A few weeks ago, I noticed my local (Brooklyn, N.Y.) Blockbuster Video store was closing up shop. No big deal. These things happen all the time, especially with the sky-high rents charged for commercial real estate here in New York City. But when I saw that two other nearby Blockbusters were also shutting down, my interest was piqued. Some quick googling revealed that the closures weren't limited to Manhattan and Brooklyn: at least 16 stores in northern Michigan were also shuttered in recent months. And who knows how many were closing without the news hitting the local papers.
A quick call to Blockbuster's corporate offices help put the store closures in perspective. Company spokesman Randy Hargrove confirmed that the company is on track to close about 300 stores in 2006. And while that's double the previous average of annual store closings, it doesn't include the 57 new stores that will have opened throughout the year. Hargrove went on to point out that the company still has more than 5,000 locations throughout the U.S. (including, according the company's online store locator, several stores in New York City and Michigan).
Indeed, Blockbuster has been touting its new Total Access plan, which more closely aligns the company's brick-and-mortar and online rental operations. The Total Access plan lets all Blockbuster Online subscribers rent discs from their local stores (up to one movie a week) without paying anything extra above and beyond the monthly membership fee. Likewise, online rentals can be returned to the local store rather than mailed, where they can be exchanged for an off-the-shelf choice. But there are two big catches: The in-store choices need to be returned to the store (rather than by mail), and they are subject to late fees.
Whether or not Total Access is a knockout punch to Netflix or a step backward for Blockbuster is a matter of opinion. But it does at least offer some competition and choice for movie fans, and that's never a bad thing. Still, the giant "Rent Online" placard in the window of the neighborhood video store is a powerful sign of the times. The bigger question remains how long it will take before "rent online" means click to stream, rather than snail-mailing discs from one post office to the next.