By A.D. Freudenheim  

11 July 2004

Given the fierce competition in the U.S. entertainment industry, it is not that surprising that Blockbuster’s stock price is now around $14 per share, down from per-share prices above $20 last fall, and above $25 in the fall of 2002.[1] Video on-demand services, digital cable and satellite television, internet downloads via broadband connections, and easy-to-use services like NetFlix have all probably affected the fortunes of this storefront-driven retail outlet – even as it has expanded its selections and manages to bridge the divide between VHS tapes and DVDs by offering a choice of both media.

However, I have to believe that one reason for the company’s declining fortunes is something more fundamental: shoddy customer service. Near where I live, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, there are two Blockbuster stores within easy walking distance. Both always have long check-out lines – with waits as long as 20 minutes during peak hours – and yet neither store’s management has figured out that by adding more staff to the registers, they might increase customer satisfaction through a speedier check-out process. Moreover, because those few employees working the cash register are so often inundated with customers, they are rarely polite, never mind friendly; it seems they don’t have time to be, and anyway, the likelihood is that no one has trained them on the value of good service, or the relationship between their role as employees and the store’s customer base.

There are the other nuisances, like poor alphabetization: whether it’s a “new release” or an older film, finding a movie is, in some cases, as much a matter of visual recognition of the movie’s signature promotional image as it is about reading the title, because the titles are not strictly alphabetized. And just this weekend, I discovered a new twist in Blockbuster’s customer service scheme: the promotional video box. Normally, selecting a movie means going behind the promo box to take the actual container for the DVD or VHS cassette; this time, however, a large promotion had been set up for a specific movie, and the DVD cases were arranged under it, eliminating the need for the promo box. After picking up the DVD package, and waiting in line for 15 minutes – in front of three open registers, all of which nonetheless had signs in front saying “Next Register Please” – the manager behind the counter informed us that, in fact, they were out of this particular movie. Why then, we asked, did they have the DVD cases on display for customer’s to take? “It’s a promotion,” he said, but they don’t have the actual DVD in stock right now. But having the DVD case on the shelf is contrary to how the system works: if the box is there, the movie is available; if it’s not, the movie is unavailable. No, we were told: this is different, it’s a promotion. The man was not particularly gracious as he conveyed this information, nor did he offer any insight into when we could expect the movie to be back in stock. We’d waited in line – and we were out of luck.

Between the lines and the poor service, I am always incredulous that there are customers in these stores at all; New Yorkers are so notoriously impatient and finicky that I cannot believe they put up with this crap. Since I happily count myself as one of the hordes of impatient New Yorkers, at some point about two years ago, I got fed up and stopped going to Blockbuster (renamed “ClusterF**ker”, in honor of our experiences there) completely. Not too far from our apartment was a small, independent video rental store, with a companion store on the East Side. The selection was not as extensive as ClusterF**ker’s, but it was reasonably good, and the store was willing to bring movies from the East Side store if the West Side store was out. Rarely did one have to wait more than a minute or two to check out a movie, and the service was always friendly. They’d even deliver, a service ClusterF**ker does not offer.

And as always, nice guys finish last: our independent video store closed about three months ago. I don’t know why – too much competition from ClusterF**ker? rising rents? other high costs that made survival impossible? There are a lot of reasons why small stores fail, just as there are reasons why larger ones do, and the “malling” of the Upper West Side, particularly along Broadway, is likely putting even greater pressures on the remaining independent retailers. There are also tremendous benefits to the chain retailers that have been creating superstores in New York – wide selection and lower prices being the two key advantages – but the costs are real, even if they take longer to grasp.

For example, large retailers rarely keep consistent staff, so one is much less likely to be recognized as a consistent customer, which affects the shopping experience. Likewise, because the stores’ various advantages attract large groups of customers, the pressure on staff is greater – but there is not normally a proportionate increase in staff relative to the number of customers. (Hiring more staff would, after all, affect profits.) And perhaps the biggest problem with ClusterF**ker-style retailers is that the staff is rarely knowledgeable about the products they sell. Walk into a small, independent book or music store and you can probably get a review or recommendation about a purchase from the person behind the counter; in a Barnes & Noble or Tower Records, the person you ask might know, but just as likely won’t; after all, s/he is not there because they love books or music, but rather because it is a job. In electronics and computer stores the experience is even worse; at the nearby Circuit City, staff will read off the features of a particular device from the same product promotional information available to me, the consumer. Well, gee: I could have done that!

So back to ClusterF**ker. After a two-year hiatus followed by my experience this weekend with the unchangingly-long line and the unavailable movie, I am committed to exploring other options. They may not be as convenient, or as cheap, but it doesn’t matter. I’d rather pay a dollar or two more for a movie, or walk an extra few blocks to pick one, if I can avoid dealing with a store that – despite its size and nationwide stature – is clearly more interested in mediocrity than in my business. The only hope for small, independent retailers is for more people who feel as I do to decide that the benefits of friendly, personal service outweigh the cost advantages they find at superstores, and take their business elsewhere.

[1] See Yahoo! Finance at for stock price details.   Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.