Thursday, September 8, 2011

They Knocked Their Block Off!

It's been in slow motion for a while, but starting tomorrow, the VCR is going to be set to fast-forward. The Royal City Record of New Westminster reported yesterday that New West's sole and solitary Blockbuster Video store will be closing its doors on Friday, just the local dimension of the closure of two hundred and fifty-two other stores across the country. Already, the video vultures are circling in anticipation of going-out-of-business deals from Zeballos to Zt. John's. That is, assuming there are any chains in Zeballos, and bearing in mind that I misspelled St. John's for the alliteration factor.

I can't say I'm sorry about the impending collapse of the Blockbuster Canada rental empire... not that I haven't had a while to get used to it; shuttered Blockbusters seem to be everywhere these days. Still, considering the ruthless manner in which the chain came to prominence back in the 90s, driving independent video stores out of business, it's almost satisfying to see corporate karma come around in this manner. I'm upset for the workers, especially in this sort of environment; that kind of front-line customer service is one of the rapidly diminishing types of jobs that can't yet be outsourced to overseas call centers.

The disappearance of Blockbuster from the Canadian retail scene leaves a key question: what happens now? While Blockbuster didn't have a monopoly on the video rental business - there's still a Rogers Video in downtown New Westminster, if you consider Columbia Square Plaza "downtown," and smaller chains like Jumbo Video still exist in addition to the independents that survived Blockbuster's onslaught, the whole business model of video rental is under constant assault by technologies that just weren't an issue ten or twenty years ago, when the video store was king.

The Beladean Motel along King George Boulevard in Surrey has nothing to do with Blockbuster except for the fact that they're both closed and they both start with the letter "b" - but that's close enough.

For many people the answer is simple, and sometimes accompanied by the DreamWorks smugbrow - Netflix. But it's obvious immediately that that solution won't or can't work for everyone. For one, I don't like the idea of paying a subscription for a service regardless of whether or not I use it at all - $7.99 a month may not be much, but it's the principle of the thing, and it's not as if Blockbuster or Bandito Video ever charged me a fee for the privilege of being able to rent from them. But that's just small potatoes. The biggest issue with Netflix here stems from the insanely anti-competitive environment that dominates in Canadian telecommunications, which makes it easy for ISPs to gouge us. When people have to take care they don't go over their usage cap, lest they start getting dinged dollars for every extra gigabyte they pull down, it's not exactly fertile fields for a business model based on downloading.

This is just the start. It seems to me that the biggest and most apparently-dominant companies in a given industry also tend to be the most vulnerable; it's difficult for them to change their course away from that which took them to the top. Nevertheless, this pattern of change isn't going to end with Blockbuster. It's going to remake the video retail landscape. Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if a growing percentage of video stores eventually settle into a pattern similar to used book stores - based around physical media in general, selling and reselling media from DVD and Blu-ray to laserdisc and Betamax, finding an exploiting a small but comfortable niche while direct downloading and grocery store rental kiosks take increasingly larger pieces of what remains of the physical market.

I suppose we'll see in a few years.

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