Blockbuster closings strain search for DVD rentals for summer vacations

Beach chairs, check. Sunscreen, check. DVDs for the road and vacation rental, unavailable.

The race to provide cutting-edge Internet video services such as Netflix has made it far harder to find a DVD rental these days. Just one Blockbuster remains in the District, and scores of family-owned rental shops have closed in recent months or are on the verge of shuttering.

So what’s a family with three home DVD players, an in-car system and a portable player to do?

“I guess we’ll end up watching the same DVDs over and over again, or the machines will just collect dust,” said Amber Pico, 21, browsing through the family section of the remaining Capitol Hill Blockbuster one recent afternoon.

Pico is confronting that question after spending years equipping her life with what just a few years ago seemed like state-of-the-art technology.

DVDs and the devices made to play them look poised to enter the growing technology graveyard in American homes: They are headed for that plastic bin tucked away in the basement, which also holds the family Flip video camera, a PalmPilot and CDs.

Those devices have been replaced with sleeker, more powerful and, at times, more expensive options. The gadget mortality rate is up, experts say. It took 30 years for 100 million households to buy a television. It took six months for 10 million people to buy Microsoft’s Kinect, a motion-sensing device for its Xbox 360 game console.

The Flip was hailed as a must-have device just a few years ago. Today, with smartphones offering similar technology, its maker has canceled production. Two years ago, analysts predicted cheap netbooks would spell doom for the laptop. Now tablets have made the netbook merely a memory. The iPad sold nearly 15 million units last year; that’s the fastest adoption of a computer in history.

The increasingly quick transition to new technologies is fueling an innovation boom. It has made Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world and Net­flix a giant in the entertainment industry.

But it can be dizzying for someone like Adelle Couste, who is perfectly happy to rent an occasional DVD. On a recent afternoon, she entered Potomac Video in the Sumner Place shopping center in Bethesda to ask for a copy of “The Importance of Being Earnest” because she had just read the novel. Instead, she found her local video store was about to close, just as 16 other locations in the chain had. Everything in the store — DVDs, video games, posters and antique projectors — was marked for a fire sale.

“I still can’t get over the fact that I can’t get tapes for the VCR, and now you’re saying I can’t rent DVDs here anymore?” Couste lamented to the store’s clerk, tossing her hands up in the air with resignation.

“All these changes are happening too fast,” she scoffed before leaving.

There are still options for rentals through vending-machine-like kiosks such as RedBox. But such services end up costing nearly the purchase price of the DVD for rentals beyond one week. Netflix’s most popular plan offers customers a single DVD rental by mail at a time and its streaming service for $10 a month. Blockbuster also offers streaming and DVDs by mail.

By comparison, Blockbuster and other rentals stores offered multiple-day rentals for about $5 — and the ability to walk through aisles of offerings.

The Internet’s toll on the DVD market is seen in all neighborhoods around the nation.

At its height, Blockbuster had more than a dozen stores in the District and scores more around the region. It’s down to the one D.C. store, near Eastern Market, and 16 in the region. Satellite service Dish Network bought Blockbuster in bankruptcy in April and said it is renegotiating leases for the company’s 1,700 stores, which analysts say will probably be reduced to a fraction of the current number. Dish is in the process of giving Blockbuster a makeover, amping up its streaming service.

Another ominous sign for the Capitol Hill Blockbuster is lurking just a few doors down. Neighbor Capitol Video is closing and selling its DVDs. The elimination of a competitor would normally be good news, but it’s hard to ignore the changes sweeping the entertainment landscape. On a recent weekday afternoon, both Capitol Hill stores were populated by more staff than customers.

Meanwhile, with 30 million customers and growing, Netflix has more subscribers than the biggest cable operator, Comcast.

The changes can feel harsh in metro areas such as Washington, where companies might be quicker to pull the plug on older businesses and technologies.

“D.C. and the Northwest is fairly well off and full of early adopters,” said Matt Mc­Nevin, manager of Potomac Video. “Netflix doesn’t make as much sense in rural areas that are still getting dial-up Internet, but it hits us hard here.”

But even as millions of users turn to Netflix, plenty of others aren’t jumping to new services so enthusiastically.

Pico, 21, started going to both Capitol Hill stores after the Blockbuster in Clinton closed. Before hitting up Blockbuster, she went to Capitol Video to stock up on DVDs for a road trip to Florida.

She’s not ready to go online. On-demand is too expensive, she says. The mother of a 10-month-old, she doesn’t want another monthly bill.

About 30 percent of consumers surveyed by the Yankee Group research firm said they prefer to watch movies via DVDs and other physical forms, and only 5 percent said they will only get movies online. Fifteen percent view DVDs and online videos.

Martha Whitty straddles old and new technologies. She subscribed to Netflix after Blockbuster stores closed in Silver Spring and downtown Bethesda. Her family, which includes two teenage daughters, doesn’t subscribe to cable but loves films. Whitty is a sci-fi and British-mystery buff, and it has become harder to find DVDs.

The family now tends to watch streaming Netflix offerings separately, on their respective laptops.

On a recent afternoon, she was poring over the British-comedy section at Potomac Video, where DVDs were on liquidation.

Wearing a brown T-shirt with the “Star Trek” logo, Whitty said she planned to collect some movies that afternoon that the family will watch over and over. She owns about 100 DVDs and has doubts about her options on the Web.

“You never know. In the future, some of these movies won’t make it online,” she said.

Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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