Last Blockbuster on Earth adapts to remain in business during pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in Netflix streaming. But the last Blockbuster Video store on Earth won’t give in easily.
“We’re still operating,” Sandi Harding, general manager of the store in Bend, Oregon, told BNN Bloomberg in a phone interview. “I can’t say enough about the Bend community. They are doing everything they can to support us.”
Last year, a Blockbuster franchise in Perth, Australia closed its doors, leaving the 4,000-square-foot Bend location as the only remaining Blockbuster on the planet.
It has been renting videos since 1992, when it was known as Pacific Video. It was franchised in 2000, making this its twentieth year as a Blockbuster.
The store closed briefly last month, after failing to make a list of COVID-19 essential businesses outlined by Oregon Governor Kate Brown.
Harding, who has worked at the franchise for 16 years, said certain stores have been permitted to stay open if they follow proper social distancing guidelines.
“Unfortunately, the first couple of days were a nightmare because people were not familiar enough with social distancing.”
While the store was closed, Harding tried offering a curbside pickup service.
“We would check customers out over the phone. Then, we would wipe down each film, place it in a brand new Ziploc bag and take it out to the car.”
Unfortunately, she said, the store wasn’t generating enough business. It officially re-opened April 17 with shorter store hours. Traffic has been limited to no more than 10 customers at a time, and employees wear gloves and masks.
“We realized we had 22,000 movies in the store. We don’t have enough cleaning supplies to clean each movie. But we are able to wipe down every movie that goes out and comes back in.”
While the store was closed, staff — who have all remained on the payroll during the pandemic — re-arranged queue lines to ensure customers practice social distancing when lining up.
There are also arrows down each aisle so people know they can only go one way.
As per Governor Brown’s orders, the store has an employee on the lookout at all times for anyone who is not following the rules.
“We have one employee police each day both customers and workers so we can all be safe,” Harding said.
She notes the store’s revenue is now back to roughly half what it would normally be, compared to around a quarter of its typical sales during the curbside pickup experiment.
“I’m okay with that,” Harding said. “As much as I would love to have the money coming in, I want my staff and customers to stay safe.”
Blockbuster, at its peak, had more than 9,000 locations worldwide. The company even passed up a chance to buy Netflix for US$50 million in 2000. “They laughed at us,” Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph told BNN Bloomberg in a 2019 television interview.
Today, Netflix’s market valuation is more than US$185 billion.
“One lady recently came in with her teenage daughter and said there’s only so much Netflix [she] can take,” Harding said with a laugh.
“There’s a lot of stress on everyone these days. Kudos to every business owner who is keeping their head above water.”
In her case, Harding sees a desire on the part of people to support an underdog.
“We had a whole bunch of online orders recently after we put out an Instagram post. It’s really phenomenal the love we get.”
Harding says customers are also using their trip to the Blockbuster store as a rare opportunity to get out of the house.
“If you’re going to the grocery store, we are across the street and it’s something you can do quickly — get in, get out.”
As for some of the more popular rentals, there has definitely been a virus-related theme.
“Right at the beginning of all this, I had to order a couple more copies of ‘Outbreak.’ ‘Contagion’ has also been pretty popular. Anything that has to do with a pandemic.”
Another customer rented the recent Academy Award winner ‘1917’ and the first two seasons of ‘Game of Thrones.’
“After three weeks of sitting at home looking at the same screens, people just want to do something different.”