5 Apocalyptic Realities Working At A Modern Day Blockbuster
When a big corporation like Blockbuster dies, it's easy to laugh at corporate hubris. They thought they could compete with human laziness, haha! But these companies had employees who counted on them for paychecks, and to them, showing up for work every day was like watching grandma slowly lose her mind. We spoke to former Blockbuster Video assistant manager Corey, and former Kmart employees Dylan and Ashley, for a look inside iconic stores in the days before they were sent to that nice capitalist farm upstate.
You See Sad Attempts To Save The Business That You Know Won't Work
It wasn't all that long ago that Blockbuster was ... damn, what's a term for a massive success? In 2000, they had 7,700 stores and had just told Netflix they weren't interested in acquiring their money-hemorrhaging business. Why wouldn't consumers want to leave the house and stand under fluorescent lights on puke-smelling carpet to rent movies? Then Netflix caught on and Redbox kiosks started popping up, and Blockbuster started feeling the pinch. They weren't worried, though -- they knew their loyal customers couldn't live without the hallmarks of quality service they offered, like "business hours" and "late fees."
"The drive here is like a movie unto itself!"
"We were doing everything not to be Netflix," said Corey. "We were told to say why [the online, on-demand Blockbuster Total Access] was so much better than Netflix. But it had the same problems as the store. It carried mostly new releases, including ones many people simply didn't care about, while Netflix had the new movies people wanted, along with older classics and indie films. Customers brought this up, and all we could come back with was something about brand loyalty. After Total Access ended, that's when Blockbuster really started to fall."
Photo of what Blockbuster execs are watching right now.
Blockbuster seemed to go out of its way to avoid learning from Netflix. They discontinued older movies to save money, ignoring that Netflix's massive back catalog was a huge part of its success. And while Netflix can be streamed on everything from your Xbox to your toaster, Blockbuster offered streaming exclusively to Motorola phone owners and TiVo users, presumably because brands destined for obscurity need to roam in packs, like buffalo.
You can't even call it rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, because the Titanic at least had customers who wanted to be there before the whole iceberg thing. Blockbuster could have stocked every movie in existence, and customers still wouldn't have wanted the hassle of picking up and returning movies. You have to put pants on for that!
Otherwise it would be a very different kind of video store.
Kmart, meanwhile, tried selling credit cards to keep the lights on. Dylan explained that the worse things got, the more they turned to plastic for salvation. "At the end of every purchase, we needed to ask if they wanted to get a Kmart credit card. Phone number? Zip code? What about your email for great deals? Rewards card? Want a rewards card linked to your credit card? All that. Some people just drop what they have and leave the store."
Failure wasn't an option, but it was also inevitable. "If they need someone to let go, it's going to be the person who couldn't get people to sign up for a free rewards card. Kmart is really trying to tie in brand loyalty with these, and it makes people angry."
"Tell your co-worker I know a better place you can put those carts."
Did you notice that brand loyalty is a recurring theme here? It's like someone trying to hold a failing relationship together, except while they refuse to keep a job or hit the gym, there's someone single, sexy, and rich wooing their mate. "[Cards] scare people away," said Ashley. "The only people who get them are the people who already have Walmart and Costco savings cards; the people who shop around."
We'll let you decide what "shop around" means in that analogy.
You Watch The Store Slowly Fall Apart
Companies on their last legs are focused entirely on paying off their debts, so even basic maintenance drops off the list of concerns.
"Before I left, things were getting really bad," said Dylan. "There was the odd good day when a customer knocked over cleaning fluid -- we got to clean a few aisles from that. The cleaning supplies aisle was always sparkling because they often had to be cleaned due to spillage. Everywhere else was rubber stains and dust."
Especially the condom aisle.
Meanwhile, Blockbuster had to play triage nurse with their DVDs. "We only had enough money to buy new releases. DVDs got scratched up a lot, so we pulled any older ones. I know our season four set of The Simpsons had two of the discs missing, and we had Gangs Of New York with only the first disc, so anybody who rented it only saw the first half of the movie."
The mindset is "We can't waste money on maintenance. We've got to spend what we've got on bringing in customers!" But that fails to account for the fact that no one wants to shop in a store that looks like it's been raided by super mutants on vacation from the Capital Wasteland. Or, to put it another way, would you want to shop in a store that can't be bothered to clean up corroding car batteries?
Assuming you're not one of those burned fingers fetishists.
We're guessing your answer is no. So the store makes less money, so they cut back on maintenance even more, so even fewer customers come in, and the death spiral continues until the store looks like the set of a zombie apocalypse film.
World War Z-Mart
Working There In The Last Days Is A Paranoid Nightmare
Unless you've watched a Wendy's employee openly pee in your root beer, we're guessing you've never physically mailed a letter of complaint to a corporation. But when you're desperately looking for an explanation for what's going wrong, some little old lady complaining that the sugar-free candy doesn't have enough sugar in it could be the final nail in that branch's coffin. "Old people scared our store manager the most," said Dylan. "If you write an email complaint, then maybe they'll hear about it. But letters are harder to ignore, since they pile up."
One time, they closed the hard candy aisle. It was like Hogwarts accepted them.
