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Timewarp: Toys R Us 1987


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The Video Store Clerk

My first job was working at a Blockbuster Video. It was a great job that I didn’t fully appreciate until years after I had moved on. Since video store jobs are almost extinct, I thought it would be interesting to share the flow of a video store and the video store clerk’s role.

The opening shift begins at 10 AM which is thirty-minutes before the store opens. That time is used to clean up any mess the night crew didn’t get to the previous night, along with straightening up the shelves a little, putting registers in the drawers, and checking all the tapes left in the drop box overnight. It didn’t take long to open up, it was a much quicker process than closing, but then again, everything was easier in the morning.

A morning shift at a video store was pretty boring usually. The only exception would be on Mondays when the shipment of new rentals arrived for Tuesday’s release. On Mondays, most of the morning would be spent waiting for UPS, and then once they arrived, that meant it was time to prep the rentals.

Prepping the rentals took a few steps. First off, all of the movies had to be accounted for. Once they were properly inventoried, the system would print off labels complete with title, rating, and a short description on the back to be placed in plastic tape protectors that the renters would actually take home with them. The original cardboard packaging that surrounded the tape was stuffed with a piece of styrofoam and shrink-wrapped, a process of melting plastic tightly around an object. This made it possible for renters to see the actual box the tape came in, appreciate the artwork, and read the description on the back. If they were satisfied with what they saw, they would take the hard plastic case actually containing the tape to the counter, or at some stores, they would take the cardboard packaging to the counter, where the clerk would then fetch the tape from behind the counter.

The other weekday shifts were usually filled with cleaning, replacing posters and other marketing materials. Not many customers would frequent the daytime, and when they did it was usually moms with small children or elderly customers. It was an easy shift, but one that went by incredibly slow. The weekends were a bit more active, but night time was when a video store truly came to life.

Most video stores were open until midnight, which meant the evening shift was rather long. There wasn’t a lot of time for putting up posters and worrying about marketing, so the evening was mostly spent checking in returns and dealing with customers. Most weekday night customers broke down into the following categories:

5 PM-6:30 PM – The After Work Returners

Around five-thirty people began trickling in after work to return movies and maybe grab a quick movie for the evening. These after work renters tended to be the ones with the most late fees. They were the ones that would throw the tape in the backseat to return and just forget about it. These renters were broken into two subcategories: those who complained non-stop and took no responsibility for their late fees, and those that owned up to it completely. The ones who’d own it would just smile, laugh, and pay their late fee with no drama. It was no mistake that these were the customers who usually ended up with their late fees waived. These customers were usually alone, and were either renting for themselves or their family.

6:30 PM-8:30 PM - The After Dinner Crowd

The After Dinner Crowd was made up of people in their late twenties through early forties, who would swing by and grab a movie to watch after dinner. This crowd was never in a hurry and would have no problem spending thirty or forty-five minutes browsing just looking for that perfect movie for the evening. There would be a few regulars in this group, but most regulars tended to come during the day time, directly after work, or later in the evening. This group tended to consist of people who just sporadically decided to rent a movie or were trying to find something that was unavailable on the weekend. The customers were usually found in small groups of three to five, and many times were families.

8:30 PM – 10:30 – The Students

After the mature group of renters finished up around 8:30 PM, they were replaced by the high school and college students. These renters would raid the video games, horror, and new release sections. They tended to be loud but rarely caused trouble. They would pay late fees with no argument or would simply go through everyone in their group to find someone who didn’t have late fees outstanding. It wasn’t unusual to see a group of eight or ten customers in a group. Luckily, things were slowing down by this time of night, so there usually weren’t too many large groups in the store at one time. This was also a prime time for nighttime regulars to come out.  

10:30 PM – Midnight – The Freaks

Once 10:30 PM past, things slowed down at the video store. Clean up was beginning and customers trickled in rather slowly. This was the time of night that the store promotional video was usually ejected and something more exciting and interesting was popped into the VCR. Not many customers showed up between 10:30 PM and midnight, but the ones that did were usually strange. These were the people who either hated crowds and other people, or were high and just wanted something to watch. They’d wander the store usually until it was closing time, just reading boxes or watching whatever movie was playing throughout the store. It was a strange group of people, but a group that rarely caused any trouble.

Working the evening shift at a video store was fun. The night went by fast and most of that time was spent talking movies with customers, checking in tapes, and putting them back onto the shelves. The latest part of the evening, The Freaks section, was the designated clean up time. That time of night was spent straightening the shelves, vacuuming, and attempting to repair the Kids section into something somewhat resembling organized. The drop boxes were checked for the last time, the shelves restocked, and finally the money counted down. Monday nights all the new releases had to be put out, but it was an easy task since the day shift was in charge of consolidating the shelves and making room for them all.

