I’ve been using Blockbuster Online for most of this year and I thought I’d record some comments about it. First, the deal was pretty enticing: $14.99 (+ tax) per month for unlimited three-at-a-time DVD rentals by mail, plus two in-store rentals per month. Honestly, it was the two in-store rentals per month that sealed the deal for me to choose Blockbuster over Netflix (which was also slightly more expensive).
I’ve never actually used Netflix, so I cannot make a direct comparison of the two services. However, word-of-mouth leads me to believe that the two biggest differences are DVD availability and turn-around-time. For the first, I’ve really had very few problems with availability, though I’m often not particularly picky about which DVD I get, so I may simply not notice the problem. The DVDs in “My Queue” are often listed as “Short Wait” or even “Long Wait” instead of “Available Now”, but I see these change pretty often and I’ve even been shipped a DVD on a day when I had seen it marked as “Short Wait”. The only time I really had much of a problem with it at all was when I had the first DVD of the first season of The Wire at the top of my list. It took quite a while for it to actually ship (and even caused me a secondary problem when it actually did ship because I was expecting one of the other DVDs to ship instead).
Regarding turn-around-time, the key issue is the location of the nearest distribution center. For me, in Austin, the nearest Blockbuster distribution center is in Houston. Netflix has apparently had a distribution center in Austin for a while now. This makes a big difference in turn-around-time — four days versus two days. This will probably be improved at some point, either by Blockbuster opening a distribution center in Austin or by some sort of use of their stores for this purpose (which the mention is in the works in their FAQ). While the longer turn-around-time does lower the maximum number of DVDs you can get per month, this is not a huge issue for me as I would not likely watch the DVDs that quickly. Still, there are certainly times when getting the next DVD sooner would be very convenient.
An issue that, for me, has the potential to be bigger than the actual turn-around-time is the apparent technical delay that Blockbuster is periodically having in updating my queue with information about DVDs being received and shipped. So far, this has only been an informational issue and thus just an annoyance, but it certainly isn’t comforting. When combined with the difficulties I have in managing my queue (see below), this can be particularly irksome. The worst example I’ve seen so far is when I put a DVD in the mail on a Tuesday, received confirmation that it had been received on Thursday but did not receive confirmation that the next DVD had shipped until Saturday. I generally try to get a family movie in time for the weekend, so in this particular case I had arranged my queue on Thursday to facilitate this. But on Friday, after not having received a confirmation of a DVD having been shipped on Thursday, I modified my queue (since receiving a family movie on Monday is not very useful to me). When I finally received the shipment confirmation on Saturday, to my dismay it indicated that one of the family movies had shipped. Since my queue no longer had any family movies near the top, I held out hope that the DVD had really shipped on Thursday and it was only the confirmation email that was late (along with the “Shipped Movies” list being updated late on the web site). Luckily, that afternoon (Saturday) I did receive the family movie, so it clearly had shipped on Thursday after all.
The problem I have with managing my queue that I mentioned above is basically that it is very difficult to control what *type* of movie you will receive next. You cannot control exactly what movie because of availability, and this is an expected and acceptable consequence of the business model. But it is still very desirable to control the type of movie. As in my example above, I like to receive a family movie for the weekend, but not at other times. Similarly, there are times when I would like to receive a movie that my wife would want to watch and other times when I know she is unlikely to watch a movie. As things work now, I have to make wholesale changes to my queue in preparation for the next DVD to ship — moving a whole bunch of family movies to the top at some times, and moving them to the bottom at other times. (Moving only a few makes it too likely that all of them might be unavailable and something else would ship instead.) This is particularly complicated when it is expected that two DVDs will be shipped on the same day. I do not want two family movies. There’s pretty much no way to handle this situation other than to trust the availability and hope to get lucky. This actually just happened to me for this weekend, and one way or another I did get lucky enough to get exactly one family movie shipped.
The solution to this problem that seems the most direct to me is to simply have a separate queue for each of the three “slots”. There are obviously some user interface complexity issue with this, so it would probably need to be an advanced configuration. Also, having totally separate queues isn’t actually a complete solution for various reasons. Still, it would be a start. A better solution might be to allow the user to put DVDs into categories and then to place a category at a spot in the queue. The queue would still have individual DVDs as well. This would fix the problem in two ways — first, it would make it much easier to rearrange groups of DVDs, and second, it would make it possible to have only one DVD from a category shipped even when multiple DVDs were being shipped. That is, if I put the “Family” category in the top slot, a family movie would be shipped (as long as one was available) but then the category would be removed from the slot and one of the DVDs below it in the queue would be shipped as the second DVD. Of course, you could also put the “Family” category in the first two slots to get two family movies shipped.
All-in-all, I’m pretty happy with the service, and I certainly feel like I’m getting a good value. I am somewhat tempted by the in-store one-at-a-time unlimited rental that Blockbuster now offers for the same price, but I think that the reduced selection in the stores is enough reason to stay with the online version.