Friday, March 10, 2006

Coworkers: Part 84 - Turn The Page‏

   The announcement was long overdue.
   Mighty Blockbuster had fallen.
   News swept like prairie fire across the chain, across music retail.
   Rich, powerful, unbeatable Blockbuster had thrown in the towel of defeat. They were quitting the music business.
   Blockbuster Music would be no more. To use Lonestar slang, our besieged owners had cut & run.
   Running for their financial lives.
   The demise had begun, auspiciously enough, five years earlier. With a flourish, Blockbuster initiated sweeping acquisitions into a realm they ill understood. For when the far reaching overlords launched themselves into music retail, they were at their peak. Their peak of power, of influence, of arrogance.
   Within five years, Blockbuster would be swallowed whole by Viacom. Next, it would be grabbed and shaken by its ankles, lucrative cash flow diverted to purchase Paramount Pictures. Finally, the entire music division would be sold off to bankruptcy refugees at a bargain basement price.
   Blockbuster Music's sorry history was one of decline and fall.

   Blockbuster, no matter how earnest or sincere their intentions might have been, made blunder after blunder with their shiny musical box.
   First, they alienated current employees and threatened potential ones. Employee turnover increased because of, or during, the Blockbuster reign. As new owners, they had entered with a conservative, fundamentalist agenda. They began drug testing all new applicants, then instituted the hated dress code. Any potential employee in this country who was as smart as Fifi the Poodle could scam the drug test. Kits and cheats were readily available.
   The dress code was far more insidious and destructive.
   Other than Lisa, we hired no "club rats." And Lisa was hired because Stacey and I lobbied for her. The store lost her, and she became Rob's right hand. Still, most people who went to clubs weekly or who were into the underground balked at the dress code.
   Understand, Blockbuster analysts assumed customers had become blind goobers. Shoppers couldn't recognize the hired help, even after help asked, "Finding everything alright?" A chest high name tag alone no longer sufficed. Field employees had to wear uniforms, a khaki and blue costume. Blockbuster honchos did not follow their own dress code, but they were masters. Employees were servants, treated accordingly. We remained a record store, but instead of being a cool chain, we were a shackled chain.
   Blockbuster's street cachet sucked with anyone under age 50.

   Years earlier, with the passing of Sound Warehouse, many employees bolted for the quieter world of a national book chain. For the later Blockbuster crew, that opportunity had passed into lore. Oh, the book chain still existed. Old colleagues, Dan, Trina, and Larry still toiled in the sleepy realm. Yet, the golden period had given way to harsher economics. Workers were no longer valued assets. Like employees across Retail Nation, they were servants. And treated accordingly.
   As months rolled into years, employees with less and less interest filled the ranks of Blockbuster. Employees who had no passion for music, groups, even movies. A third of the crew answered questions with a shrug. Blockbuster had that effect on people. We couldn't chase deadbeats out the store fast enough.

   Blockbuster's patronizing attitude towards customers cost them dearly. Our video rental section had been a solid earner. Prices were quadrupled, then the section swept away. Rental clients were permanently lost. Blockbuster had deceived themselves that music retail, (and then book selling!) would be conquered easily. They barreled into the fray on top of the world. In the video realm, they had been omnipotent. Competitors had been smashed, film studios harkened to their decrees, customers had few choices other than to pay non competitive rental prices.
   Electronic superstores entered the arena and low balled CD prices as loss leaders. Customers walked through those doors for cut price music, then purchased headphones or speakers and extended warranties. Blockbuster did not react. Market share was surrendered. Week by week, more and more.
   To attract customers, stores offered candy. Corporate brains told managers to hand out pieces of hard candy to entering customers. Dentists across the land applauded.
   Then came the book section, launched without any fanfare, any strategy, any support. Six months later, book sections were slashed and burned. If customers thought corporate management had lost their bearings, they were devastatingly accurate.
   File sharing and down loading emerged, and Blockbuster froze like a bewildered ostrich. They recovered their game plan quickly, however, and raised prices.
   Customer reaction was not reassuring.

   Camp Bowie employees either recalled better, pre-Blockbuster days, or they were later hires, accustomed to sorry stewards. We worked for the corporate equivalent of the spoiled, opinionated child. Common enough. Look hard enough and you'll see talentless blowhards singing, acting, running a business into the dirt, leading a nation to the brink. Happened every week, you just hated it when you became collateral damage.
   Stacey quit at one point, came back. Sharon had been released, came back. Angela left, Derek moved, Sarah climbed away. Pat found a second job, in time, the music store became her secondary job. I interviewed with corporate headhunters, while The Boss trawled his network. Blockbuster.poisoned morale.
   Consequently, one would think we would be thrilled, relieved to hear our incompetent bosses were sinking into the sunset.
   Not so.
   Because we had been sold by the misguided, overconfident palisade to the struggling trailer park. To a chain that had mismanaged itself into bankruptcy.
   Sound Warehouse had been purchased five years earlier for $185 million dollars. Super Club purchased for $150 M. Blockbuster purchased others. Six chains had been acquired to create Blockbuster Music.
   Viacom dumped the division for $115 million.
   We were a fire sale, a cheap commodity. We understood we would be valued as bargain goods.
   No one felt eager. Optimistic. Jackals were on the way.
   We tidied the store and awaited the buzzards.
   Bye bye, Blockbuster.


  1. Don't forget that part of the new Blockbuster dress code included hair length. Hair on men could not be past the collar. I can't remember if that was for all employees or just the managers and assistants. I was managing Berry Street at the time that went into effect and I lost two assistants at the time. Both were losers and I was glad to be rid of them to tell the truth. One guy actually cut his hair to stay and he actually turned out to be a good assistant. Still, it sucked ass going to work in khakis, blue shirt, and tie. Fonzie definitely lost his cool doing that.

  2. Our store found out Blockbuster put us up for sale when we read it in Billboard. I guess our manager knew, but he never told us.

  3. JB, we often knew earlier because we were closer to Dallas HQ. Our best source of info (good and bad) came from label reps. Particularly, WEA and UNI. Gus, Jamel, Ronnie were ahead of the curve.