For three years, starting in 2000, I worked in a video shop / video rental store. The shop was situated a five-minute walk from my house, and had been part of the local landscape for many years.
I initially worked at the shop as a part-time sales assistant, on an eight-hour contract (two four-hour shifts a week). Within nine-months, I was promoted to Assistant Manager of the store, and this was the position I maintained until I quit the job in 2003.
Of all the jobs I have had in my life, of which there have been a few, working in the video shop remains one of my favourites. It was hard work at times, and the pay was terrible, but it was often very enjoyable.
The video shop I worked in, like almost every video shop that ever existed, is no longer around. The rise of the internet, as well as the development of streaming services like Netflix, killed the industry, and with the odd (and rare) exception, video rental is now very much a thing of the past.
But I think about the video shop a lot and I miss it. And I expect that if you’re reading this post, you miss video shops too.
So, with that in mind, today I figured it was time to compile a post all about video shops. Or more specifically, my time working at a video shop.
Below I am going to pull back the curtain and give a little behind the scenes info on what it was like to work the tills and rent out the tapes. Of course, the information contained in this post is based on my personal experiences, so take it for what it is.
I’m presenting this post in the form of a Q&A, because this allows me to answer the most common questions I have been asked about this job over the years. Believe it or not, whenever I mention that I worked in a video shop, I always get bombarded with a bunch of questions about my time there, and these are the burning questions that stick out in my mind.
Let’s get started…
What was your video rental store like?
I worked in a small store in my home town. The store was one of two branches, and part of a large chain.
The video shop was predominantly a rental store, carrying VHS, DVD, and games, but we also sold some products too, including games consoles. I worked in the store when the PS2 was the must-have console.
When I started at the store, we mostly stocked VHS tapes, with a very small space for DVD. By the time I left the job three years later, the VHS/DVD mix had become an even 50/50 split.
In terms of our rental games, it was mostly PS1 and PS2 games, however we also carried a handful of N64 games to begin with, which were then replaced with the equivalent amount of GameCube games when that console was (mildly) popular. A few Xbox games were also available for rent, but we had very little demand for these games.
In addition to the above, the store also housed a little section for confectionary, a drinks fridge, a Häagen-Dazs ice cream fridge, and a popcorn display. We also had small case to display mobile phones – something we sold in-store (along with phone cards).
Did your store ever close? Video rental stores always seemed to be open!
The store was open seven days a week, 10am until 10pm Sunday to Friday, and 9am until 10pm on Saturday. The shop only closed for two days of the year, and that was Christmas Day and Boxing Day. And yes, people rented movies on Christmas Eve!
Was the store always busy?
On Friday and Saturday nights the video shop was very busy – and this was when it was the best time to work, as there was a real energy about the place. The rest of the time it was fairly quiet; especially during the day.
The only other times that it was moderately busy was on a Sunday or Monday evening. The majority of our customers would rent movies on Friday or Saturday nights, and would return their rentals on Sunday or Monday evenings, which is why we would get a little more footfall on these days.
Why could I never find the rental title I wanted?
A common gripe I heard time and time again was the phrase “why don’t you have X title in stock?” This was something uttered time and time again by customers, clearly frustrated by coming into the store to rent a video, only to find that said title was nowhere to be seen.
The most obvious reason that we didn’t have a title in stock was because it was a popular movie and all our copies were being rented by other customers. But this was usually a timing issue – if a customer came into the shop on a Friday or Saturday night, it was almost guaranteed that all of the popular titles were already rented out.
The only way to get one of the big titles on a weekend was to come into the shop first thing on a Friday morning. If you left it any later, you were unlikely to get the film you wanted.
The other reason that we didn’t have a certain title in stock was because we probably didn’t have that many copies to begin with. Head Office dictated how many copies we got of each film, and they often didn’t send us enough copies to meet demand.
Customers would come into the shop, expecting row upon row of the big releases of the week, only to find we had one small section, with room for about 12 copies. And in some cases, we didn’t even have 12 copies in stock!
A ‘buyer’ at Head Office would arrange the number of copies we would get, and this number would be based on how much they thought we could rent. They were almost always wrong.
What was the most popular movie in your store?
The most popular title varied from month-to-month, and over the three years I worked at the video shop it would always change. However, what I can say is that the most popular titles were often not the famous movies.
