Video Stores React to Netflix by Focusing on Human Touch

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The New York Sun

With the runaway success of Netflix, local video stores have been forced to decrease their prices, offer first-rate customer service, and in general stress one asset the DVD rental Web site lacks — the human touch.

Although Netflix increased its subscriber base by 60% between 2004 and 2005 and revenues rose 36%, to $682 million, some New Yorkers have stayed loyal to their local mom-and-pop video stores.

“People feel more secure if they can see the movies and you can explain to them what they’re about,” the owner of Flik’s Video 2 Go at 175 W. 72nd St., Fred Gilani, said.

The family business has been in operation for 13 years, and Mr. Gilani says the special services it offers keep his store alive. There are four kinds of prepaid rental plans that include free delivery and pickup. One-hour service is guaranteed, or the next rental is free. The store often waives late fees.

During the summer months, Flik’s also gives prepaid customers three free rentals and lets them pick one used video or DVD to own. Mr. Gilani said he has recently given away more free rentals than ever. “If there’s good customer service, that’s the best we can do,” he said.

Although a customer browsing at Flik’s said he was not too pleased with the store’s service, he said he hasn’t subscribed to Netflix and either uses pay-per-view or goes to Flik’s because he likes to see movies on a whim. A video clerk at Movie Place at 237 W. 105th St., Roger Sneab, said that while Netflix has probably contributed to the store’s slight decline in sales recently, he thinks the movie rentals business renders an online service ineffective in many ways.

“Sometimes people will think a movie is named something else, so they have to give a description and then we’ll usually find the right one,” he said after a young girl approached him at the counter and asked, “Do you have ‘Super Babies 2′ or super something with babies?” After checking the database, Mr. Sneab told the girl he searched for all titles with the word super, but ‘Super Babies 2′ did not appear. “We do have a ‘Super Geniuses 2,'” he said. “That’s it!” the girl said. “Thank you so much!”

Mr. Sneab attributes the store’s longevity — it’s been around about 20 years — to its knowledgeable clerks, loyal customers from the neighborhood, and wide selection of classics. “Families from the neighborhood have come for years and years,” as have film students and “people who are a bit harder to please,” he said.

Although Mr. Sneab said he would “not go so far as to say” that Netflix lacks a high-brow quality, he said it seems video stores in New York that count less-mainstream films among their supply fill a niche that Netflix’s 60,000-strong inventory does not.

“We have really hard-to-find videos, foreign movies, independent, unusual films, some that were released in the ’20s and aren’t being made anymore,” a clerk at Evergreen Video at 37 Carmine St., Minnie Bennett, said. She said Evergreen has become known for its eclectic selection.

A clerk for York Video at 1472 York Ave., Marcin Mazej, said he believes customers can use Netflix and still frequent local video stores.

“People tell us they have Netflix even though they have an account with us,” he said. Customers keep coming back to New York video stores, Mr. Mazej says, because they are so easy to get to. “In areas where it’s not reachable to go to a video store, in the suburbs or something like that, Netflix will be a convenience, but here in the city, it’s only a few minutes walk.”

Although some owners of local video stores have kept their heads above water, others can only cope with falling sales amid rising rents by closing up shop.

The owner of Samantha Video at 98 Chambers St., Peter Gunasekara, said he is throwing in the towel after 17 years. “Rent is too high, business is so quiet, we can’t even pay employees salary,” he said. Mr. Gunasekara said business started declining three years ago, and he now cannot afford to pay last month’s rent. His lease ends in 2008, and he claims he is past the point of offering better services or cheaper rental prices. He said Netflix was not necessarily the culprit.


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