5 fatal flaws in Blockbuster's new $1 rental machines

When I was a kid, the first Blockbuster video opened near my school in Fort Lauderdale. And I don't mean the first Blockbuster in my neighborhood. I really mean the very first Blockbuster, ever.

The place was a revelation. Just a few years before, only the richest Americans could afford machines that played videotapes, so the appearance of a tidy supermarket of titles, many of which we'd only dreamed about seeing on UHF channels once in the distant past, was practically the definition of luxury. I'll never forget rushing there after school on new release day, or the soothing smell of all those gleaming aisles of new plastic clamshell cases. It was heaven.
Now Blockbuster is in retail hell. Assailed by Netflix and movies-on-demand, its place in American culture has withered into a punchline, and its drone-like, shrugging employees don't do much to lift the name.

The chain, which is slashing its store count by nearly a quarter in 2010, hopes to bolster its brand by installing fleets of DVD-dispensing machines in mundane locations such as supermarket lobbies, and the $1-a-night fee is certainly head-turning. A partnership with cash register company NCR is an attack on Redbox, as the kiosks are being installed nationwide.

Me, though? I'm shaking my head. I tested one of these pseudo-jukeboxes in the entry of a Publix Supermarket near Sarasota, Fla. I'm no Luddite -- after all, I write for a Web site -- but the experience was depressing.

Redbox's units aren't perfect, either, but you would think that Blockbuster would put more design effort into a device that pretty much represents its last great hope in the marketplace. Traditional video stores may have something to fear from Netflix and local cable companies, but they are not an improvement on the video store, and they're not progress. Here's why.

Limited selection
The Blockbuster kiosk, like Redbox's version, is the equivalent of the DVD shelf at the Walmart or the bookshelf at the drugstore: You're only going to find the most mainstream, most noisy, most blockbuster Hollywood movies. It's not a place to expose yourself to new things.

Here's the recipe: Mostly Hollywood, very few independent movies, pretty much no classics. The Blockbuster machines hold about 900 discs, but many of them are multiple copies of mass-appeal titles which seem to cater to 20-year-old boys and comics nerds.

My machine had plenty of copies of "I Love You Man" and pulpy slasher flicks, but it didn't have a single one of last year's Oscar winner for Best Actress, "La Vie En Rose." It didn't even know what it was. I also couldn't find copies of TV shows on DVD (I tried several), which is something I love renting.

If you want "Transformers," this bulky blue vending machine might do. But if you want anything much deeper, chances are you'll be out of luck.

Slow operation
I was hardly in a bustling location, yet every time I got about 30 seconds into my exploration of the machine's features, a new customer appeared behind me. Most of them wanted to browse, too. If each of us spent about four or five minutes looking for something to rent, the machine stood to make about $1 every 5 minutes -- already, that's much, much slower than picking up a video at a storefront rental joint. I saw a few people give up and go grocery shopping instead.

Rushed browsing
If you have a few movie titles in mind, you'll have to spend time plugging in letter-by-letter searches for them. If you don't remember the name of your movie but would recognize its poster or box cover, you have to search screen by screen through clusters of titles. Either way, it takes forever, and you could still come up empty.

Redbox's version at least has larger and easier-to-read box covers alongside its machines, but only of the most popular titles, and it also withholds the all-important synopsis from the back cover from easy accessibility.

The end of discovery
This is how we shop now: Clicking links, deciding against what we see, and finding new links. It's a lousy way to discover new products. The citizens of Laredo, Texas, will soon have to do their book shopping on the Internet when Barnes & Noble closes their last stand-alone bookstore, but there's a big flaw in shopping that way: You have to know what you want first. There's no flipping through pages, no reading the cover, and most importantly, if you shop online you're far less likely to stumble across a book you'd never ordinarily buy.

The great, unvoiced danger of getting all information from a computer is that people only tend to click on what interests them and miss out on stuff they would have loved, but never heard about before.

The Blockbuster kiosk is the manifestation of that flaw. Users are presented with a menu of genres and they are shown thumbnails of movies in each genre. To get more information about a movie, you have to tap it. To see more movies, you have to thumb through additional screens. By the time I had gotten two screens in, another waiting customer loomed behind me, and leisurely browsing was no longer polite.

Redbox's machines, too, have this issue. They can only accommodate one deliberating customer at a time.

The fact is that for smooth operation for everyone, you have to know the movie you want when you approach the machine. Just about everyone I know has a loose idea of the mood they're in when they enter a video store ("Let's get something funny."), but doesn't always have a specific movie in mind.

The Blockbuster machines force customers to abandon the happy discoveries and cinematic exploration that make going to the video store, or even skimming the pages of Netflix, such a pleasure.

Returns hog the machine
If you've got a movie to return, you can't stick it in the machine while another customer is browsing. You've got to wait. Once the machine is free (it could take a while), you stick your disc (held in its special shell) in the slot, wait about 10 seconds for the machine to recognize and swallow it, and then finish your transaction by pressing a few more buttons.

I saw customers give up waiting and leave the machine early, not realizing that once the disc had been accepted, they still had to verify that they didn't want to rent more. It's sometimes up to the next customer to tell the machine that the previous one didn't want to rent another movie.

The Blockbuster rental jukeboxes may be high technology (their sluggish speed tells me they're probably not even that), but they aren't fun. If these things present an honest threat to storefront video stores, I'm alarmed for the current state of consumer discretion.

And you had a head start with me, Blockbuster. I used to love you.
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