More often than not, the films that did well were the lesser-known movies, which people skipped at the cinema, but still wanted to watch on video. One of the titles that did really well for us was a Michael Douglas/Brittany Murphy film called Don’t Say a Word (2001), which most people nowadays probably don’t remember.
Big films, such as Spider-Man (2002) and Shrek (2001) did OK, but the popularity of these films tended to drop off after a couple of weeks, and then they barely rented again. Something like Don’t Say a Word had legs, as it featured a well-known actor (Douglas), a popular actor (Murphy), and was something new and different.
The children’s fantasy movie, Magic in the Water (1995), was also quite popular. It was an older title, and we only had one copy in stock, but it was out on loan almost every week.
Did your video shop carry all of the classic movies of the past?
When most people think about video rental stores, they think about all of the classic movies that are contained within. They expect the shop to be filled with wall-to-wall Oscar winning movies, that the shop clerk can just reach out and grab.
I can tell you now, that our store did not contain all of the classic titles you might expect – and this is probably true of many of the big stores of the time. Sure, we had some iconic movies, such as Grease (1978), Citizen Kane (1941), and The Wizard of Oz (1939), but famous movies of yester-year were few and far between.
We didn’t stock Jaws (1975), we didn’t stock Jurassic Park (1993), and we didn’t stock The Great Escape (1963). Heck, we even didn’t carry the original Star Wars (1977).
Why? Because these movies largely didn’t rent very well. Films such as these ones appeared on TV so often, customers simply didn’t want to rent them.
That copy of Citizen Kane we had? It only rented once, and that was to me! The Wizard of Oz never left the store.
Most people have this vision of a video rental store carrying every title under the sun. In reality, they only carry the products that people will spend money on, and if a title isn’t renting, then it isn’t allowed to take up any shelf space.
The few exceptions to this rule were movies that became ‘lost in the system’. These were movies that were in store, but most people didn’t know we carried – and that is because they no longer had a box.
In order for a customer to rent a movie, they needed to pick up the box from the shelf and take it to the counter. They would then hand us the box, and we would find the corresponding tape/DVD/game from our library.
Almost every tape/DVD/game in the store had a corresponding box, unless something had happened to the box. Believe it or not, some customers stole boxes, and this meant we had a few tapes/DVDs/games in our library that were box-less.
Films that we had in stock that didn’t carry a box included Sister Act (1992), Aladdin (1992), and The Hunchback of Notre (1996). They were in store, and customers could rent them if they wanted to, but no one ever did because they simply didn’t know we had them.
But don’t feel sad for these films, I made sure to play them in store whenever I wanted something fun to accompany my day. Aladdin was usually on first thing in the morning, when I needed something to help wake me up.
What was the worst film in your store?
By far the worst film in the shop was Disco Pigs (2001), followed closely by Honest (2000). There is a reason no one remembers either of these movies.
As an employee, did you get to rent the movies for free?
As an employee, we were allowed to rent any movie or game for free. However, there were a couple of rules.
- Rule 1: You couldn’t rent any new release movie or game for the first month of its release. If an employee rented one of these titles, it potentially stopped a customer from being able to rent them, and that was seen as a big no-no.
- Rule 2: You must book each movie/game out on a staff account, and then return it within the 48-rental period. If you didn’t return it within the set timeframe you had to pay the late fees. As a staff member you were told never to get any late fees. Once again, this was a big no-no.
These rules were fine, and the staff at my store stuck to them. The only downside was that we would often have customers asking us about new release titles that we weren’t able to watch. By the time we were allowed to see these movies, they were no longer that popular, and no one was asking about them.
Occasionally we did get to see some new movies before our customers, but this was through the use of ‘timecodes’, which were preview tapes that were sent to the store a few months before the movies were available to rent. The tapes were for purchasing/marketing purposes only – effectively screener copies, if you will.
‘Timecodes’ were sent to stores to try and gage interest from staff. Employees were encouraged to watch the movies at home, then send feedback to Head Office to help with purchasing decisions.
It was a nice idea, but it was poorly executed. Our store received few movies and Head Office took very little notice of feedback anyway.
Did you ever let your mates rent movies for free?
In addition to the two rules mentioned above, there was a third rule: Don’t rent movies to your mates. If you broke the rule, it was a sackable offence.
To the best of my knowledge, no one broke the rule. Not one employee rented a movie out to their friends for free…
…however, we all rented movies out for ourselves, then took them round to our friends’ house to watch them together.
