At the time of these words, Blockbuster is the only corporate-named video store left in America that allows you to enter a brick and mortar business, walk its DVD-fortified aisles and allowing you to converse with a semi-competent, attentive clerk who can help you find what you want. But within weeks after this writing, you probably heard about Blockbuster filing for bankruptcy and reorganization because Netflix and Redbox have overtaken the DVD rental market. Renting from the convenience of home or while out gaining more weight and cholesterol at McDonald’s has become the new habit for us in wanting everything as fast as we think of it and without help finding it from a fellow human being.
It’s a domino tipped toward the tangible qualities of the brick and mortar store starting to crumble one brick at a time.
Although because it’s Blockbuster, the immediate business perspective has been that the retail experience will only die in the world of home entertainment. However, with so many painful sights of ghost malls and other prolonged empty retail spaces dotting every U.S. state, it seems to paint a picture that none of us want the retail store in our midst all the time…and perhaps only rarely some of the time.
The American retail experience has obviously changed somewhat from what it once was during the time when the concept of customer service was an essential part of successful capitalism. That slowly built from America’s earliest days and found its peak of perfection in the early part of the 20th century when the retailer and the customer created a symbiosis. It was a promise from retailers of making sure you’d get individual attention, get the product you want and, in turn, counting on you to become a loyal customer. Customer service became a royal model that’s still followed today, though done in a more calculated way now if you know how it works.
Any individual who’s studied sales technique in college will know the techniques to the letter when visiting a retail store with commissioned salespeople. The “not taking ‘no’ for an answer” sales technique has been both a sales boon and the bane of selling for generations. It truly became a liability once consumers figured out the basics of the techniques without even needing an education. In more recent years, the nervous-looking and desperate salesman depending on a commission has become a “Glengarry Glen Ross” caricature and turned off many customers making the special trip to be a part of the retail buying experience.
Once the video store industry started in the early 1980’s, there wisely wasn’t any commissioned salesman breathing down the consumer’s neck to rent the latest movie or face the salesman’s wrath. Arguably, the video store, during its heyday, became one of the most comfortable corporate places to experience customer service before there was a customer service decline in the corporate retail structure. When Blockbuster and Hollywood Video became the last two corporate video stores in recent years, they happened to retain a fairly good customer service standard. Expert training, plus a required dress code to the nines managed to give the college-aged kids they hired the illusion that they truly cared you were there and in helping you find the movie you had in mind.
Yet with even the last vestiges of that dying out with Blockbuster and the disappearance of the Ma & Pa store, it seems that the corporate store plan of creating a league of deadpan, self-possessed, non-responsive employees has become more profoundly spread out. On the surface, it appears that might be the true retail experience plug being pulled ahead of the economy.
If you’ve experienced going into a corporate chain store and had an employee right near you ignore your very existence, you may have experienced the perplexing 21st century nature of customer service decline. It’s given the impression that the corporate retail store doesn’t even care to train a single employee to help a customer. The truth is they probably do–though with employees getting away with not implementing it or not caring if they only work there for two weeks before being fired.
The video store always had the same kind of turnover with employees, despite most employees appearing to enjoy the job in the process. In other ways, the video store was a starting point for aspiring filmmakers where they could work in something relatable rather than frying burgers or selling Amway products. Now with most Hollywood Videos extinct in America and Blockbuster soon reinventing itself into strictly an online service competing with Netflix, it’s likely the human experience in a real video store is history.
If this is just the beginning of the human retail experience dying in the next ten years and moving online, the definition of what constitutes retail is going to be more challenging. However, as online technology increases, a simulated human experience might be able to be established. But there’s something about the presence of a real human being in a store who knows more about the products than you that makes shopping more satisfying. And even though customer service may be an illusion if you break it down to the sum of its parts, I still believe that most employees once found a satisfaction in helping us find what we wanted. Some out there still do.
It’s this symbiosis that should be re-energized on a wider scale so America can practice some form of moderation in equally visiting the real and the cyber-induced. The populace can make that happen before we become too used to shopping for just about everything online.
In the oddball future scenario of most to all retail stores disappearing in favor of having everything conveniently delivered to our doors for inevitable reasonable prices, what would the U.S. put in place of all those empty spaces?
As we do now, they may just sit there, hauntingly empty for a year–or perhaps have temporary stores filling their spaces to keep them afloat for a while longer.
Then it might reduce to tearing them down for housing developments…with perhaps a few of the stores being made into perpetual relics.
A lone Blockbuster sign from the past, standing tall on a random street corner within a housing development, would be a new icon of a satisfying human pastime lost or perhaps eventually regained.