Tuesday, September 14, 2010

To end at the beginning

I watched my last movie as a Blockbuster Total Access customer last night.

Appropriately enough, it was the first movie where anyone ever spoke a line of dialogue -- or gets credit for being that, anyway.

That's right, after whimpering about the decrease in Blockbuster's services and locations on my blog a half-dozen times earlier in the year, I'm now going out with a bang, as it were -- suddenly, and without any advanced warning. I'm paid up through tomorrow, and I'm on the verge of letting my subscription for online rentals lapse. In fact, I will officially do it at some point during the writing of this post.

The choice of The Jazz Singer as my last movie was not intentional or symbolic. It just so happens that I'm watching movies from the 1920s in September as part of my Decades series, and it happened to be time to watch the movie that gets credit for ushering in the "talkie" era. But in retrospect, there was something appropriate about it.

Appropriate because I have been doing things "the old way" for way too long, and it's time to step into the next generation of film renting. That started about a month ago, when we got our first BluRay player, which, perhaps more relevantly, is also capable of streaming Netflix. Watching streamed movies on my TV has become my immediate preferred method of doing things, and has made the long drives to pick up movies from -- and then return movies to -- Blockbuster locations seem increasingly tedious. I don't know if we would have gotten to this point if I had a Blockbuster on the corner, but it takes me a good 10-15 minutes to reach the closest one now, and that just ain't cutting it.

I had been making noise about quitting Blockbuster for a long time now -- the writing was on the wall. But my wife sensed that I needed a bit of a push out of my comfort zone, so earlier in the summer we discussed that I could use the purchase of the BluRay player as my impetus to finally pull the trigger. That gave me a couple months still to "appreciate" Blockbuster, since we didn't plan to buy the Netflix streamer until just before our child was born.

Because I have appreciated Blockbuster, as strange as that sounds. I know they are a faceless corporation that you are supposed to hate with the kind of vigor reserved for WalMart, but I have never hated Blockbuster that way. Their customer service has always been excellent with me -- I can't say the same for Netflix, when I used to be a customer and when I considered becoming one again -- and I have always enjoyed the benefits that I used to consider them to have over Netflix. Back in the glory days, you used to be able to exchange your on-line rentals at the store and get both an in-store rental, and the next movie in your queue sent to you. Since there were two Blockbusters about equidistantly close from where I lived, this was an option I availed myself of regularly.

Well, first they changed that policy so that you didn't get your next rental through the mail until you returned your in-store rental. Then they closed first one, then the other of those two closest Blockbuster stores. And even after I adjusted to that, I've found that a lot of the titles I'm really interested in renting online have statuses like "Short Wait," "Long Wait," "Very Long Wait" or even the dreaded "Unavailable." As my online queue became strewn with the corpses of interesting movies Blockbuster was never going to be able to ship to me, I realized what the rest of the world realized a long time ago -- Blockbuster, as currently constructed, is an unsupportable business model that may not exist in this form for very much longer.

But because Blockbuster has been so good to me -- never questioning me when I say a movie got lost in the mail, always sending me extra coupons to make good on their mistake, etc. -- I do feel a little bad abandoning them like this. Every customer who drops their service drives one more nail into their coffin.

I know that if a company like America Online still exists, somehow, then Blockbuster will, too. Rationally, I know that the $20-something per month I will no longer be paying them will not be felt, really, at any level of the organization.

But I still feel bad. Because you have to mourn the little changes that come along like this, as they come along. You had to mourn the closing of the music stores, and now you have to mourn the eventual closing of the video rental stores, which is happening sooner rather than later. Kiosks, while very handy, can only do a partial job replacing what video stores, in their prime, could offer us. (And I guess I should pause to say that I'm glad that the smaller video stores, with less overhead, seem like they could still thrive for a little while longer.)

So how do I plan to manage my rentals going forward, without Blockbuster?

Well, I mentioned kiosks in the previous paragraph. Redbox is sure to pick up a bunch of the slack on new releases, movies that may have an initial backlog if you try to rent them through Netflix. And for new new releases -- the ones Blockbuster has been getting up to 28 days before Redbox and Netflix -- I can actually still avail myself of the Blockbuster kiosks, the first one of which I saw in a local Pavilions grocery store the other day. I'm hoping that the kiosks will still get those movies ahead of the competition, so this will give me access to the newest video releases while still letting me demonstrate my remnants of customer loyalty to Blockbuster.

