For nearly three decades, Blockbuster was the friendly neighborhood video store for movie-lovers around the United States—and its employees were our friendly neighborhood movie gurus. Though a few independent Blockbuster franchises are still bravely soldiering on around the country, the company had its heyday in the 1990s to mid-2000s, when video tapes and DVDs were still the dominant way to watch a movie. Doling out recommendations and patiently dealing with our late fee complaints, Blockbuster employees were a crucial part of our movie-watching experience, and frontline observers of the changes in our movie consumption. Mental_floss talked to a handful of former Blockbuster employees about what it was like to work at the video rental franchise from the company's heyday through its decline.
1. THEY RENTED MOVIES FOR FREE.
Working at Blockbuster had plenty of perks if you were a movie lover. Employees not only received five free rentals a week, but got to watch new releases a week before they became available for rental. Matt, who worked at a Blockbuster in southeast Michigan from 2004 to 2009, explains that the free rental policy was really a win-win for Blockbuster and its employees. “This was actually a necessity because you’d have movie buffs and store regulars come in and ask for recommendations,” he explains. “It was a good way to catch up on movies I missed or had never heard of. I definitely dug up some oddball gems this way.”
2. THEY HATED IT WHEN YOU COMPLAINED ABOUT LATE FEES ...
Over the years, Blockbuster experimented with a range of policies regarding late fees. For a while, the store tried a “no late fees” policy, which, according to former employees, replaced late fees with a confusing “re-stocking fee.” Regardless of policy, employees say dealing with late fees was among the most annoying parts of the job.
“People proved to be astoundingly bad at math, and though they’d agree on how long they kept the movies they had and how much each of them cost for the night, they were just unable to comprehend how they owed us the amount they did,” explains Lex, who worked at Blockbuster in Scranton, Pennsylvania, from 2012 to 2013. “Dealing with people trying to get out of what they owed was basically how we interfaced with 40% of our customers on a daily basis.”
Brie, who worked at a Blockbuster in Salt Lake City from 2007 to 2008, during its “no late fees” era, explains that customers would always fight her on the store’s $1.25 restocking fee. “I would say 95% of the customers would fight me on paying them 100% of the time,” she says. “Customers would argue, ‘What is this restocking fee if not a late fee?’ You’re totally right, I know, it’s a loophole to get around saying it’s a late fee. I didn’t make it up, please don’t fight me on it.”
3. ... BUT THEY'D TRY TO HELP YOU OUT IF YOU WERE POLITE.
When it came to getting out of late fees, there was really only one strategy that worked: Be nice. “Once I hit Shift Lead status, I would make deals with customers and try to waive a fee or two here or there if customers were regulars or particularly nice,” says Brie .
“We were able to minimize some late fees, eliminate others,” says Tim, who worked at a Blockbuster in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, from 2004 to 2007. “Come in calm and respectful and apologetic, poof, you owe $0.00. Come in hooting and hollering and it’s ‘I’m sorry, sir. There’s nothing I can do. You cannot rent another movie until you pay your $3.75.’”
4. THEY KEPT SECRET NOTES ON CUSTOMERS.
If you ever caught an employee giving you a strange look or holding back a laugh when you tried to rent, there’s a chance there was a note left on your account. Blockbuster used point of sale software that let employees look up your account information, and leave little warnings for each other if you habitually tried to worm your way out of late fees or misbehaved.
“People would constantly complain about late fees, so we had a system where you could write a note in the computer, like ‘Forgave one late fee, don’t do it again,’ or ‘This guy constantly turns in tapes late and says he paid his fees,’” says Mike , who worked at Blockbuster in Malden, Massachusetts, from 1999 to 2003. “Depending on who wrote the note, it could be very professional or sometimes it would just be like, ‘This lady is crazy.’ It would be flashing in yellow and you’d be keeping one eye on the customer, and one eye on the screen, trying to read it, and sometimes trying to keep a straight face.”
5. THEY COULD SEE YOUR ENTIRE RENTAL HISTORY.
If you rented anything embarrassing, you can bet your local Blockbuster employee noticed. “When customers brought up tapes, you’d see their previous rentals automatically,” explains Mike . “So, you’d see like, a thirteen-year-old girl renting Titanic for the twentieth time. You wouldn’t say anything, though.”
