Local support outlasts technological advances
The video store industry was alive and well when Kim Atkinson first began working at Prineville's Video Hut.
The year was 1998, and her mother had just purchased the store, one of a handful scattered throughout the community, and she and her sister operated the business.
"When I first started, it (the industry) was just transitioning over to DVDs," she recalls. "VHS was still costing us anywhere from $70 to $150 per tape (movie) and DVDs were pretty expensive then, too. And we were still getting more VHS copies (per movie), than DVD."
Transition, it seems, would become an ongoing norm for Atkinson, who eventually took ownership of the video store a year or so later — transition that would ultimately result in most video stores nationwide going the way of the dinosaur and leaving Video Hut an island in a modern world of on-demand video streaming and Redbox machines.
The next big change came a few years later as Blockbuster, a large-scale chain video store, found its way to Prineville. Blockbuster purchased Sun Home Video and opened in the fall of 2003 — within months of the chain's peak, when more than 9,000 locations existed nationwide.
Atkinson said they were never approached by Blockbuster, Hollywood Video or any of the other major national chains. She doubts any other independent, local stores were either.
"I don't think it was something where they would come and approach you, because they didn't care. It would be something where you would approach them," she said. "We never thought about going that direction. We were always about putting back into the community."
Blockbuster coming to town changed things for Atkinson. Now, she was competing with a store with much greater resources that gave them a competitive advantage.
"There is name recognition, but we all still got the same videos," she said. "The difference was that they were able to bring in massive amounts of a movie. They were able to offer a lot of different deals that we could not."
At first, Atkinson found herself comparing Video Hut to the local Blockbuster, and it bothered her that she was unable to offer what the chain store could. But a couple years into competing with them, she had an epiphany.
"One day, I was just driving down the street, and I thought, 'You know what, I can't be a Blockbuster. I cannot do the things that they can do. It doesn't matter,'" she said. "So you know, watch out because I'm just gonna be me, and you guys can try to keep up."
The awakening and resulting philosophy would help keep her afloat in the years that followed as technology — not big box competitors — would challenge her independent local store.
Netflix launched in 1999 but didn't make a whole lot of noise early on as it settled into its initial business model of mailing out movies for an indefinite period of time while charging a monthly fee. But by 2005, the business had enjoyed a surge in popularity, offering around 35,000 titles and shipping around 1 million DVDs to customers daily.
By eschewing the time limit for rentals, Netflix posed a direct threat to video store giants like Blockbuster that limited rentals to only a few days, and their stores began to suffer. But Atkinson found it wasn't always such a great alternative as far as her customers were concerned.
"They didn't like the fact that they had to mail them back, that they would be scratched up," she remembers, adding that waiting out the mail was another deterrent. "It was easy, but people don't like to wait for things."
Netflix introduced a new online streaming version of its service in 2007, which has enabled people to order movies online and receive them as quickly as their home internet can download them. Other outlets like Hulu and Amazon Video trotted out similar services as did satellite television providers like Dish and DirecTV.
These services made a bigger dent in the video store industry as did the advent of Redbox, an automated, vending machine-style video rental service that set up kiosks at McDonald's restaurants and convenience stores.
The emerging technologies continued to topple the national video store giants like Blockbuster, and Atkinson acknowledges that it put a dent in her business as well. But once again, she found people who still preferred the video store option.
Customers put off by the time it takes streaming videos to download or the quality of the downloaded product would still come through her doors. So did the people who appreciated the human interaction of an actual store and the opportunity to peruse the shelves and pick up and read a video display box.
"We are more than just a movie," she explained. "People come here because they want to talk to the video lady. They want to know if the movie is any good. They want to see what's up there and look at the box."
Moving ahead to present day, the video store landscape has drastically changed from when Atkinson entered the industry two decades ago. Video Hut is the only remaining store of its kind in Prineville. Blockbuster is long gone locally, its last remaining store in the whole country located in Bend.
On a typical Friday evening in 1998, Atkinson could expect around 250 videos to go out the door. Today, that number has been cut in half. Yet, like the small diners, pubs and other mom-and-pop businesses of the world, she is surviving, thanks to the regulars, a business culture she didn't set out to develop, but has materialized all the same.
"I know people," she said. "I have seen their kids grow. Now, they are coming in with their kids and renting movies."
Atkinson believes in supporting local businesses, insisting that if people support a community, it will support them in return. In her opinion, that desire to support a community is what will keep advances in technology from ultimately driving independent businesses like video stores, clothing stores and more out of business.
"The more that we let technology take all of this away, buildings are going to sit empty," she remarks.
Atkinson doesn't know how much longer she will own and operate Video Hut. No longer is it a piece of a bustling industry, where stores are commonplace. Her place of business has become a novelty of sorts for Prineville visitors and locals alike. Some people drop in, amazed that a place like Video Hut still exists. Others show up having never set foot in a video store before, unsure how the whole rental thing works.
But she has decided her future is in the hands of her customers and her community, and so far, both have been a great source of support and have helped her outlast the onslaught of national chains and an ever-changing technological world.
"Technology can't stop me," she said, "but the community can."
Address: 142 NW Third St.
Hours: Open 7 days a week 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
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