Where have all the DVDs gone? Part II: The Recession

Firstly, apologies (to anyone who cares) for the long absence since my last post – time seemed to get sucked away from me, what with DIYing a new bathroom and the rather busy Christmas period. Hope you had a good break, anyway. My old Sony CRT television decided to give up the ghost during December, so I’ve now upgraded to a 40inch Sony LCD, which has also (agreeably) taken up some of my time. Good for dvd-watching (next on the shopping list: a Blu Ray player), not so good for Freeview-watching – everything gets quite blocky in low-lit scenes. But I’ll get used to it I suppose.

Anyway, I digress. Back in July 07, not long after I first started writing this little blog-ette, I wrote a small piece lamenting the decline in the number of high street retailers selling dvds. What on earth is a film addict supposed to do with their lunch break if there are no discs to peruse? Back in those easy-credit days, I rather glumly noted:

“…enjoy your high street dvd retailers while they’re still there: you never know when they’ll be forced to pack up and go the way of the do-do.”

Curse my prophetic words of doom! 18 months on, we’re in the grip of a rather nasty recession that no-one seemed to predict (with the exception of Vince Cable, apparently) and high street retailers are falling over left, right and centre. This week alone has seen the final demise of Woolworths, one of the last remaining shops stocking a reasonable number of dvds instore. This was a particularly painful loss, not just for me but for the British people in general; long had Woolies been the shopper’s refuge from rain, the source of useful odds and ends, and the rites-of-passage that was the singles, album and film charts. Of course I bought my first 45s and cassettes there, but also my first videos: copies of Alien or Star Wars, plus battered old lesser items rescued from the bargain bin (RoboCop for £3 – that was good in them days).

In recent years you could still find the occasional nugget of gold, but the internet really ate in to its trade. Even so, the most I would have expected is that it would give up selling music and films, and concentrate on its more profitable areas of trade – sadly, it appears that there were no profitable areas. At all.

However, the internet has not been immune to the credit crunch either. Zavvi became the first major online dvd retailing casualty, closing its website just before Christmas 2008 (though its stores remain open for the time being). Who’s next? It’s a fair bet that other online retailers will follow suit. The top players like Amazon and Play.com should be able to weather the storm, but if Zavvi and Woolies can go down the pan, then so could anyone else, quite frankly.

So, who’s left then? On the high street, if Zavvi disappear, then HMV are basically the last man standing. No other nationwide music/film/games retailers spring to mind. If you’re feeling charitable you might include Blockbusters, but they concentrate on rentals, and they certainly don’t stock music. If you’re lucky, a supermarket might have a reasonable selection on offer, but for sheer choice, they can’t compete with a specialist trader.

Does it even matter anymore? If we’ve got the internet, do we need a high street retailer? Well, it’s certainly true that nearly all of my filmic purchases are made via the web, but when I walk past a store like HMV, I still can’t resist poking my head inside to see what’s on offer. This is the modern dilemma of the physical entertainment form versus the digital. I like to see the films in front of my eyes – hold the packaging, admire the artwork, choose the one I like the look of best. Music fans who treasure their CD or vinyl collections will know what I mean. Browsing a store is so much more interesting than clicking around a website (though admittedly, not having to queue on the web is a definite plus). And how can a downloaded film or music collection ever be as interesting and fun as a real collection of discs, ones you picked up here and there down the years, and that can be lovingly admired and perused? The act of browsing can be very pleasurable, and that’s the experience the web and downloads have yet to match.

So I will miss the high street dvd sellers – the Zavvis and Virgins, the MVCs and Music Zones, Choices, and of course Woolies – with their tempting but ludicrously over-priced chart displays and their bargain bins of naffness. I certainly enjoyed many a lunchtime searching for the nugget of gold hidden away in their stores. And if you happen to be walking past an HMV, pop inside and take a look around – don’t let it go the way of the do-do (or Woolworths).

Published by Gavin Midgley

Freelance film journalist, blogger and geek.

6 replies on “Where have all the DVDs gone? Part II: The Recession”

  1. Personally I think your comments are little more than sentimentalism. I find it hard to see how anyone can become excited about browsing bits of paper and plastic on rows of generic metal shelving. As for digital downloads, familiarise yourself with Xbox Live Arcade and Steam and you’ll soon see how a digital library can be made superior to a few shelves of paper and plastic. Personally I just rent discs purely due to data transfer constraints but digital shopping and selling is the future and you’re going to think yourself pretty silly for thinking otherwise in a decade or so.

