Video Stores: In Memoriam

Video stores are dying as a concept, and in some ways that’s just the nature of the business as our entertainment watching habits have evolved. At the same time, while we gain in some ways, we lose in others.
My local video store closed down over the weekend, making itself as busy as I’ve ever seen flogging off its stock at bargain prices.
That the traditional rental store model isn’t exactly healthy shouldn’t come as news to anyone. I’m not claiming that it was the last video store in Australia, but it’s rather telling that when, out of curiosity, I went to research the next nearest physical store, I realised that the closest store was more than 25 minutes drive away.
The next closest after that would take me an hour to drive to, and to give that some context, it’s feasible to drive from one side of Sydney to another in about an hour and a half. There aren’t many video stores left, and in a year’s time there will be fewer, until they’re pretty much all gone.

History lesson, kids: There was a time when having a video was a new and exciting thing. Also, it was remiss of me to not have this video in the first version of the article.

I’m in the interesting position at my age that I’ve seen video stores come and die within my lifetime. Technically I’ve been around long enough that I was on the planet before video stores were a thing, although they did spring into life when I was quite young. For some, though, they’ve always been in decline, as the rise of sale culture and the emergence of VOD and IPTV have eroded their value base.
How to fill a video store in 2014: Announce you're selling all the stock off cheap. My local store hasn't been this busy in... ever, probably.
How to fill a video store in 2014: Announce you’re selling all the stock off cheap. My local store hasn’t been this busy in… ever, probably.

Still, it feels a little odd to see them dying off. When I moved to where I currently live, there were at least a half dozen stores all fiercely competing. Now there are none, and the last survivor outlived its competitors by at least five years.
What’s interesting here is that as the market for video consumption has changed — and markets change, and I’m totally fine with that — so too has the value offering. There are some things that are undeniably better in the post-video store world, and some areas where I think we’re worse off.

Video Stores are dead: What we’ve gained

  • No more dud tapes/dvds: The shift to digital eliminates issues of scratched DVDs, or going back a little further, gunk on VHS tapes. Which means I guess that there won’t be a sequel to Be Kind, Rewind either. Still, this is a huge factor in the shift to digital, because people who frequented video stores were often horrible to the movies they rented, because, hey, it wasn’t liked they owned them or anything.
    At some point in the future, nobody will understand this in any way at all

  • Everything is available Heading to a physical store always involved some kind of compromise, because while you could reserve movies, there was never a solid guarantee that they would actually be returned. Digital streaming/rental services can, by definition, never “run out of copies” of any film or TV series.
  • Bye-bye late fees. You won’t be missed. Neither will those arguments over whether a movie had or hadn’t been returned on time, because with digital services, it’s either an upfront payment and then you watch and it deletes itself, or a streaming arrangement with a fixed monthly price. It’s a lot simpler, and nobody has to fish around the back of the couch for 50c so you can go rent a film because there was still a late fee owing.
  • Rise of ownership culture Australia was seriously late to the party on this one, with the introduction of DVD being the point at which a lot more people started to think about owning titles rather than just renting them. If you’re particularly keen on a film it’s not hard to see that paying $20 for it once (or less, as DVD/Blu-Ray prices tumble relatively quickly) beats paying $6 per night when you want to watch it. Plus, a disc (or even digital title) you own is one you’re less likely to find damaged when you do want to watch it.

Video Stores are dead: What we’ve lost

  • Everything isn’t available There’s no such thing as a one-stop shop for digital content either. Netflix is often held up as the gold standard, but I’ve never hit anyone using it (legitimately or not) who hasn’t hit a movie they’ve wanted to watch only to discover Netflix didn’t have it. Heck, there are sites that track the movies that are due to appear and stop appearing on Netflix out there, because it’s a constantly shifting buffet. The traditional video store might not have had anything, but they kept their titles on shelves until they fell apart, ensuing continuity of access, if not always quality of those movies.
  • The serendipity of random choice I can’t count the number of times I’d hit a video store with a movie in mind only to find it was out. So, rather than waste a trip, I’d rent something else. An obvious win for the video store, but also a way to discover movies I might not otherwise have watched from a wide selection. Yes, I know that many sites and services use complicated algorithms to determine that if I watched, say, The Avengers that I might like Iron Man 3, but that’s a limited selection game, because it’s always tailored towards reinforcing viewing habits you already have. If you only watch comedies, it’ll steer you towards more comedies, and so on and so forth. My movie watching tastes were expanded because I’d improvise on the spot and pick something else to watch instead. You don’t get that with a streaming service, or even a selection-limited automatic kiosk either.
  • Investment in watching I’m not so much thinking here about the relative costs argument, but more in the way that I’ve noticed many people now watch video content. If you’d made the efforts to go out to find something to watch, you’re more likely to invest the time to finish watching it. Whereas when there’s a near limitless selection (especially for subscription services), the temptation to switch to “something else” is stronger. “Something else” might not be better that that slow-burning movie, which means you might miss out entirely. Impatience can be a strong deciding factor when there’s more choice on offer.
  • Loss of the “weekly” Digital rental services typically offer a 28-day viewing window, with a 24 or 48 hour period after first watching before a file self destructs. That’s better than a weekly rental, right?
    Not necessarily so, because in the rental space (as distinct from subscription, where again the selection can be smaller) there’s not a lot of price mobility for older titles. No matter where I’ve lived in Australia, video stores have pretty much always offered a bulk weekly discount for older movie titles. Roughly $10 for around five movies tended to be the norm. Aside from the odd spot special on a single title or two on digital services, that just doesn’t happen. Up until last week, I could have rented Pulp Fiction as a weekly title along with four other movies for ten bucks. Now renting it from iTunes will cost me $4.99 standalone.

    Funny story: I was going to use Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure as the example movie, but it turns out you can’t rent it from iTunes or (as far as I can see) any streaming services at all. Which kinda points back to my availability point, dudes!

The entertainment business evolves, even though it’s often slow and resistant to do so, as can be seen with much of its rhetoric around piracy. It’s not always an advancement process that’s going to explicitly suit consumers, however.
At least, that’s my take. What’s yours?
Lead image: Craig Anderson

1 thought on “Video Stores: In Memoriam”

  1. As someone who was notorious for not returning movies on time i don’t miss the late fees at all and its very convenient to buy or rent online, but there was something great about browsing the aisles looking and choosing movies to watch over a weekend. Our local library has a pretty good selection of DVD’s and while you have to reserve them well in advance, if you don’t mind waiting we can see most new releases and you get 4 weeks to watch them.

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