Letters would go to corporate, and corporate would tell Dylan's manager that his store was "this close" to being shut down. "I know he offered customers gift cards or a discount to not complain. He was either afraid of another complaint possibly getting him fired or closing the store. We were on 'the list' of potential stores to be closed, and one more black mark could have been the difference."
With one or two Kmarts closing every week, that wasn't an idle threat.
"Get ready to dip into your 401(k) Marts."
And he wasn't getting paid enough to deal with that shit. No one was, because Kmart couldn't afford it. Hours -- and the wonderful benefits that come with working enough of them -- were among the first cuts. "We have a maximum of five hours and 45 minutes," said Ashley. A six-hour shift would legally entitle workers to a break, and if Kmart can't afford to pay people to clean up battery acid, they certainly can't afford to pay people to sit around and not clean up battery acid. Managers would go to ridiculous lengths to avoid paying employees, from fabricating complaints about workers in evaluations so they wouldn't qualify for a raise, to letting go of anyone who took too many sick days.
"I fixed another spill in the cleaning aisle, and I think I snorted out some lung."
"Cool. No need to come in to work on Monday. Or ever again."
So the message to employees was clear: Don't work too hard, because you won't be rewarded and that will make it all the more painful when your manager is forced to keep you from moving up a pay bracket. And if that scenario makes it tempting to call in sick, you might as well not show up at all. Now get out there and make a difference!
You See The Business Die One Section At A Time
Thousands of Blockbusters and Kmarts have gone out of business, but they didn't all shut down overnight. Instead, they often closed seemingly random departments to see if that saved them any money, like performing an amputation after the disease had already spread.
"We were told one day to phase out electronics," Dylan said. "The PS4 had come out a few months before, and we advertised them being half off. There's a university nearby, and we still didn't have many people come in. One of my buddies who worked with me finally bought up 12 PS4s and Xbox Ones for half price and sold them online for a profit."
Ashley witnessed the same section-by-section culling. "My store got rid of our deli and bakery a few years ago. We replaced it with an aisle that was all Craftsman tools. One of the bakers now had to be a tool expert." Kmart also entirely abandoned electronics and gardening (presumably the hip technology and fresh green plants remind them of everything they no longer are), but that only makes their stores look even more desolate.
Even tumbleweeds refuse to come here.
Kmart's last-ditch effort to stay relevant saw them stock their shelves with obvious knockoff merchandise like Mountain Rapids, Dr. Smart, Butterscotch Disks, Snack Crackers and everyone's childhood favorite, Chocolate Creme Sandwich Cookies. Creme? Ooh-la-la, Kmart! But of course, this backfired too. People took it as a sign to stay away from Kmart and their subpar merchandise because, well, would you trust anyone selling Butterscotch Disks?
Goes great with a nice, cold glass of Artificially Induced Nursing Cow Excretions.
Corey experienced something similar at Blockbuster. "My manager called us in and told us there was a 'restructuring' happening every year. Entire sections had to go. One year we took out all the video games. Before my store closed, we were talking about only keeping movies that had come out in the last decade."
Blockbuster abandoned failed idea after failed idea before making its last stand on a rampart of Christopher Nolan movies that eventually collapsed under the pressure of having the entire corporation's future placed on them. "We were just keeping the most profitable sections and expanding them. Hello, 30 copies of The Dark Knight."
Even Your Competition Gets Depressing
It's not surprising that Kmart lost to Walmart and Target, and that Blockbuster lost to the slow but inevitable march of human progress. But one of Kmart's biggest rivals is also their saddest.
"Goodwill takes a bunch of our business," said Ashley. "There are two Goodwill stores near us, including one right next door. Goodwill kicks our ass. They have a huge book section, a wide variety of clothes, cheap shoes, and don't have an entire aisle dedicated to one brand of tools. We do everything we can to crowd them out, but it's hard to do since they're a charity that actually makes good money."
And they're kicking their asses on labor costs.
Meanwhile, Blockbuster found themselves locked in a life-or-death battle with libraries, whose biggest demographic is homeless people who need to use the bathroom. "Libraries were the death of us. In my store in particular, we had a few meetings on how to beat the library. They have a free membership, have a ton of movies on DVD, anything missing gets replaced, and their late fees are a quarter a day."
Don't even try to tell us that you've heard a sentence sadder than
"We had a few meetings on how to beat the library."
In 2010, libraries were renting more DVDs than Blockbuster, Netflix, and Redbox combined.
And Blockbuster took away the exact wrong lesson from that. They thought they didn't need to embrace any of this newfangled streaming technology; they just needed to be better than the low-cost nonprofit public service at renting an increasingly outdated medium. That's like dreaming of making it to the major leagues and then getting your ass kicked by a children's T-ball team.
"We lost casual watchers with Netflix, but we still had families and film buffs coming in. Before the recession, we co-existed [with libraries]. But after, everyone turned there to save money. It wasn't overnight, but it sure felt like it. We were very afraid of them. When I met my ex-boss last year, he was still blaming the library."
Correction: That is a much sadder sentence.
That's right. A former Blockbuster manager is out there right now, mad at libraries for putting him out of a job. At least Blockbuster was consistent. They had no idea what they were doing right up until the very end.
Evan V. Symon is a member of the PE interview team and the interview finder person. Have an awesome/incredible experience you would like to share with us? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
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