The last Blockbuster in the world, located in Bend, Oregon, is weathering the pandemic by tapping into the nostalgia of the iconic video store chain, while also offering sleepovers through Airbnb and selling merchandise sourced through local vendors.
Plus, at a time when consumers are done scrolling through Netflix and Hulu and have watched everything there is on Amazon Prime due to the continuing theater closures and production stoppages because of the pandemic, Blockbuster offers tangible content for which people actually have to leave their homes.
“When this whole thing started, streaming platforms were the new toy — you can go online, and scroll in your jammies,” Sandi Harding, the store manager of Blockbuster, told TheWrap. “But now, people miss getting out, and being able to walk around and getting an idea of what they want to watch.”
Harding said although she was initially stressed out when coronavirus first hit, doing just 1/10 of the business they usually do in the month of April, they were able to turn to online merchandise sales to get through. May, she said, saw the most orders they’ve seen in a single month, and in July, they received 5,000 orders just in a 10-day period. “People were wanting to help us stay open,” Harding said, adding that the volume or orders prompted her to ask other local businesses for help, so the entire Bend community was able to support each other.
People wanted to help so much, in fact, that the server crashed in early August due to orders. But Harding decided to play up the nostalgia factor a bit more and teamed up with Airbnb for locals to sleep over at the establishment for one night. The movie rental costs $3.99, and for just a penny more, people could sleep over and have a movie marathon. Harding said that the third night (the event took place over three nights) was her favorite because a young couple brought old VHS tapes from their childhood that they haven’t been able to play themselves, and watched those at Blockbuster well into the night.
VHS players aren’t the only piece of old technology Blockbuster still has. In fact, it runs on 1992 computer systems that are not connected to the internet, and the employees still use floppy disks and hand-written membership cards, because the dot-matrix printer broke. When Harding took over running the business in 2004, she decided that upgrading the electronics — and the interior — wasn’t in the budget. And working with almost 30-year technology for which parts don’t even exist anymore has proven to be quite challenging, especially in pandemic times.
“Before the pandemic hit, our CPU went out — It’s an IBM CPU from the 90s, so trying to find someone who can swap out the hard drive for me was a fun thing,” Harding explained. “Someone I knew works for HP, and his dad had worked for IBM, so at 6 a.m. one morning we were all trying to figure out how to change the server. During the pandemic, someone who had worked for IBM cleaned out his garage and found pieces and asked if I wanted them, and he brought me parts and pieces. I also hoarded everything after the other stores closed — we call our stage room a computer graveyard… It’s amazing how people come together for us — they recognize the nostalgia and the fun of it. Besides Disneyland, I have one of the coolest places to work and everyone is happy to be here. Now people are like, ‘I’ll pay my late fees, how else can I help you guys out?'”
Harding explained that they also have the original sound system which was initially wired for DVD and VHS players — but when Blu-ray became the standard, it became quite a challenge for them to upgrade. In general, Harding said she would love to upgrade the technology because it would save her months and months of looking for old parts. The one thing she does allow is for employees to use their cellphones on the floor, now lined with social distancing signs and hand sanitizer, so they can look up films on IMDb — after all, their computers aren’t internet-based.
Prices remained the same as well, with new movies retailing for $3.99 for a 3-day rental, while older movies got $.99 for a weeklong rental. Late fees are still a thing, and Harding said that she has around 25,000 films in the over 4,000 square foot store.
When the pandemic first hit, Harding saw many people renting films like “Contagion” and “Outbreak,” but now, people are renting more rom-coms.
“People now want to get away from the depressing part of the pandemic — they want to start being fun,” Harding said. “We just put up a section in the store for the 80s. People are back to feeling good again. When we first reopened, people were coming in for the classics because those are movies you couldn’t find online.”
Another difficulty that was brought on by the pandemic is that the distributor from whom Harding often got her films stopped distributing films, so she had to find movies in stores like Walmart and Target early on Tuesday mornings, while other shoppers were shopping for essentials like toilet paper, sanitizing wipes, and food.
If theaters remain closed and more and more movies head to streaming platforms and VOD, one would think a business like Blockbuster would feel threatened. But for Harding, it’s quite the opposite.
“I think we’re going to be fine,” she said. “The one nice thing I have seen, some movies are going straight to streaming like ‘Mulan’ and it’s now coming on DVD, that’s not different for us because that’s would happen for us if it went the theatrical route anyways. There are still people who don’t want to pay $30 for that new release. People always ask me, how do you compete with Netflix? And I say, you don’t compete with Netflix. We aren’t going to compete with the streamers, but we can give that personal customer service that you won’t get at home in your couch.”