COLUMBIA — “Have you ever seen that Seinfeld episode,” Janet Marsh asks, flashing her impish smile from across the counter as she checks in a DVD, “where Elaine falls for the video clerk because of his picks, and he turns out to be a nerdy 10th grader?
“We’re like that,” she says. “People tend to love us or hate us because of our picks.”
The “us” Marsh refers to, a bit whimsically perhaps, is the local video store (which, strictly speaking, isn’t even video anymore, owing to the DVD); loved or hated, the store, facing new technologies and increased competition, is finding itself quietly pushed to the corner of the rental market.
In Columbia, video renters can find a copy of “The Usual Suspects” at all of the usual suspects, chain-speaking: Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, Movie Gallery. Guess who else is coming to dinner? Last month, online rental provider Netflix joined the fray, in terms of a regional presence, when it opened a Columbia shipping center.
But there’s only one place in town to rent movies that Columbia can call its own.
Janet Marsh and co-owner Sally Beattie’s 9th Street Video, which opened in 1992, is Columbia’s lone locally-owned independent video store. And that is a sign of the digital times.
Rise of the national retailers
“Initially, it was almost all independent stores,” says Sean Bersell, spokesman for the Entertainment Merchants Association, a nonprofit home entertainment industry trade group. But as the video rental market matured from its bringing up baby phase in the late 1970s, the market players changed.
“The late ’80s saw the rise of national chains,” Bersell said. “By the mid-’90s they really started to get traction and market share. And in the late ’90s we saw a lot of competitive pressure, and the mom-and-pop stores got squeezed,”
Bersell details a giant change in the video rental industry’s business model in the 1990s.
“The big chains went from purchasing copies of movies to leasing them,” Bersell said, which allowed them to focus on, and carry more, new-release titles, a cash cow for the national retailer. As a result, however, selection went out the rear window.
So how many independent video stores are there in the United States in 2007, and how does that number compare with years past?
Unfortunately, Bersell says, there is no clear answer due to a lack of industry record keeping. “We know anecdotally that number has decreased in the past decade,” he said.
The EMA estimates between 10,000 to 12,000 independent video stores are in business, though that number can be debated, based on how inclusive the definition of “video store” is, Bersell said. (For instance, how should convenience and ethnic grocery stores be counted?)
Home video rentals hit $8.4 billion in 2006, according to the EMA. But while overall home entertainment spending is expected to rise in the coming years (movie rentals plus DVD sales), EMA predicts little to no dollar growth in the home rental market and an actual decline by 2015.
Meanwhile, Netflix predicts a doubling of the online-based subscriber market in as little as four years – to 20 million subscribers in 2012 from the current 8.8 million, according to the company’s Web site.
The math, it seems, is not lining up in favor of the traditional bricks-and-mortar provider. But some like it hot.
Marsh is happy to compete with the big chains (“Blockbuster is always sending people to us,” she confides), but she concedes the Netflix effect.
“It’s affected us,” she said. “We had people coming in from Sedalia to get movies who no longer come in.”
Filling the local niche
With competition from the big chains, and a growing trend to online rentals and downloads, is it high noon for the local independent video store?
“There’s still a place for them,” Bersell says. “The key for the independent store is to know their market and know their customer base.”
Marsh’s 9th Street Video typifies both a niche and market-savvy aspect of survival in the rental industry.
“Our selection isn’t lowest common denominator, which a lot of stores are,” Marsh said. “And we do a lot of business with students and teachers.”
To illustrate the point, and right on cue, in to Marsh’s store walks Jane Zanol, instructor at Stephens College, looking for a copy of “The Color Purple.” Why did Zanol come to 9th Street Video, and not the big blue-and-yellow chain?
“I was sure they would have what I wanted,” Zanol said. “Janet has an interest in advancing film education in the community.”
In 2008, 9th Street Video will no longer carry a Ninth Street address — Marsh plans on joining Columbia’s Ragtag Cinema at its newly proposed Hitt Street location. The location will feature an expanded Ragtag lineup, bakery and 9th Street Video.
Over the years she’s been in business, Marsh has come to appreciate the variety of tastes of her local customer base.
“Don’t underestimate people in Columbia,” she says. “Don’t say, ‘No one will want this, it’s too erudite, too obscure.’ People are all over that in Columbia.”
Marsh’s 9th Street Video has an online presence as well. The store’s Web site, www.9thstvideo.com, alerts customers to new releases, includes the love-them-or-hate-them staff picks and features an internal database of the store’s 11,000 movie titles.
And it has something Netflix and Blockbuster do not: a wild bunch of 19 erraticaly-translated subtitles lifted directly from Hong Kong movies, under the heading “Snippets”.
Summing up quite neatly the case of the independent rental provider vs. Netflix and the big chains is the first quote from the list: “I am damn unsatisfied to be killed in this way.”