The weekends followed the same sort of flow throughout the day and evening, but The After Dinner Crowd merged with The Students to form one single 6:30 PM – 10:30 PM customer segment. The volume of renters was much higher on the weekend, and so were the returns.

Fridays saw a huge increase of After Work Renters who were attempting to snag the latest and most popular films before the evening crowds emerged. Even Friday afternoons were busier for people attempting to beat the crowds.

Sunday evenings were usually the slowest of the week. Returns were made throughout the night, but not many renters would show up on Sunday evening. It was a good time for the employees to rest since beginning around Friday at 6 PM through Sunday around 2 PM it was non-stop crazy busy.  It was during these slow times that sometimes a special customer would come in. Someone who was either well versed in movies or not at all. It was during these moments that a video store clerk was able to exercise his/her full usefulness. Movies were discussed in depth and recommended, and a certain amount of care, respect, and customer services was extended that is rarely found in other industries. People who worked in video stores were usually passionate about movies. That is what brought them to the store in the first place. Being able to use that passion to help others, even when it was something as small a film recommendation, was an incredible gift.

Some type of questions asked might include:

“I’m a huge fan of Gary Oldman in The Professional. Are there any movies like that starring him?”

“My mother passed away yesterday. I need something to take my mind off of my world falling apart right now.”

“I just saw Clerks and loved it! What else has Kevin Smith directed worth watching?”

and even a request I received several times on September 11th, 2001:

“I can’t take watching the news anymore right now. Please, give me something to watch that’ll make me laugh. Give me something to watch that isn’t the news.”

Netflix, Redbox, and On Demand can’t offer that sort of guidance.

Sadly, there aren’t many video store clerks in the world anymore. It’s a job that has been eliminated by technology and convenience. I’ve done my part in eliminating the industry that first employed me, but I’m not so sure it was the right thing to do. I miss the browsing of the shelves and picking up a physical box. I miss visiting small Mom and Pop video stores and finding some obscure horror title that I’d never seen anywhere else. I miss the joy that came with finding that movie you went to the video store specifically for. I miss the sensation of putting in a movie that I’d never heard of before, finding it to be amazing, and feeling like I’m the only person in the entire world who ever saw it.

Also I miss the event that was going to rent a movie. It was something you did as a family or with friends. Everyone jumped in the car and spent time browsing the video store. It was something meaningful and an activity that created memories. I feel sad that future generations won’t have that same sort of bonding experience.

I spend most of my time watching Netflix, Hulu, and Vudu, but it can’t replace the stale smell of dusty shelves, the sound of putting in a video tape, and the excitement of huddling around the TV to enjoy the a good movie.

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Looking for more from massreality?

vkimo Posted on Jan 08, 2017 at 09:33 PM

Wow, I was having serious Deja Vu until I read Vapors comment. Great article then...great article now!

massreality Posted on Jan 05, 2017 at 05:24 PM

@jkatz The second poster is The Public Eye starring Joe Pesci.

jkatz Posted on Jan 04, 2017 at 11:25 PM

Can anybody identify the second poster under the front desk? Through some internet sleuthing (read: squinting really really hard and IMDB) I was able to make out the on the left as being for Fifty/Fifty. Never heard of it.

SockofFleagulls Posted on Jan 04, 2017 at 08:36 PM

Awesome trip back in time. I miss the days of taking a chance on a $2 previous viewed movie at Blockbuster.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Jan 04, 2017 at 08:18 PM

Still one of my favorites. No doubt as a teenager this would have been my dream first job, I don't know why I never went for it. Instead I will just have to live vicariously through your adventures.

Vaporman87 Posted on Jan 03, 2017 at 11:46 PM

Glad to see this one back on the site. It was a great look into the life behind the counter. It was sad to see the last of our local rental stores close up just recently. I don't know of any anywhere local now.

Rick Ace Rhodes Posted on Jan 02, 2017 at 07:25 PM

Nice article MassReality! I've often wondered what it must of been like for a video store clerk back in the day. I'm sure like all clerk jobs it offered customers that were annoying, odd or actually interesting. It's a shame that technology has made things like this obsolete. It may have made our lives more convenient, but it removed some of the fun that once was involved in the inconvenience.

My father loves to tell this story of how on Saturday's him and his friends would go out to the mall, drink and eat, and then spend the day in the record store digging through shelves and looking to see what cool records were in stock. Now and days that's all removed, you can just go to iTunes and find what you want.

I've often wondered: why are new video releases released on Tuesdays? Even today new movies on DVD and Blu-Ray are often released on Tuesdays. Is it because Sunday's usually aren't business days and so Monday's have to be used to instead ship and receive them in stores to be put out on shelves?

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