Did you have to be careful not to rent movies to anyone under age?
Yes. Renting movies to anyone under age was an offence, so it was something every member of staff was mindful of.
As part of staff training, every employee had to watch a short video about when/how to ask a customer for ID. As I conducted a lot of the staff training, I had to watch this video more times than I care to recall.
Did you spend all day watching movies at work? I bet that was cool!
For most of the working day, we had movies playing in the shop, but barely any of the staff ever paid any attention to the movies. As odd as it may sound, having movies on all day was actually a pain.
The reason playing movies all day was annoying, was because there were only so many movies you could have on in the shop. We could play ‘U’s or ‘PG’s, but nothing above these certificates could be played in store, unless it was after 7pm.
From 7pm until close, we could play a ‘12’ certificate film, but we rarely did, as we were always concerned the film might contain some inappropriate content. I once got a complaint from a customer for putting The Mummy Returns on after 7:30pm, because it frightened his daughter.
The general rule of thumb was to simply stick to family movies. This was fine, but this limited the number of titles you could play in-store.
And keep in mind, if you are working eight hours a day, five days a week, 48 weeks a year, you soon get fed up with playing the same movies over, and over, and over again.
There are some films I won’t even watch these days, because they played so often in the video shop. Those first couple of Harry Potter movies that came out in the early ‘00s (Philosopher’s Stone/Chamber of Secrets) were played so often, that watching them now is almost traumatic.
Having to play movies in-store every day was something we all grew to hate pretty quickly – especially as it meant having to constantly change the tapes once the film had ended. At one point, we all just stuck the first Lord of the Rings movie on repeat, simply because it was a lengthy film, and this reduced the number of times we had to change the tape.
What movies did you only watch because you worked in a video shop?
Far too many to list. The few that instantly spring to mind include The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Disney’s The Kid (2000), and See Spot Run (2001). Even if I live to 100, I will never watch these movies ever again.
What movies did you enjoy playing the most in your shop?
Grease and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Hunchback was my go-to film during the day, while Grease tended to be an evening kind of movie.
Of all the movies in the shop, Grease was the one that received the most amount of screen time by choice. It was always on hard rotation on Fridays, particularly between the hours of 6pm and 10pm.
Did you eat lots of popcorn at work?
We sold a lot of popcorn, and I ate a lot of popcorn, but never at work. However, being surrounded by confectionary all day was far too tempting, and I did practically live on Mars bars for months at a time.
I guarantee, anyone who worked in a video rental store, lived on chocolate bars and fizzy drinks. They were everywhere, and you eventually gave in to temptation.
As Netflix wasn’t a thing back in 2000, I bet the video shop was a goldmine – did the store make lots of money?
Video shops probably didn’t make as much money as people presumed. A top tier movie back then was priced at around £3.25-£3.50, and the average customer only rented out 1-2 movies at a time.
Few customers ever rented more than 2 movies per week, and even if we could push a few add-on sales, such as popcorn, ice cream etc, this usually only took the total up to the £10 mark.
The biggest earner in the video store didn’t come from video rentals, but instead from the sales of games consoles and mobile phones. Selling a console or a couple of mobile phones greatly improved the figures for the day, and that’s what helped to keep the lights on.
Without these items, the shop would have struggled, so they were vital to the business model. Although most members of staff really disliked selling mobile phones and consoles.
Mobile phones were a nightmare, because if they broke, we wouldn’t take them back. Customers had to return them to the manufacturer for a replacement, and this caused problems further down the line, with disgruntled customers wanting refunds.
Consoles were also a bit of a nightmare, as they were never sold on their own, only ever as part of a bundle (with a game, a controller, some ‘free’ rentals etc). Each bundle had to be manually put through the till a very specific way in order for the bundle to work, and it was always a more complicated sale than it needed to be.
Did customers refuse to pay their late fees?
Every movie or game in our store could be rented out for at least two nights. And as long as the customer returned their tape/DVD/game within that 48-hour rental period, they didn’t accrue any further costs.
Unfortunately, some people were late returning their tapes/games/DVDs and that meant a fee was added onto their account. That fee would increase with each passing day, and if left for a week or two it would soon add up.
All staff were actively encouraged to ensure all customers paid their late fees, usually by telling customers that unless they paid their fees, they couldn’t rent a new title. The problem was, almost all of our customers had huge late fees, and if we refused service due to unpaid fees, then we would make no transactions.
