Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Coworkers: Part 48 - The Concept

   Suppose you threw a party, and nobody attended.
   You held an election, and nobody voted.
   Or you built yourself a national record chain, and nobody bought.
   Blockbuster had purchased a half dozen music store chains including Turtles, Record Bar, Tracks, Music Plus, Super Club, and us. They did not completely understand the music business model. Blockbuster was accustomed to patrons walking in, shopping, departing with arms full. Clients entered to rent something, anything. They'd rent 3-4 films, buy overpriced candy, microwave popcorn, and leave. Rental customers did not exit empty handed.
   Music stores were different.
   A sizable percentage of customers came to shop. Not buy, shop. Browse. Loiter. Money did not always change hands. Patrons chatted with staff, perused inventory, tweaked mental wish lists for their collections. Many suffered the proverbial "champagne taste - beer budget" syndrome. Most of us were patient, understanding. Like them, we were poor, too.
   Our new owners suffered a hissy fit. What was wrong with these customers? Visitors were supposed to spend money! They marched in, thank you very much, marched out an hour later. Nothing! Used up store air conditioning, wasted payroll man-hours in non profitable jabber, tracked dust on fixtures (Blockbuster may have known damned little about music, but one thing they did know was dust. Every single visit, every BB flunky zeroed in on dust.).
   "There must be a solution," a red headed minion stressed. "We need to force people to buy. Well, not force, convince. They are here to spend their money. We're not a social agency. Music stores were acquired to boost profits."
   She babbled on and on to The Boss or any handy assistant. Many of us had been in takeover situations before. New masters were always arrogant know-it-alls. Our new bullies, no matter how friendly, were cast to type.
   "Make sure all listening posts are working. If people hear it, they'll buy it. Remember your new slogan, The Power To Hear It All. You should post that phrase everywhere so employees don't forget. If clients don't know what they want, simply tell them what they want. Put something in their hands, suggest chart toppers, walk them to the registers so they feel compelled to buy."
   Hard sell.
   Customers hated this shit. We quickly discovered customers also hated Blockbuster. The video chain was a controlling monopoly, engaged in movie censorship, and practiced predatory pricing. Worst of all, Blockbuster had deliberately killed our own rental section. Maybe they had, maybe they hadn't. Yet customers were convinced.
   There was the strong suspicion we had been acquired originally because we were kicking their rental ass. Sound Warehouse rentals had been 99¢ and 49¢ per night. Business was dynamite. Two registers ran full bore from 5:00 on. Friday or Saturday, three registers. Video was a crowded, happy madhouse.
   After the takeover, rental prices were improved to $3.99 nightly. Our location lost over 90% of our rental customer base within one week. Movies with questionable ratings were purged. Oddball titles, not in their database, were eliminated. As prices exploded skywards, Video became funeral parlor sleepy.
   Faithful customers departed in droves. Even Henry and Martha, in their 80's, who had been with us for over a decade, discovered the grocery store next to us. Rentals there, $1.00 per night.
   Blockbuster never intended to keep rental at the music locations.
   "That is not in the overall concept. When people want movies, you're supposed to send them to the video locations. If they want music, we send them to you. Synergy. This will be profitable for everyone."
   Our store was remodeled. Sans video section. Rental stock was liquidated. I phoned friends at the public library, they filled several shopping carts with our old titles. The library, by the way, charged nothing for renting videos.
   Blockbuster's great concept. Synergy? Video locations began stocking compact discs. "We gotcha covered, teammate."
   Oh ... yes ... almost forgot about that second prong of their great concept.
   The master plan.
   Downloading.
   The mighty powers at Blockbuster planned to establish download stations in music stores. Customers could download albums or singles from a remote database and make copies in-store. Artwork and booklets would either be printed separately or mailed to them. That aspect remained murky.
   An intriguing concept.
   Blockbuster assumed, however, all the music labels would be agreeable to this. They assumed music labels would fall into line and kowtow to all powerful Blockbuster, just as movie studios had.
   All assumptions, even Boardroom assumptions, contain the same first three letters.
   The designers assumed wrongly.
   Record labels categorically refused, threatened legal proceedings if Blockbuster tried to launch their plan. Their grand presumption, on which they begun their music retail buying binge, came to nothing. They would have to compete in the marketplace on equal footing with competitors. They would have to entice disgruntled customers back into stores and convince them to buy, if they were to recover the millions invested.
   Grand schemes by suits, carried out by scattered trench rats.
   Folly.
   For myself, that was the first time I heard the word downloading.
   Pandora's box.
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