Challenge accepted: Video stores in a digital age

Saturday December 8, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Technology has changed things dramatically for local movie rental stores.

National chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video have closed all over the country, while independent, family-owned businesses are few and far between these days. Still, some of these small-town, local stores -- the ones that are specialized to sell and rent videos -- have strived to remain open.

"The one big thing about video stores is that they've always been a hub for the community. You come in and see people you know. You start conversations with them. You can touch and feel the product before you rent," said Todd Zaganiacz, a general manager at First Run Video in Brattleboro.

Stores like First Run have been competing with Netflix since 2000, along with the Internet, where people, legally or illegally, can download or stream content with the click of a button.

Blockbuster had even given up on competing with brick and mortar stores and created an online service that closely resembled the Netflix service people were switching over to. Most of their stores have closed down. Like Netflix, Blockbuster offers a free month of service to new customers renting movies by mail.

For the past 10 years, Redbox has become a fixture in many public places like gas stations, pharmacies, 7-Eleven stores and supermarkets. With the swipe of a credit card, customers can rent DVDs for $1 each night and video games for $2.

Redbox machines are limited to what can fit in the machine, but it often has movies that are closer to being new releases than older ones.

"For us, it hasn't been that hard," said Ned Braley, manager at Video Headquarters in Keene, N.H.. "We always like a challenge and we've been adapting pretty well."

Braley mentioned that Video Headquarters gets new releases before Netflix and Redbox. Other video stores including First Run have that advantage as well.

"We find a lot of people have become disenfranchised with Netflix," he said. "And streaming isn't what it used to be."

Braley, who has been a manager for three years, pointed out that there are seven Redbox locations in Keene and only one Video Headquarters, but comparatively his store has many more titles.

"We're relying on our regulars and people in Keene who like to support local businesses," he said. "We focus on that more than on what our competitors are doing."

A video store can have a personal touch that computers and machines cannot replicate. Browsing the aisles is an activity not everyone is willing to give up.

First Run just re-opened their store in a new location in Black Mountain Plaza on Putney Road on Oct. 1 and hopes to stay for at least a few years, despite the growing industry of alternative ways to rent movies and video games.

"First Run has always been a large video store," said Zaganiacz. "The first one came in before Blockbuster came into play and before Redbox or Netflix came into play as well. It's survived to be the last video store in town."

New wood floors and a bathroom are two of the biggest additions of moving the store.

This is First Run's 22nd year of operating in Brattleboro.

"We needed a new face on First Run Video and moving over here has given us that," said Zaganiacz. "It's a fresher, cleaner, newer building. It's allowed us to really focus on producing a new look without diminishing the same products and services we offered at the other location."

Gregg Morrow saved the store after its previous owner talked about closing it down in 2010.

With four Redbox locations in Brattleboro, and Netflix accounts popping up all around the country, conventional video stores are constantly challenged.

Zaganiacz pointed out problems with Redbox, referring to the fact that there is no communication, unless you go through customer service by telephone or e-mail. The disc cannot be returned immediately and replaced with another disc of the same title if it is damaged.

"We're here to satisfy the customer the best we can, whereas with the Redbox, you can't go to the machine and say ‘this disc doesn't work.' You're not going to get an answer. The machine's not going to talk back to you."

Zaganiacz said First Run thrives off its big selection and its history in town.

There are more than 30,000 film and video game titles in the store. New releases get to the store faster than Netflix and Redbox, just like Video Headquarters.

Redbox can hold about 600 titles in each machine. There are now more Redbox locations than there are Blockbusters in the country.

First Run specializes in having obscure and foreign titles, which wasn't as big of a concern to Blockbuster as years went on. Blockbuster was heavily into stocking new releases, Zaganiacz said.

He also talked about the ability to stream movies, which requires no download. A movie can be watched like a clip on YouTube.

With streaming films online, the quality isn't as good as a DVD or Blu-ray, Zaganiacz pointed out. The selection can be limited as well, depending which service is used.

Morrow considers streaming to be the biggest contributor to the downfall of stores like his own.

The reputation of First Run keeps customers coming back, too. The employees pride themselves on their knowledge of movies and ability to recommend titles.

Netflix has mostly computer-generated recommendations that are not always a match for the viewer's taste. A special algorithm was created to better guarantee a recommendation was actually a good one for the subscriber.

Streaming is also available through many different avenues besides Netflix that include YouTube, Hulu and Vimeo. Independent film makers often use these sites to attract attention to their work. People whose videos have gone viral have been grateful for the ability to broadcast their work so easily online.

A store like First Run has to adapt to technology. Morrow has embraced one website in particular, although the medium itself has put many of his predecessors out of business.

First Run sells products on Amazon. The idea is that by ordering in bulk and needing more copies of a new release in the beginning of its run, the store can still make money by selling used or extra copies.

These sales make up 20-25 percent of the store's revenue, according to Morrow.

"While the Internet and streaming can hurt us, it can also help us by opening the doors to a larger audience of consumers to purchase our product," said Zaganiacz.

Morrow is optimistic in the future of First Run, citing citizens Brattleboro as being loyal to the mom and pop stores instead of big chains. He also mentioned how the store will stay relevant and Zaganiacz' new plan.

"The Internet is one of the main keys in going into the future and Todd is slowly turning the store into a buy-sell-trade store. The combination of the two is going to be key in our success for the future."

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.


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