226-The Fall of an Industry Leader – Part 1

Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in September of 2010. According to reports, the company was done in by the online service of Netflix and the in-retail store kiosks of Red Box. That is only partly true. The company was done in, first by its failure to recognize and respond to market opportunities when others created them and, second, by its determination to extract higher prices than its performance in the market warranted. Its failure as a company was a long time coming. It started in the late 1990’s. Since 2002, the company has lost more than $4 billion. Its market value fell from $4 billion eight years ago to just $12 million at the time of the bankruptcy.

In this, and the next blog, we are going to look at Blockbuster’s history. We will only touch on highlights, but the highlights explain much of the story.

We will begin by looking at Blockbuster’s product and service offering over the last twenty years. (See “Basic Strategy Guide Step 7” on StrategyStreet.com.) Here are some of the highlights:

  • The video rental market grew very quickly throughout the 80s and the early part of the 90s. By 1993, Blockbuster had 600 stores. It was adding a store a day to that total. In doing so, it was squeezing out of the market many smaller video stores.
  • The first video dispensing machines, precursors to the ubiquitous Red Box kiosks, came out in the mid-80s. They were introduced by Group One using a vending machine produced by Diebold. By 1990, there were many of these machines. 70% of them were available 24 hours a day. Each machine had about 400 tapes available. Blockbuster had none of these machines. (Note: after a very late response, Blockbuster Express now has 7000 kiosks, also made by Diebold.)
  • In the mid-1990s, Direct Broadcast Satellite offerings of movies began to cut into the Blockbuster demand. To make up for the slowdown in demand, Blockbuster added music, books, software, movie shirts and mugs. All were failures.  This is an example of product proliferation as a market becomes hostile.
  • In 1998, Netflix launched its service. The company grew very rapidly and was introduced to the public stock market in 2002. At the time, Netflix had less than a million customers. Blockbuster had 8,000 stores world-wide. As late as 2002, the CEO of Blockbuster dismissed the Netflix product as a niche offering.
  • In 2001, Netflix, though still tiny, had a far more extensive movie selection than the average Blockbuster store. At the time, Netflix offered a choice of 10,000 separate movies, about ten times what the largest Blockbuster store could offer. In addition to offering more choices, Netflix also provided customer and professional movie reviews and a service that predicted what movies subscribers would like based upon the subscriber’s reviews of previous movies. Blockbuster offered none of these additional services.
  • Later in 2002, Blockbuster began to test an online offering, but decided not to enter that market. Instead, it offered the Freedom Pass product, which required customers to go to the store to pick up and return their movies. The Freedom Pass offered unlimited movies for $25 a month. Blockbuster had 9,100 world-wide stores. 70% of the U.S. population was within a ten minute drive of one of its stores. At the same time, Netflix offered its unlimited movies, three movies at a time, service for $20 a month.
  • By 2002, Netflix could offer overnight service to 50% of its customers and promised to reach 70% of them with that speedy service within a year.
  • In 2003, Blockbuster updated its Freedom Pass program. It offered two movies at a time for $20, three movies at a time for $30. It introduced this program in all 5,500 of its U.S. stores. In the meantime, Netflix reached a count of 1 million subscribers by charging $20 a month for three movies at a time. The Netflix price was 33% lower than Blockbuster’s.
  • By 2004, Blockbuster was stumbling badly in its earnings. It held back on inventory, so many popular movies were often out, frustrating customers. (See “Video 54: Cost Reduction by Winners vs. Losers in Hostility” on StrategyStreet.com.) During this year, Blockbuster finally enters the online market, six years after Netflix entered.  This is an example of a self-defeating cost reduction.
  • During the period of the early 2000s, Hollywood studios began selling DVDs at relatively low prices. At the same time, the cable companies were offering online movie streaming through their cable boxes. Both of these developments reduced the demand for Blockbuster’s products.
  • In 2004, Netflix reached 2 million subscribers and was growing at 80% a year.
  • By 2005, Blockbuster was becoming desperate for revenue and margin. The company added video games, DVD sales and DVD resales to its product line. Blockbuster’s online business was flourishing with 1 million subscribers. But Netflix had 3 million. Wal-Mart decided to leave the online rental market and directed its customers to the Netflix program.  Wal-Mart is an example of a wise early withdrawal from the market.
  • In 2008, Blockbuster offered an online streaming service. To access the service, customers had to purchase a T.V. set-top box for $99 and then pay regular movie fees for each movie they watched. Blockbuster claimed that the T.V. set box was free because they offered a credit for 25 movies to anyone purchasing the box. At the same time, Netflix offered its movie streaming service free to its regular subscribers.  This is an example of a Leaders Trap
  • By 2009, Blockbuster was closing stores at a rapid rate, becoming less convenient for many customers. Netflix and Red Box continued growing rapidly. At the time of its bankruptcy, Blockbuster was down to 3,300 U.S. stores, and falling.

What does this story tell us? In the early years, until the early 90s, Blockbuster was a very successful company. It won, streamlined the video rental market and became the unquestioned industry leader. It then became complacent. It ignored the new channels of distribution, including vending machines, online rentals and video streaming. Other people developed and refined the cost structures of those markets. Blockbuster did eventually enter these channels, but by then it was too late to play catch-up.

In the next blog we will look at Blockbuster’s pricing history to see how that contributed to its failure.

Posted 10/21/10


Some years ago, we wrote an article describing the evolution of a hostile market. The Blockbuster story fits that description very well. See HERE for the article.




If you face a competitive marketplace, read these blogs. We wrote them to help you make better decisions on segments, products, prices and costs based on the experience of companies in over 85 competitive industries. Much of the world suffered a severe recession from 2008 to 2011. During that time, we wrote more than 270 blogs using publicly available information and our Strategystreet system to project what would happen in various companies and industries who were living in those hostile environments. In 2022, we updated each of these blogs to describe what later took place. You can use these updated blogs to see how the Strategystreet system works and how it can lead you to better decisions.