Life beyond Netflix: Video rental aims for a comeback

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by Chris Nafekh

Remember Blockbuster? Once upon a time, young couples would wander the blue-carpet aisles and debate what to rent. The company reached its prime in 2004, when it owned more than 9,000 stores and employed 60,000 workers. But, after unsuccessfully competing with Netflix, Redbox and the merciless scourge of internet piracy, the film rental giant filed for bankruptcy just six years later. Dish Network, which bought Blockbuster’s remains, began tearing the stores down like wallpaper. The blue-ticket logo that once represented Blockbuster LLC now symbolizes a bygone era.

But one small video-rental store in High Point still stands.

Family Video, on the corner of Eastchester and Main is a fully functional, well stocked video rental store. It stands at the heart of High Point’s furniture district, surrounded by quality restaurants and car dealerships. And, yes, there are customers.

Walking inside is a throwback to the glory days of Blockbuster, a sight that will startle any youngster who thought entertainment was only kept in a small box labeled “Netflix — Watch Movies Online.” It’s a place where Oscar nominees, B-movies and video games stand together in the same store.

American Sniper. The Maltese Falcon. Selma. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Stephen King’s It. The Hobbit. Howard the Duck. Mad Max. Classic Looney Tunes. The Forbidden Kingdom. “Mork and Mindy.” Signs. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Lincoln. Sharknado.

Video games for any recent console are available, with new releases like Batman: Arkham Knight and The Witcher 3.

At first glance, Family Video seems like an anomaly, but the franchise has more than 700 locations in the United States and Canada. They boast being the “largest movie and game rental chain in the United States.” Currently, there’s one in High Point and two in Winston-Salem. Another will soon set up shop in Greensboro. According to District Manager Dan Bonenzi, who heads multiple locations in the Triad area, it’s just a matter of when and where.

“We really want, like, three of them in Greensboro,” Bonenzi said. “If the right place opens up where we can put a Family Video… we’re gonna do it.”

The franchise was founded in the 1970s by Charlie Hoogland who turned his father’s Appliance and Supply Company into the video-rental chain., Amazingly, the company survived the recession. How did Family Video stay afloat? Bonenzi attributes its survival to the company’s business model.

“We own all of our own property,” he said, “which is a huge deal as we found out with Blockbuster.”

In High Point, the video store is connected to a Starbucks, which pays rent to Family Video.

The company also generates revenue through subsidiary ventures. In several locations, Family Video is connected to a restaurant chain, Marco’s Pizza. Recently, the company bought out Digital Doc, a computer-repair chain.

With a generation entranced by online streaming, it’s hard to imagine video rental making a strong comeback. But Family Video offers a number of things Netflix can’t. The feeling of a razor-thin disc around your finger, for instance, or high quality Blu-Ray that streaming isn’t capable of matching. Some people still collect DVDs for home entertainment, like family man Bryan King.

Bryan King searches the Family DVDs. (Chris Nafekh)
King searches the Family DVDs. (Chris Nafekh)

“I own a thousand movies, easy,” King said, “not counting a couple hundred they have.” He gestured towards his children, a young boy and girl. Together, they were searching the High Point Family Video for an evening of entertainment on a recent Wednesday night.

Family Videos customers are primarily families. Children’s videos are free to rent and Family Video boasts having their new releases 30-60 days before Netflix. This alone attracts customers like King.

But Family Video has one challenge.

“The people who come here,” said Bonenzi, “obviously they don’t stream a lot, and those are the customers we’re targeting too.”

In a world of increasingly accessible online media, Family Video could easily lose momentum. The industry has already been decimated by competition, leaving Family Video the last store standing. If Netflix increases its variety, improves streaming quality and is able to make new releases available sooner, the service could pose a real threat to Family Video’s business model.

“I was skeptical when I started,” said Bonenzi, who has been with Family Video for three years. “Then, seeing how much they care about their customers and employees…. A lot of them are just smart about how they go about things. I can’t really talk about numbers, but it’s a very profitable business, like very profitable; we’ll leave it at that.”

Family Video currently has three locations in the Triad. There’s one in High Point at the corner of Eastchester and Main, and two in Winston-Salem, on Reynolda Road and on Old Salisbury Road. For more information, go towww.familyvideo.com.