Then we'll be increasing the number of rentals from Netflix we're allowed to have out at any given time. Currently, my wife is on the modest one-disc-at-a-time plan -- the streaming has always been more interesting to her than the physical DVDs (she's so advanced compared to me). I've always been a big proponent of pooling our resources now that we're married, and keenly, she used that argument to get me to drop Blockbuster and take an ownership role in her Netflix queue. In reality, I will probably have the run of that queue, still able to get the rare movies I want to see (a better selection of them than Blockbuster, probably), either because I've heard they're good or because I need to review them. And with acceptance of Netflix comes forgiveness of Netflix, for a customer service blunder that was now so long ago that I won't even bring it up here.

In case I miss renting movies in the original cases they came in, there's always the good old reliable library. And hey, if I'm feeling really nostalgic, I can always walk into a Blockbuster and actually plunk down the ridiculously high rental fee, something on the order of $5. I'll still have my membership card, after all. I'm still a Blockbuster member, they just won't be drawing a regular payment from my credit card, nor get the lion's share of my business.

And I may still use them for another valuable purpose, one that I was worried about losing by dropping Blockbuster: aisle browsing. One of my biggest concerns is that I would lose my ability to browse a large number of unfamiliar titles, which a person can only do effectively in the new release section of a brick-and-mortar video store. But then it hit my like a lightning bolt a couple weeks ago: I can still do that. There's nothing to keep me from walking into a Blockbuster, browsing the hell out of that new release section, jotting down some titles I wasn't familiar with previously, and then walking the hell out.

So this morning I took The Jazz Singer and the first disc of the first season of Party Down, and dropped them in the mailbox on the corner. I wanted to guarantee that I returned them before the 15th, so I don't have to make a partial payment on next month's bill, and that also committed me to being sure I actually pulled the plug on Blockbuster today, so they don't receive them and send me the next movies in my queue. The ceremonious last act will be returning my in-store rental of the execrable Furry Vengeance later today -- and then my books will be square with Blockbuster.

So without any further ado, here I go, pulling up the Blockbuster website, to do the dirty deed.

But first, some printing. Before cutting ties, I had always wanted to print out my queue, so I could recreate as much of it as I wanted on Netflix. Then, while I was at it, I decided to print out my rental history, which goes 200 titles back, getting us back to March of 2009. Yep, I used this thing a lot.

Then, on to the fateful page. I clicked the My Account link, then under the Subscription Plan area, I clicked the Cancel link. Needless to say, they weren't going without a fight. They offered me a number of lower-level plans, some of which came to as little as $4.99 a month. They even offered for me to put my subscription on hold for as long as three months. But I couldn't be swayed by these options. It's like taking off a bandaid -- you just have to rip it off. I moved my mouse to the blue "Please just cancel my subscription" area and clicked.

Then of course had to fill out a survey about why I was leaving. Well, given my fondness for them as a corporate entity, the least I could do was explain my reasoning. And even though I chose "I am trying to cut expenses" as the reason for canceling (and that's legitimate, especially when I discovered yesterday how much my son is costing me in health insurance), I went on to include the following comment:

"The two closest Blockbuster stores to me have closed, and now it's very inconvenient for me to get to the next closest store. I considered the in-store exchange aspect of the subscription to be one of its primary benefits over Netflix, but was no longer making regular use of that after those two stores closed. Plus, I found too many titles on line that were listed as "Long Wait" or "Very Long wait." One way to assist with the inconvenience of getting to the store would be to implement a system where you can return your video to any Blockbuster within a 25-mile radius, or something like that. Being able to rent from one store and return to another would have helped. But, it wouldn't have helped enough. I enjoyed being a Blockbuster customer when it met my needs, and I have always appreciated the high quality of Blockbuster customer service -- thank you. Unfortunately, it's just not meeting my needs the same way it used to."

Probably more than I needed to give them, but hey, like I said, they're alright in my book.

I skipped one more chance to keep my subscription active, and clicked Continue With My Cancellation.

The next page told me the cancellation was successful, and that I actually had until 10/15 to return my videos to avoid being charged for them.

Maybe I'll watch Furry Vengeance ten more times, just to wallow in nostalgia.

Good luck, Blockbuster. Don't go bankrupt on my account.

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