Goodbye, Blockbuster — I Won’t Particularly Miss You

The fallen giant was done in by its own mistakes, not the Internet.

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Blockbuster, the once-mighty video-rental chain, is calling it quits. As the New York Times‘ Brian Stelter reports, it’s closing the last 300 company-owned stores and shutting down its Netflix-like DVD-by-mail service.

It’s not quite the final curtain: 50 franchised stores will remain, and satellite TV provider Dish, Blockbuster’s owner since 2011, says that the brand won’t disappear entirely. But in most ways that matter, of course, Blockbuster was already history. I think it’s possible that I still have my card somewhere, though I don’t remember using it in this century.

Blockbuster has been withering away for as many years as it thrived — the 300 remaining company-owned outlets are the dregs of a chain that once had 9,000 locations. In September of 2010, it declared bankruptcy; in 2011, it was bought for a fire-sale price by Dish, which couldn’t figure out what to do with it, other than continue to shutter stores. (It’s already almost completely vanished from the San Francisco Bay Area: As far as I can tell, there are only three locations left, all 20 miles or more from my house.)

The thoughts I shared when the company went bankrupt still sum up my take on its fate:

Blockbuster was founded in 1985, grew rapidly for years, and, at one time, made a lot of sense. I certainly spent a fair amount of time trolling its aisles for VHS tapes at one point. Let’s face it, though–it was never a particularly pleasant place to be, nor one that treated its customers all that well. The more options that people got for avoiding Blockbuster, the more they tended to do so.

(Side note: Not too far from where I live, there’s a venerable independent video store called Le Video. It’s amazing–it pretty much feels like everything ever released on DVD and/or VHS is in there, all on fastidiously organized shelves. It’s run by people who obviously love movies. Unlike Blockbuster, it seems to be doing fine.)

Like many once-mighty business enterprises, the company doesn’t seem to have a clue about how to evolve as its customers’ needs did. What can you say about an outfit that tried to buy Circuit City in 2008, just before that company collapsed? It quickly realized that was a bad idea, but couldn’t anyone who was paying attention have told it that?

The thing is, it’s not that people don’t want to watch movies anymore. In theory, the Blockbuster name should be a major asset for an online service along the lines of Netflix’s Watch Instantly or Amazon Video on Demand. Blockbuster does have an online service, but it’s an embarrassment–it requires Internet Explorer and a Windows download, uses flaky Microsoft copy protection, doesn’t seem to be compatible Windows 7, and is overpriced. It’s as if the company isn’t even trying to be part of the 21st century.

It’s not Blockbuster’s fault that video-rental stores are largely obsolete. But it is its fault that it’s not in better shape to survive the end of the business model that made it famous.

So how long do you think it’ll be until the last Blockbuster store puts GOING OUT OF BUSINESS signs in its windows? I give it three years, but I could be overly optimistic…

I wasn’t being overly optimistic. By 1999, it was already clear that the Internet would likely kill the video-rental store — here’s a New York Times story discussing that fact — so Blockbuster had plenty of time to reinvent itself. It’s just that its strategy consisted mostly of imitating Netflix, too slowly and too incompetently to make a difference. The thing that did in Blockbuster wasn’t the Internet: It was Blockbuster.