I ONCE TRIED TO RAISE THE MONEY to start an upscale video store chain—wrote a business plan, pitched rich guys over lunch at private clubs, the whole thing. Unfortunately this was the early and not the dotcom late 90s, so money didn’t fling itself at me wantonly and I had to keep my day job.

But the real problem I faced was that almost nobody believed I could compete against Blockbuster, even though my whole concept was based on what I observed at their stores in yuppie neighborhoods like mine. Which was, their standard selection of movies was a waste in an artsy neighborhood, where half of the 80 copies of the new Steven Seagal would go unrented even on their first Friday night, but the two copies of Barton Fink or Babette’s Feast would go out as fast as they came in for months and months. Even buying half as many of one and twice as many of the other would have noticeably improved profitability; tailor the selection even more and improve the shopping experience, and clearly we could steal significant market share from...

...but, as I say, what was clear to most of the people I pitched was that Blockbuster was so strong it would own the whole market forever—or until on-demand pay per view killed it, anyway.

Yet next to, say, coffee-bar-and-comfy-chair bookstores, Blockbuster has never been that great a retail experience— unknowledgeable staff, blaring promos, a complex way of determining when late fees kick in that guarantees you’ll get gouged, everyone herded into New Releases while the rest of the store is as big and hopeless to poke through as the storeroom where they lost Indiana Jones’ ark. All they’ve ever really had is deeper pockets to buy more of the latest Seagal masterpiece than anyone else.

So when a new technology did finally come along—not pay per view, but DVD—that turned collecting into the real driver of the business, Big Blue was left without an advantage to stand on. The store that had killed off its competition by being Mr. Big suddenly looked as small as a 50s hardware store next to Best Buys and Amazons selling New Releases at $2 below cost.

Blockbuster’s response has been to embark on an aggressive program of floundering—such as an ad campaign trash-talking movie collecting (now there’s a business-building strategy). But no mere marketing can change the fact that to the most lucrative DVD buyers, Blockbuster, like all those movies with Judd Nelson or Patrick Swayze on its shelves, is soooo 80s.

I’m not claiming that my store would have done better against the same mega-competition. But at least I think I would have reacted sooner to changes in the market, since my whole concept came out of things I observed at their stores—which they had no clue were happening.

There was an article I read during my research in which one of their top executives was asked what kinds of movies he liked personally. Uh, I don’t really get to see many movies, he replied, we all work until 9 or 10 at night. Evidently Blockbuster corporate was one of those places where you stay late whether you really have work to do or not. In this case, I think you can safely say that the most valuable thing those executives could have done for their shareholders would have been to knock off early once in a while—and make it a Blockbuster night.

Go to Webb, Master