The reason most of the customers had late fees was because the video shop had existed for many, many years, and within this time staff had come and gone and many had simply not asked customers to pay their dues. Over time, some of these fees had built up to a considerable amount, and had also reached a point where it was almost impossible to trace where the fee had come from. Many fees simply had to be written off.
What were the customers like?
I’ve worked in a number of retail jobs in the past, and I know that you always get a mix of great customers and complete arseholes. I have to say, the majority of the customers who rented videos were nice people.
In order to rent a movie or game from us, you needed to be a member. If you were a member, you tended to come in quite regularly. Regular customers tend not to bitch and moan that much, as it makes things awkward next time around.
Our customers also tended to be quite nice because they were renting movies – which was something really fun to do! These people were burnt out from their day job, and simply wanted some entertainment, and they saw coming into the video shop as a way to relax.
We did get some bad customers, and as mentioned above, some problems when people purchased mobile phones from us, but most grievances could be dealt with quite easily. The promise of a ‘free’ rental also went a long way to smoothing things over.
Would you rent out movies to customers if they forgot their membership card?
As mentioned above, our shop had been around for years, and not only did that mean plenty of late fees, it also meant plenty of lost membership cards. In fact, barely any of our customers had their cards, so most transactions were made by searching for a member’s rental account by looking up their surname on our system.
I should add that searching by surname could sometimes be problematic – especially if the customer had an unusual surname and they didn’t help us out with the spelling. For example, we had one customer called Mrs. Death, but she pronounced her surname as ‘D-Ath’.
Mrs. Death, got quite frustrated when we took a while to find her on the system. Apparently, it was our fault for not knowing how she spelt her name.
Did you have any favourite customers?
Yes – plenty of them, and that was one of the great things about working in a video shop. Many of the customers came in weekly, often at the same time on the same day, and they were always very pleasant.
These customers would ask for recommendations, tell us what they thought of a movie, and just engage in general chit-chat. Popping into the shop every week had become part of their routine, and it was always good to speak to them.
I always wanted a poster or a standee from my local video store – should I have just asked for one?
Yes. You really just needed to ask!
Every week, Head Office would send us a tube filled with posters to promote forthcoming releases. We would put up one or two posters in store, but most of them sat out the back, gathering dust.
The posters would sit there for months at a time until we would have a tidy, and then they would get dumped in the bins. The same thing happened with the standees.
If there was a major film out that week, then chances are it would be accompanied by a standee. The standees would arrive flat-packed, so if we wanted to put them out on the shop floor, they would need to be built – and this was a time-consuming thing that we didn’t always want to do.
If a customer wanted them, they simply had to ask. But few customers ever did.
Occasionally staff took home posters or standees. I took home standees for Shrek, Hannibal, and Attack of the Clones, as well as one or two posters.
Did you have any special promotions in store to tie-in with big movies?
When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released on video, we had a midnight opening to sell VHS copies of the movie, but sadly no one turned up! We also got sent some promotional T-shirts, which we had to wear for a couple of weeks to help promote the sale of the tapes, but no one bought them, because the videos were being sold much cheaper at all the local supermarkets.
With the release of Shrek we were sent some ‘Shrek ears’ to wear, which were basically green ears attached to an Alice band. They were not comfortable to wear, but younger customers seemed to like them.
To tie-in with Pokémon, which was huge at the time, we held a Pokémon tournament, which saw the store host a card game/event for children. This proved fairly popular, but the member of staff who was asked to oversee the event refused to ever do anything like that again, as the kids became a little too much for him.
Was it sad to see DVD rentals surpass VHS?
No, not really. For most of my time at the shop, VHS was king. DVD rentals certainly increased over time, but there was still plenty of love for VHS – especially when it came to renting movies.
Why? Because there were less playback issues with VHS.
Once a DVD disc had been rented out a couple of times it would get dirty or scratched. After a while, this created playback problems.
You didn’t get this problem with VHS tapes, as they were more robust. VHS may have lost the battle in the end, but it had some staying power!
Did the rise of the internet reduce the amount of customers you had?
It’s difficult to say how much the internet impacted our rental sales, but during the time in which I worked at the shop, I don’t believe the internet caused too many problems. Remember, I worked in the shop during the early ‘00s, and this was at a time when people didn’t use the internet like they do now.
