company executive talking to the neighborhood store staff, absolutely flabbergasted that every customer in the area had not walked in to take advantage of the free offer. (All you had to do was come back every day for a month!) He failed to realize that our lives don’t revolve around visits to the video store, even for freebies. Even with friendly service.

Now the inevitable closing countdown is well on its way. Even though this is part of a larger corporate realignment, I still think of it more as watching a neighborhood business shut its doors.

Perhaps that’s one reason I let myself be talked into signing up for Blockbuster Total Access, as a friendly farewell. For research purposes. Plus the fact that my store was offering three months free.

I already have my plan in place. When I took advantage of the freebie package last summer I rented mostly TV episodes, but on the movie side, I chose titles that I would never pay even $1 to view. Sex and the City 2, for example, was a pop culture curiosity worth every penny I didn’t spend, with no guilt about frequent fast-forwarding.

There’s been a lot of bad cinema since then, plus good TV episodes to catch up on. This may just turn into a Blockbuster spring.

Copyright ©2012 Walter J. Podrazik

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