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It's Blockbuster versus consumers, but who's taking advantage of whom?

While an occasional foray into the whimsical is permissible, it is ultimately The Columnist's duty to cover The Big Story. The Columnist must analyze that which has the greatest impact on our lives, dissecting the issue from every conceivable angle and then presenting this informed view to the reading public in a manner that is concise and informative, insightful and hard-hitting.

This, of course, is why the Weekly hired Susan Zakin.

As you well know, Susan has the environment covered nine ways from Sunday. Heck, she writes about a different endangered specie just about every week. Personally, I always figured that if we just let a few of them die out, we'd have fewer of them to worry about and we'd be better able to concentrate our efforts on those that remained. Just a thought.

Last I heard, Susan was in Madagascar teaching the locals how to write about the environment. I'm sorry, but if I'm living in Madagascar, the only endangered specie I'm worrying about is myself. But just so you don't think that she's the only one out there helping to make the world a better place, I spent a couple days last week at the Boys & Girls Club trying to teach kids how to spin a basketball on their fingers. I even encouraged them to try it at home, preferably in the living room, near lots of lamps. This will help sharpen their focus on the task at hand.

But since Susan is out of town, it falls to me to cover this week's Big Story. And how do I know it's a Big Story? Because it was on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star, that's how.

I'm talking about, of course, the class-action lawsuit against Blockbuster Video brought by customers who felt they'd been forced to pay exorbitant late fees. See, here's how it works: You rent a video from Blockbuster for a two- or five-day period. Then, if you bring it back after that time period is up, you have to pay extra money because Blockbuster has lost the opportunity to make more money on that item by renting it to someone else.

At the risk of sounding Republican, that makes sense to me. When you rent something, you basically enter into a binding legal agreement to bring it back within the allotted time. And, in doing so, you agree to the concept of late fees. And it's not like you're on an airplane and they're charging you to use the bathroom. These late fees are completely avoidable. You just have to not be a lazy putz.

I read the article in the Star, but then decided to go that extra mile and do some in-depth research. Besides, I had to return that copy of Get Carter with Sylvester Stallone before the late fees started piling up.

The Blockbuster I frequent is in a shopping center at the intersection of River and La Cañada. Really nice staff, small selection, exorbitant late fees--just about perfect as video stores go. I was greeted at the door by this really cool guy named Tom. It's amazing how guys with certain names are just automatically ... well, never mind. Tom is way, way too upbeat for his job; it's most disconcerting.

Anyway, I asked him about this late-fee furor and he said that the fact that Blockbuster recently added 12 hours to the return time is part of the problem. "People used to rent something on Tuesday and it would be due back Wednesday by midnight," he explains. "Now it's due back Thursday by noon. But they get all mad and say, 'How am I supposed to bring it back by noon? Am I supposed to take time off from work to get it there in the morning?'

"We explain that they can bring it back Wednesday night or they could swing by on Thursday morning on the way to work, whatever's more convenient for them. But they think that because it's due Thursday at noon that it should be OK for them to bring it in Thursday night when they come to rent more videos. And when you tell them that it really isn't OK, some of them get very upset."

To me, this means they're like those people in England when Britain switched over to the Gregorian calendar back in the 1500s. In order to join the rest of Europe, England had to go from February 11 to February 22. Well, the peasants thought 11 days were being stolen from their lives, so they rioted.

When I'm late, I usually throw myself upon Blockbuster's mercy. Sometimes, I'll try bravado, like, "Do you really think it would take me six days to watch Duets with Gwyneth Paltrow and Huey Lewis?" To which Tom replies, "It would take me at least that long."

Tom and his co-workers told me about other customers who call to ask for some obscure title, and when they're told it's not available demand to know why not. Or those who bring back videos from other Blockbuster outlets in hopes they can use that as an excuse to get out of late fees. Some even bring back videos from other chains; nobody is sure what the rationale for that would be.

Megan, another employee, says that her favorites are the ones who want to use nine coupons all at once, even though the coupons clearly state that you can only use one at a time. "They'll ask me and I'll politely say that they can't do it, and then they'll go to somebody else and claim that I said it was OK."

CHEAP BASTARDS! (That's me talking, not Megan.)

So what can they do? I mean, it's not like Jack-in-the-Box where if the customer is a jerk, you can always spit in the Secret Sauce.

"Fortunately," says Tom, "the vast majority of people are nice. And those who aren't just give us something to talk about at the company picnic. If we had a company picnic."

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