At this point in time, the average customer couldn’t work their way around the internet, let alone work out how to watch a movie online. The technology certainly hadn’t reached a point where it was taking away our customer base through online pirating.
Pirating a movie in those days meant buying a low-quality tape from a strange bloke your dad knew down the pub. It had nothing to do with streaming a film from a dodgy website.
When you worked at the shop, could you see the end was near for video rental?
At the time, no – and I don’t believe anyone could have seen the end.
As mentioned above, the internet was not too much of a problem between 2000 and 2003, so the end was not so noticeable. However, on reflection, sales were down, and this should have been an indication that change was certainly on the horizon.
Unfortunately, Head Office blamed the downturn in sales on staff. We were ‘encouraged’ to work harder, push more sales, and try to increase the amount of people that came in through the door.
At the same time, the powers that be refused to address some of the dated aspects of the shop, including some of the movie genres that simply didn’t rent. For example, we had a whole section devoted to ‘War and Westerns’ – a genre that by 2000 had become very stale.
Was there a genre of movie that rented better than others?
‘Comedy’ rented the best, followed by ‘Action’ movies, then ‘Thrillers’. ‘Sci-fi’ did very poorly in our store, but then, this genre was stuck next to ‘War and Westerns’ which became a blackhole in the shop.
‘Horror’ should have done better than it did, but Head Office never invested in this section. There was a bit of snobbery about this genre, and it didn’t get the recognition it deserved.
What was the best thing about working at a video rental store?
As a movie-lover, the best thing about working at a video shop was being surrounded by movies all day long, and getting to talk to the customers about the new releases. Being paid to have conversations with people about films was just fantastic.
What was the worst thing about working at a video rental store?
The worst thing about the job was the hours, followed very closely by the pay.
The shop was open until 10pm every night, and of the five shifts I worked a week, two of those shifts were 12 hours long, and three were until 10pm. This became tiresome after a while.
We only had a skeleton staff, and if anyone called in sick it was also a major problem. At times it seemed as if I was the only one in the shop, and this was something which was noted by many of our customers.
In terms of wages, I was on £5 an hour – which was rubbish. As an Assistant Manager I was given this huge responsibility to look after a store, and yet, the money was very poor in return.
Why did you leave the job?
The combination of long/late hours and poor pay was what finally pushed me out of the door. Despite my love for the job, after three years it became too much, for too little, and I had to go.
The shop didn’t make a great deal of money, so I understood why the staff/wages were at a bare minimum, but that doesn’t mean it was something that was acceptable. The company needed to invest in new products and new ideas to bump up the business, but instead, those in charge just carried on doing what they always did, relying on staff to work harder for less.
I finally reached a point where it was time to move on, and I made the decision to leave the job.
Do you ever regret the decision to leave the video shop?
I don’t ever regret my decision to leave the video shop, and ultimately, it was the correct thing to do – the job/shop doesn’t exist anymore, so it was definitely the right call. But I do miss working at the shop.
As much as I understand why the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ etc are a more suitable business model these days, I still wish there was a need for video rental stores. I miss spending time in these stores, both as a customer and as a member of staff.
If I had the money or the space, I would recreate a video store in a spare room at home – and maybe one day I will. Video rental stores really were a special place, and I would love to be able to revive one, even if it is purely for my own entertainment.
And finally, did you work for Blockbuster?
I did not. The company I worked for was called Choices.
Choices was pretty much the same as Blockbuster, with stores all over the UK, but it didn’t have the same brand recognition. The company didn’t do any major advertising, so it never reached the same status, but in essence it was exactly the same as Blockbuster, only with slightly cheaper prices.
I hope the above information has given you a little insight into video rental stores and how they operated. The internet and streaming is what ultimately killed these stores, but a lack of investment in staff and products also ran them into the ground.
But oh, what a shame it is that these stores no longer exist. There really was something special about the video rental days and it’s something that we must never forget.
In fact, if you have good memories of video shops, be sure to pop them in the comments section below. And if you have any further questions, feel free to ask them, and I’ll do my best to answer them too!
And should you want to read more about my video shop days, I have included a couple of chapters in my book Rewind to the ‘90s: A Journey Through 100 Movies. The book is available to read for FREE on Amazon Kindle Unlimited.
For other posts that you might like to cast your eye over, check out the recommended reads below.
Disclaimer: I earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article.