Thomas K. Arnold is considered one of the leading home entertainment journalists in the country. He is publisher and editorial director of Home Media Magazine, the home entertainment industry’s weekly trade publication. He also is home entertainment editor for The Hollywood Reporter and frequently writes about home entertainment and theatrical for USA Today. He has talked about home entertainment issues on CNN’s “Showbiz Tonight,” “Entertainment Tonight,” Starz, The Hollywood Reporter and the G4 network’s “Attack of the Show,” where he has been a frequent guest. Arnold also is the executive producer of The Home Entertainment Summit, a key annual gathering of studio executives and other industry leaders, and has given speeches and presentations at a variety of other events, including Home Media Expo and the Entertainment Supply Chain Academy.
Our annual salute to the nation’s top home entertainment retailers is still a month away. But in my regular perusals of quarterly earnings reports, and earnings call transcripts, I’ve noticed that perhaps the most overused term in retail circles is “omni-channel,” an attempt by brick-and-mortar retailers to remain relevant — and stay in business — in a world increasingly dominated by Amazon, iTunes and other Web-only sellers.
What I’ve noticed is that while retail executives liberally toss around the “omni-channel” term and pat themselves on the backs for their efforts to bring the physical and virtual worlds together, only a few are getting it right. Among them is U.K. fashion retailer Oasis, which arms its clerks with iPads so if an item isn’t in stock, the customer can either order it on the spot or be directed to a nearby store that does have the item in stock. Another is Carrefour, a Belgian supermarket chain that lets customers scan items they want into an online shopping list and, when done, submit the order for pickup or delivery. And I absolutely love Apple’s approach, to let customers make appointments online to the “Genius Bar” in Apple stores, for quick, one-on-one customer service.
One of the silliest trends I’ve seen is the “ship to store” option, in which customers can order something online, through the retailer’s website, and then pick it up at the store. That defeats the whole purpose of online ordering — the primary reason we buy something from Amazon is because we don’t have time to go to the store, and want the merchandise delivered to our home or office. Why would I order a PlayStation 4 or a batch of Blu-ray Discs from Best Buy and then schlep on down to the store to pick the stuff up? Yes, I know, the lure is free shipping, but guess what? Amazon already offers that, and in fact shipping charges are fast disappearing in the online world. I know why retailers like the “ship to store” option: It brings customers into their stores, where hopefully they will buy something else. But that’s not thinking like a customer, is it?
Retailers also need to realize that speed is critical — and thanks to Amazon Prime we’re used to getting pretty much everything we could ever want within 48 hours. Our youngest son, Hunter, came home from ninth grade the other day and said he needed a copy of a certain book and movie ASAP. My wife drove down to the nearest Barnes & Noble to see what they had; neither book nor Blu-ray Disc was in stock. A cheerful clerk offered to order both and smiling said they’d arrive at the store in about a week. As she was relating this story to me on the phone, I was already on my Amazon app and by the time we hung up had purchased both online, with free two-day shipping. “Bad customer service,” I told Diana when she got back home. “The clerk should have said it will be there in two days and, if necessary, done the same thing I did, order it off Amazon,” I noted. Instead, I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth — and for our next school-required book or movie purchase we’re not even going to give Barnes & Noble a chance.
It’s a brutal world out there, folks. Brick-and-mortar retailers need to sharpen their survival instincts and get aggressive. And the whole concept of “omni-channel” is not so much integrating the physical and virtual retail worlds as it is streamlining the shopping process and enhancing the customer experience.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen....
The news this morning, that Blockbuster has begun an auction process that will be overseen by the once-mighty video rental chain's four top creditors, really isn't surprisingly. Blockbuster has seen its revenues hit by rivals Netflix and Redbox, both of whom effectively built better mousetraps in delivering rental titles to consumers, and last year filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Since then, the chain has had trouble paying its bills, and in fact is being sued by Summit Entertainment for nearly $10 million worth of product.
We've also been hearing reports that Blockbuster is having trouble getting product from certain studios, and just last week I received a letter from a gentleman in Little Rock, Arkansas, that indicated just how dire the situation really is on the store level:
"I went into my local Blockbuster video store today and saw a big section on a wall reserved for copies of the movie Red. No copies were available, which surprised me for a Wednesday morning. I asked the store employee and she said they hadn’t received their copies yet, and she’d been told by her superiors that they didn’t know when they’d get any in. This is three weeks after the movie was released. I noticed a few other blank sections on the wall for new releases that hadn’t arrived yet. I saw this first happen a month ago with the release of The Social Network. It took over a week for this store to get their copies. I’ve been renting at Blockbuster nearly 25 years and I’ve never seen this happen before. They’ve always had the new releases on the day they were released. Any idea what’s going on?"
What's going on is this: Unless something dramatic happens, Blockbuster won't be around for much longer. Just writing this causes a lump in my throat, a burning feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. For years and years, Blockbuster not only has been the 800-pound gorilla of our industry, but it also has become a pop cultural icon, as much a part of American culture as Coke, Walmart and the iPod. I can't imagine life without Blockbuster, and as I've written in this space before I really think the chain has done everything it can in recent years to reinvent itself short of shutting down all its stores and investing the money in, say, enough computer terminals or kiosks to go head-to-head with Netflix and Redbox.
It's too late for that, of course. Netflix and Redbox both have become too entrenched for anyone to challenge their dominance in their respective sectors of the retail trade, and if either one of them fails it will be because their business model no longer appeals to the consumer--sort of the same thing that did old Blockbuster in.
Of course, the big millstone around Blockbuster's neck was its debt load, which prevented the chain from meeting the Netflix/Redbox challenge head on or even capitalizing on the exclusive availability of rental titles from four of the six majors on street date--a development Blockbuster should have marketed the hell out of but didn't, simply because it had no money.
Now, it's come to this. An auction. The creditors--all hedge fund firms, including Monarch Alternative Capital and Owl Creek Asset Management--have set the opening bid at $290 million, a fraction of what the chain once was valued at. If no bids are received by April 20, the four credits would end up owning Blockbuster.
What they would wind up doing with Blockbuster is anybody's guess. One wag on the Film School Rejects website suggested "somebody rich should scoop up this and MySpace and start a pop culture museum."
Hot scoop: Warner Home Video says that among its special Blu-ray Disc editions next year will be a new restoration of <i>The Exorcist,</i> feauring both the original 1973 theatrical release and the 2000 extended director's cut.
The transfers, just completed in July, were supervised by both director William Friedkin and director of photography Owen Roizman. The disc should be out in time for Halloween 2010.