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Blockbuster sticks to the bricks

September 23, 2008 |  6:29 pm

A Blockbuster store in Dallas, Texas. The instant gratification of video-on-demand and the novelty of movies by snail mail may get many a consumer more excited than an old-fashioned trip to the corner store, but for Blockbuster Inc., the store is still the thing.

The Dallas-based video rental and retail chain, which closed hundreds of stores over the last year, plans to revamp many of its remaining outlets, expand its movie and game offerings, and add more rental and download kiosks.

But it’s still keeping an eye toward increasing Internet-based downloads through Movielink, the digital movie site it acquired last year, and attracting more movie-thru-mail subscribers. Critics say stores are passé, but Blockbuster notes that its mail customers also have the convenience of returning or trading-in their mail-ordered movie at stores — something which Netflix can't do because it doesn't have brick-and-morter outlets (just in case an Ingmar Bergman flick showed up in the mail when you were more in the mood for "Sex and the City").

“Most people read a lot of interesting headlines, and we enjoy the headlines, about Netflix, Amazon, Apple, so forth,” says Tom Casey, Blockbuster’s chief financial officer, during a presentation at Thomas Weisel Partners’ Annual Consumer Conference on Tuesday. “But what you need to understand is we really have a market that we address that’s nearly $36 billion in size. Video-on-demand is actually pretty small.”

That $36-billion figure is the total market for DVD's and game sales — where Blockbuster has been expanding — and movie rentals. Blockbuster has a 40% share of the $9.6 billion movie rental business, of which in-store rentals account for more than half the total revenue, followed by mail subscription and video-on-demand, according to the company.

Companytown Blockbuster reported a loss of $44.7 million, or 23 cents a share, in the second quarter, ended June 30, compared to a $34.2 million loss in the same period last year. But same-store revenue rose 9%, and the company reaffirmed that it expects a profit for the year. 

“Traffic tends to transfer to a nearby Blockbuster whenever they close a store,” says Arvind Bhatia, an analyst at Sterne Agee & Leach, Inc., adding that he estimates a “normal attrition” of about 150 store closures in the U.s. this year and next. Blockbuster now has about 8,000 stores worldwide.

"Financially, they're doing well," he adds.

Blockbuster plans to increase its stock of rental and retail movies and games at each store as well as pay for store refurbishing, from paint and carpeting to adding Blu-ray kiosks. Some stores have already undergone a broader remodeling, complete with gaming stations and cafes.

“Too many of the stores still look like the old blue-and-yellow 90s VHS stores,” Casey says.

And analysts think Blockbuster still has life left in its stores — particularly on the retail market — before the Internet or video-on-demand becomes the dominant delivery system.

“We all have the idiot friends who have collections of hundreds of DVDs. Nobody is going to collect 100s of DVDs on their hard drives,” said Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter. “And the movie studios don’t make as much" on rentals or on-demand services, where the profit margins are smaller.

Pachter notes that as long as Blockbuster gets customers in stores and studios release movies on DVD before they allow video-on-demand and streaming online, the company will thrive.

“Blockbuster says, why not buy a movie while you’re in here? What else can they sell? Popcorn, video games, maybe a TV or an iPod,” Pachter said. “They’re merchandising better, and that’s absolutely working.”

— Swati Pandey

Photo: A Blockbuster store in Dallas. Credit: Associated Press