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A Bad Taste Left By Late Fees

12 Aug, 2004 By: Thomas K. Arnold

I drove by a Blockbuster Video store the other day and noticed that the chain's new subscription service is really pumped. Huge ads are posted in virtually every window, extolling this virtue and that virtue: “Unlimited rentals” … “No extended rental fees.”

That got me to thinking back when I first started renting videos in the 1980s. A long-haired rocker, I wasn't exactly your early riser. Nor was I the most responsible person in the world. I'll never forget bringing back Blue Velvet two weeks later and having to pay “late fees” of $32.

I felt like a crumb, sort of like I did one day not too many years before that when I parked my car in a tow-away zone, got towed and had to schlep over to the impound yard and pay some ungodly figure for every day my car had been there. Lesson learned — I never parked in a tow-away zone again. And after my Blue Velvet experience, I went to great pains to return videos after one, two, maybe three days. I still got slapped with a late fee every now and then, but while I realized I had only myself to blame it still made my blood boil.

“How dare these miscreants penalize me for bringing one of their damn movies back a day later, when they've probably already made their money back many times over?” I thought to myself, shaking my head at the shabby, somewhat faded, clearly well-used box of Swedish Erotica Vol. 23.

Looking back at those carefree days of my (relative) youth, I can't help but think how differently I would have felt had Blockbuster simply imposed a daily rental rate rather than implementing an ominous-sounding “late fee.” Even the current euphemism — “extended rental fee” — sounds punitive, like I overextended myself, couldn't bring the video back on time and now, guess what? They're going to make me pay.

I think about all the troubles Blockbuster is now facing, and how the overall rental business is down by double digits and the only way some retailers are paying the bills is by relying more and more on used-DVD sales and trades.

I'm not saying that late fees stopped me from renting, but they certainly left me with a bad taste. And as soon as there was an alternative — which to me was the advent of sellthrough — I bought what I could and watched what I bought. I still remember buying an old boxing biopic for $9.98. There were tons of movies I would have rather watched, but by then I was sick and tired of running against the clock and having to face some pimply clerk who would sneeringly me inform me I owed $3 or $6 or $9 in late fees.

I know rental dealers in general, and Blockbuster in particular, have committed many blunders. But as far as I'm concerned, the whole “late fee” concept was one of the worst.

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