Does your town still have a video store? Most do not. I don’t mean a Blockbuster or some other big chain store. Those are getting harder to find too. I’m referring to a small, independent, niche type video rental store. I recall that when movies first became available on VHS the rental stores soon began popping up everywhere. At first they were all independent, like individual bookstores with unique personalities. Then a few local chains sprouted up. Then national mega-chains started to dominate the landscapte, and with their lower prices and quantity they pushed out many of the smaller independents who had no way to compete on price, selection or convenience. It is all reminiscent of the retail evolution from mom-and-pop grocery stores to Wal-Mart.
The independent stores were usually much beloved, and as when long-time bookstores finally close, it makes the news. No doubt, public libraries, with their free videos, help to put a nail in the coffin, but nothing comes close to the spike delivered by Netflix. As it masters the art of streaming video to all devices, Netflix tightens its grip on the video rental industry even as its recent price increase has customers griping loudly. As the dominant player in its industry, Netflix is now every competitor’s number one target.
Despite the overwhelming odds against success as an independent video store in 2011, a few are actually surviving if not exactly thriving. What these survivors are doing could provide a lesson for academic libraries that face similar challenges in a world where our target population can find information elsewhere with greater ease and convenience. In an NYT article titled “Video Stores, Reinvented by Necessity” we learn these strategies include participative film viewings, presentations by filmakers, film classes, trivia nights and yes, better facilities.
I especially like that the core of these strategies is based on trying to compete with giants like Netflix and Internet-delivered video by focusing on the community and the building of better relationships. As one store owner said “What we should be focusing on was community and people talking to each other,” Ms. Polinger said. “We just wanted to go the other extreme and be more interpersonal.” This resonates with me because I’ve been emphasizing the importance of relationship building to capitalize on an experience we can provide that our community members cannot get with those nameless-faceless-corporate Internet providers of information.
Another lesson to learn is that personalization makes a difference – and that being different is a competitive advantage. Another independent store owner proclaimed that “People who work in the video store are very knowledgeable about film. There’s always a conversation, not just a click. Those kinds of real experiences, you can’t really duplicate when you’re getting a movie out of a vending machine.” That sounds vaguely familiar to personal reference services in a library. What’s different is that academic librarians often approach these interactions as simple and forgetful transactions when they are opportunities for a conversation. Every academic librarian’s goal should be to provide a better experience based on personalizing each transaction. We do not help ourselves by simply pushing out more content – even if we allow our community members a more personal role in choosing it.
Another potential lesson is to concentrate our efforts on the segment of the population that has the capacity to become the passionate users. The video store owners are conceding the bulk of the community to Netflix. They changed their strategy to focus on the passionate users who need more than convenience – those who want the conversation. I think this is what Brian Mathews is getting at in this interview when he said:
“There are just some people who don’t use libraries, and so we can’t expect to reach them…I think there is potential to further educate current users. There is a population of people who just love books or love being in large computer labs or who just want to get away from the dorm and have a more ideal learning environment. This is our base. It’s these people who we want to focus on and expose to other things that we have to offer. In this regard, I think we can tip people along to other aspects of the library that they might not be aware of.”
Given the size of our staffs and number of potential users we’ll likely never have the capacity to reach all of them – and many of them are not interested in what we offer. That was a major lament expressed by Bohyun Kim in her ACRLog guest post when she wrote “users prefer not to be mediated by librarians in locating and using information and resources…So where do research libraries and librarians go from here?” While we would never want to intentionally abandon any segment of our communities and we will always promote our openness to all, the place to go, I think, is where we put our energy into connecting with the segment that has the capacity to become passionate about using the library. Create the programs, conduct the activities and build the relationships with those who do care about the library.
I’ll paraphrase what Simon Sinek says in his book Start With Why (and in his TED Talk): “The goal is not to push your services to everyone who potentially needs what you have – your goal should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe.” That, Sinek tells us, is how you build loyalty and increase the likelihood that your loyal customers will tell their friends how great the experience is at your library. That’s exactly what those remaining, surviving video stores are doing.
Just as with other industries that are being displaced or disintermediated by disruptive innovators, newspapers, travel agents, music delivery, bookstores, higher education, there are lessons that academic librarians can learn from those who survive when all others are becoming irrelevant, marginalized and obsolete. There’s only a crisis in academic librarianship if we let it happen.