By Stephanie Choate
Rick Ransom is one of the last stalwarts in a changing industry. His Williston movie rental store, Passport Video, remains open while a steady stream of rental outlets have closed their doors for good over the past few years.
“Everyone’s gone,” he said.
Passport Video is one of just three rental stores left in the area—the others are Hollywood Video in South Burlington and Showtime in Jericho—after competition from online streaming, subscription services and grocery store kiosks pushed many stores out of business.
Although Ransom’s rentals have held steady for the past few years—roughly 400 a week—he said the business is “much slower” than it used to be. As more people turn to the overwhelming trend of streaming, he predicts many of the remaining rental stores, including his, won’t be around in five years.
“I would love to be, but I probably won’t be,” he said.
Nationwide, video rental establishments dropped roughly by half between 2007 and 2011, according to market research firm IBIS World, which calls it a “dying industry.”
Most Blockbusters across the state have closed one by one, and Ransom said he suspects the lingering outposts are just finishing out their leases. In January, the chain announced it was closing 300 stores nationwide, adding to the 500 it closed in 2012. Burlington’s last rental store, Waterfront Video, closed in April. Stowe Video closed its doors in October, 2012. Film Buzz in Richmond closed in 2011.
Ransom, who has been in the movie rental business for 27 years, said he provides something competitors like Netflix and Redbox can’t.
“A common question I get is ‘how are you still in business?’” he said. “The number one thing I tell them is customer service.”
Ransom loves chatting with customers, helping them find the perfect movie and just talking about their days, and is able to provide help if something goes wrong.
“I enjoy customers, I like to talk,” he said. “I heard when you find something you like to do, you don’t work a day in your life. I haven’t worked in 27 years… It’s such an enjoyable job. All the customers are friends of mine, they’re fellow residents.”
Passport Video’s corps of loyal customers say they value the personal interaction and local feel of the store—as well as Ransom’s expertise and friendly nature.
“Rick will make decisions about what movies he personally wants to include in his inventory,” said Williston resident Keith Gaylord, adding that Ransom takes suggestions from customers. “It’s really a local perspective.”
Gaylord—who rents about two movies a week from Passport Video—said he had a Netflix subscription, but became disenchanted with the service. He said he doesn’t like paying for a subscription he may or may not use, and prefers to browse in a physical rental store.
“Streaming is very disappointing to me,” he said. “They don’t have a selection that I would choose for streaming.”
Kehm Suong, who lives nearby and typically stops in a couple times a week, said she likes the community and social aspects of the store. She often runs into friends there, and can walk down to rent a movie and grab dinner as a family or send her kids on their bikes.
“I like the personal attention, knowing when I go in there’s a person there I can talk to,” she said. “I also like supporting local business.”
Local resident Barry Percy said he stops by Passport Video more often than he cares to admit, and has been a customer since the ‘80s.
Passport Video brings “local home grown charm” to the town’s movie watchers, Percy said.
“I think if they close it will definitely be a loss, but I think Rick would have given it the best run anybody could give,” he said. “He’s the best representative of a good, small, friendly store.”
Besides the lack of customer service and personal interaction, Ransom said Netflix lacks in instant gratification—not all movies are available for streaming, and a mail-ordered DVD can take a couple days to arrive.
“What better way to get instant satisfaction than at a video store, because your movie is here, you’re not waiting for it,” he said.
The movie industry also grants movie rental and retail stores access to new releases 30 days before Netflix or Redbox. Redbox, Ransom added, can only offer so much variety.
“There’s only so many movies you can fit in a box,” he said.
Ransom has 8,000 titles on offer at Passport Video, including old classics, foreign films and documentaries. He charges $4 per new release DVD, which customers can keep for four days. A series of deals, like buy one get one free on Mondays, and DVD sales bring in extra customers.
If Ransom does have to eventually close, he said he might look into operating on a smaller scale, like a drive-through kiosk where customers can email their request, then come pick it up.
“I love the business,” he said. “I love the customers. I’d love to see more of them.”
Passport Video is located at 400 Cornerstone Drive, Suite 230.