  2. Good article and nice to see you back – I ignored my own little FJ for several months when changing jobs. Once you get out the groove of updating it regularly it’s hard to get back into the old routine.I too miss the joy of browsing. Back in the days when I worked in the other half of Manchester to my train station and had to walk through the city centre on my way home I would quite often stop at HMV or Music Zone on Market Street, perhaps diverting to Piccadilly Records (later Fopp, which reopened just before Christmas). Personally, I really miss the small retailers, the one-store music/DVD seller who I guess just couldn’t survive in a climate where Woolies wasn’t far from going to the wall. Manchester’s Vinyl Exchange is still holding in there, but it’s an exception. I also had a lot of time for Music Zone, who must have always been close to the wall due to their low profit margins. I remember many a happy purchase – getting a film for seven quid and then making it up to a tenner with one of their vastly reduced in price books. Happy days but not a massive surprise to see it gone, and in the meantime I was in the Arndale’s WH Smith yesterday trying to make up £20 worth of DVD purchases with my Christmas voucher. Needless to say I struggled. Smiths weren’t great, seemed entirely unconcerned about looking for a better packaged edition of the battered copy of There will be Blood that was on display and had very little worth sticking my neck out for. Perhaps they’ve already been ravaged by the sales but it took me some time browsing the scanty shelves to within an inch of their lives before walking out with Edge of Darkness and a Kubrick box set (Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory).

  3. As someone who also currently works in Manchester (and makes the cross-town walk every day), I can attest to the decline of DVD retail affecting my lunchtime browsing ability.However, while new DVDs are struggling, the current climate seems to aide second hand stores. Last year, the curiously titled CeX (Entertainment Exchange) – who already have a shop on station approach – opened a large second location inside the Arndale Centre, which now regularly draws my bargain-hunting attention (£4 for the Easy Rider Special Edition Boxset? Yes please).Meanwhile, the dingy Cash Converter, while a horrible place to browse and buy from, had so many DVDs before Christmas that they were just stacking them on the floor. The aforementioned Vinyl Exchange is good too, and they even sell some Region 1 stuff, but their pricing can be a little inconsistent.So maybe it’s worried, cash-strapped consumers who are keeping the second-hand media market ticking over (which must be a very low margin business considering the prices). Although, have said that, last time I was in my local GameStop they had drastically cut down their DVD stock, with a clear eye to getting rid of it completely. So what do I know?

  4. Personally, I’m not missing the demise of the high street retailers too much. I honestly can’t remember the last time I bought a DVD in store — I think it was Atonement, and that was in Tesco on a whim; it may’ve been Jonathan Creek, in Smiths cos it was a quid or two cheaper than online after I added two different vouchers! — and I stopped browsing for fun a few years ago too. For one thing, it lead to owning lots of DVDs I didn’t really care for — I was always finding two great DVDs in three-for-two, and topping it up with a mediocre third that I convinced myself I wanted — and for another, it stopped being cheap. While stores had ‘3 for £20’ and etailers didn’t it was all good, but when online jumped in with ‘3 for £15’ — usually with greater more consistent choice — it became pointless to even look. Especially when catalogue titles, especially in HMV, are full price — that’s a fool’s market. (HMV’s website, on the other hand, I love.)I disagree with nrf though. I don’t see collections becoming all-digital, and I’m Young. Lovely packaging and being able to survey your piles of stuff is a wonderful thing (I actually prefer receiving lovelyly packaged things in the post than in store, because it aids the surprise and specialness. Maybe that’s just me…) I don’t feel like I own something if I’ve downloaded it, even legally. When Amazon did their ‘free digital album’ thing on Christmas Day Boxing Day I acquired two whole albums (thanks to two accounts), and in the past free membership to some other digital music site led to me acquiring a bunch of albums — I don’t think I can remember what any of those are (even the Amazon ones, less than two weeks later), and I certainly don’t feel like I actually own them. And if my harddrive died, I really wouldn’t own them, because they’d all be gone for good. One album I pre-ordered from iTunes for pre-order bonus tracks, I eventually bought the CD cheap about a year later, and it wasn’t til then that I actually felt like I owned it. I always have the case of, if it’s just the tracks (or film, or episodes of TV), why pay £7 when I could Torrent it for free? Obviously I know all the reason about paying the artists, but it’s still hard to ignore Paying vs Free — unless you get something solid, like an actual disc in an actual case.Maybe we will go all-digital and I’m just an oldie in a young person’s body. Or maybe films, music, etc, will end up being sold on USB sticks instead of discs. Who can say. But I reckon — hope, at worst — that buying physical versions of things won’t die out.

  5. Thanks for all your comments. Personally I think it would be a real shame if we lost physical media altogether, but at the end of the day, if it works better and the price is right, then I guess digital will ultimately triumph. Not necessarily a bad thing of course, but I may hold on to my old dvds anyway – for old times sake. My grandchildren will probably call me a crazy old loon, and they’ll probably be right.And yes, my comments are sentimental – undoubtedly – but I don’t apologise for it. I like my collection and I like browsing shops, and I’ll be sad to see them both made obselete. Though no doubt the inevitable Super HD Blu Ray download picture and sound quality will help ease their passing… 🙂

  6. It’s fine if you think the sales made in Woolies, Zavvi, etc. will be made up by additional online purchases. Almost certainly the overall market will decline.So if the market declines, what future the niche release? I’m not sure that we really know whether the savings to be made from digital distribution will be enough of an incentive to encourage rights holders to market their materials. It would be a shame if obscure films became even harder to see in the future because their potential profitability has declined to almost zero.

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