6. THEFT WAS A BIG ISSUE.
Customers were constantly finding creative new ways to steal merchandise. Matt remembered the “slashers” who would “show up with a boxcutter hidden on them and sneak around the store, slitting the spines on DVD cases and stealing discs,” while Lex recalled a guy who figured out how to remove the magnetic locking strips from DVD cases. “He’d always steal the weirdest, most arbitrary movies,” she explains. “He’d steal sequels of things and not the originals, or individual discs of TV show season collections. I don’t know if he was just trying to tear down the system slowly from the inside, or if he just had very specific interests.”
Mike, meanwhile, says the most notorious criminal to terrorize his Blockbuster location turned out to be a 10-year-old boy. “We had the full security system at Blockbuster—video cameras, security gates, magnetic locks on the cases—but somebody kept stealing video games. Our manager was totally baffled. He started to think it was an inside job,” says Mike. “It turned out it was a little ten-year-old kid. His mom found all the video games under his bed and turned him in. She brought the games back and we promised not to press charges, but the mom wanted us to scare the kid straight, like Maury Povich-style. So the manager and I ended up in the back room with this little ten-year-old kid who’s crying his eyes out. We had no idea what to do. It’s like, there’s our master thief who’s outwitting our corporate security system, and he’s just a kid.”
7. CORPORATE LOGIC WAS A BIT OF A MYSTERY.
The employees at individual Blockbuster locations didn’t get to choose which products they ordered to rent or sell. Everything was decided by corporate headquarters, whose logic could sometimes be difficult to discern. Back in the early 2000s, that often meant receiving hundreds of copies of new releases to rent, which stores would later struggle to sell off, or receiving books and magazines that customers never even noticed were there.
“Gladiator was the biggest movie that came out while I was at Blockbuster. We had so many copies, just walls and walls of Gladiator. Then, later on, we couldn’t sell them. We had like 200 copies left and nobody wanted them,” recalls Mike. “We’d also sell video game guides and magazines, and they would never sell. At the end of the month, we’d rip the cover off and throw them away. Sometimes instead of tossing them, I’d take them home—to this day, I have so many books without covers.”
8. THINGS REALLY STARTED TO UNRAVEL TOWARD THE END.
By 2012 or so, when the chain was really struggling to stay afloat, Blockbuster locations would often receive seemingly random shipments of movies to sell off, says Lex. They’d set up large tables around the store covered in DVDs for sale. “It was a completely random assortment of stuff,” recalls Lex. “We’d have, like, 50 copies of some mediocre 5-year-old romantic comedy, and then two copies of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and none of the rest of the series), and then 12 copies of some obscure art-house film. There was no curation.”
“The most bizarre thing,” he concludes, “is that we had 135 copies of Dinner For Schmucks. I made it its own table. On the Black Friday I was there, we had a ‘door busters’ sale, with select, new DVDs for $5 a piece. We got 24 DVDs to sell—not 24 titles, 24 individual DVDs. Of those 24 DVDs, six were Dinner For Schmucks. The 135 copies were already selling for $3 apiece. We didn’t have much of a Black Friday rush that year.”
9. THE SWITCH FROM VHS TO DVD WAS PURE CHAOS.
Long before Blockbuster lost its showdown with streaming video, the company was faced with another seismic technological shift: the transition from VHS to DVD. According to Ben, who worked at a Blockbuster in central Pennsylvania from 2001 to 2002, the company struggled to get rid of its excess VHS tapes once the medium became obsolete. "We pulled them by the hundreds and put them on sale," he recalls. "After a few weeks, we started pulling them for destruction. It was kind of a shame, but it was fun at the same time. We just smashed the hell out of them behind the counter. I was washing through an ankle-deep layer of black plastic and magnetic tape … Later destroy pulls were authorized to instead send to local charities, but that first big one was fun.”
10. BEING A MOVIE BUFF WASN'T A JOB REQUIREMENT ...
You didn’t have to be a cinephile to work at Blockbuster. Most managers were more interested in hiring people who were reliable and punctual than employees who could recite the entire filmography of their favorite director. “You didn’t need to love movies at all,” recalls Mike. “You just had to get there on time.”
11. ... BUT MANY EMPLOYEES REALLY LOVED MOVIES.
Nevertheless, many Blockbuster employees really did love movies. “My interview basically amounted to them making sure I was a human that could read,” says Lex. “But everyone I worked there with was pretty big into games, movies, and TV, and we spent a lot of time talking about them.”