The Fall of an Industry Leader – Part II

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 Part 2, we will look at some of the highlights of Blockbuster’s pricing over the last few years.

  • This may seem surprising, but the industry’s prices began their long-term decline as early as 1982. This is not unusual. Fast-growing industries often see price declines as new competitors enter the market with plenty of capacity to serve even fast-growing demand.

  • In the early 90s, Blockbuster changed its pricing scheme. It had offered a movie for two nights at $3. Blockbuster changed its price to $2.50 per night. It also charged late fees. This change in pricing hurt smaller competitors, who often got business when Blockbuster was out of product due to its two-night rental policy.

  • By 1994, Blockbuster felt it could raise prices with impunity, and it did raise prices. (See the Perspective, “Can We Raise Margins With a Price Increase?” on

  • By 1997, prices were coming under pressure due to the fall-off in demand growth caused by other forms of competition. Blockbuster and its video tape competitors had to begin reducing prices. (See the Symptom & Implication, “The Industry is Seeing its Frist Price Wars” on

  • In 1997, Blockbuster introduced customer loyalty campaigns to hold on to its most important customers. By then the company was earning less than its cost of capital.

  • In 1999, Blockbuster introduced a rewards card. The card cost about $10 and allowed a card-holding customer to obtain one movie free each month. It also offered one free movie for every five rented in a month, and one free “Favorites” on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This was an attempt to create greater sales with existing customers. Movies rented for $4 a night, but late fees could often double or even triple that cost.

  • In 2002, video on-demand began to grow. One company offered 430 movies for an average of $3 per rental.

  • By 2002, several consumer-oriented articles argued that the late fees charged by Blockbuster would be enough to cover the cost of a Netflix subscription. Customers grew angry over the late fee prices.

  • In 2002, Blockbuster responded directly to Netflix with three pricing plans. First, a customer could rent two videos at a time for $20 a month. Second, the customer could rent three videos at a time for $25 a month. In the third program, a customer could pay about $60 a year. This would allow the customer to keep three movies during the year without late fees, but the customer would have to pay for all movies rented. In the meantime, Netflix continued charging $20 to rent three movies at a time.

What do we learn from watching Blockbuster’s pricing over the years? During the 80s and 90s, Blockbuster was leading the industry on pricing. This was a double whammy for its competitors. It offered bigger, better stocked stores at lower prices than its competitors. But somewhere in the mid-90s, Blockbuster lost its edge. It decided that it had earned the right to have higher prices simply because it was the leader. Netflix continually beat Blockbuster on pricing. Red Box did the same thing with its $1 per night rental charges. Blockbuster was in a Leader’s Trap, and stayed in that unfortunate position for far longer than most industry leaders. (See the Perspective, “The Leader’s Trap” on

Blockbuster engineered its own demise by failing to keep up with the performance of the new leaders in the industry, such as Netflix and Red Box, and by charging more than its competition for performance that failed to match theirs.

Posted 10/25/10