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Architecture + Branding: Blockbuster’s “anyplace” architectural design culture unplanned contributor to the demise of retail behemoth

1-In a world …

When Blockbuster LLC announced that it would be shuttering operations in the later half of 2013, it came as little surprise to many that had been following the downtrend of the video rental business and slow public demise of the former category titan.

Launched in 1985 in Dallas, Texas, David and Sandy Cook’s take on the video store concept was met with a warm reception. Blockbuster Video’s early success was due in part to its ability to customize stores to their corresponding neighbourhood, stocking films geared specifically to demographic profiles, as well as in demand popular new releases in addition to a vast library of titles (source: wikipedia.org). Additionally, Blockbuster did not rent X-rated films, which helped it leapfrog competitors at a time when the industry was transitioning from adult renters to a more family-friendly focus.

2-A story made for Hollywood

By 1985, the VCR (videocassette recorder) had risen above the confines of being an expensive gadget for the wealthy and had begun to establish itself as the standard entertainment device for average households. Furthermore, “Hollywood had called a truce in its epic legal battle against the tide of technology as it realized the lucrative new revenue stream the machines produced” (source: businessweek.com). In tandem with the adoption of the new technology, video retail specialty stores blossomed and diversified. The video rental industry had begun its ascent from peddlers of adult movies in questionable shops in disreputable neighbourhoods into a more legitimate and respectable venture.

The initial store, located at the intersections of Skillman and Northwest Highway in Dallas, would establish the framework for the coming video rental industry revolution. The first store, in a free-standing section of a strip shopping center fronting the busy intersection was brightly lit, exhibiting a high degree of transparency and visibility due to floor to ceiling windows (source: businessweek.com). A video buff, Sandy Cook designed the store’s interior with bold blue and yellow colours, the torn-ticket logo and the name, Blockbuster (source: businessweek.com). The site afforded great visibility and compelling demographics.

DSC12298 - Blockbuster Membership Card

Blockbuster Membership Card

When the store opened in October of 1985, the reaction to the wide selection of titles and brightly lit surroundings from customers was better than expected, and the Cooks realized they had a hit on their hands (source: businessweek.com).

The second half of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s were booming years for the company, growing from a single store in Texas, into several locations through franchising and licensing agreements. However, the limited barriers to entry into the video rental business combined with the increasing encroachment from supermarkets, convenience stores, and other retailers into Blockbuster’s core business meant that the growth curve needed to increase dramatically.

In a bid to achieve critical market mass quickly, the franchise and license strategy was cast aside. Under the guidance of Wayne Huizenga, Blockbuster began buying back as many franchise locations as were willing to sell and acquiring several competitors, incorporating these into the Blockbuster family (source: businessweek.com). During this hectic period, Blockbuster was reported to be opening a store a day.

3-Designed with Speed

The breakneck pace of expansion throughout the 1980s and 1990s was an unequivocal all-out assault on the video rental industry, and all Blockbuster competitors, large and small.

In early 1986, a new distribution center that could provide the entire fulfillment requirements, from movies to janitorial supplies, for three (3) new stores within 24 hours, had come on-line (source: businessweek.com). The groundwork was set for rapid expansion, and Blockbusters were opening up seemingly everywhere.

Most stores exhibited an inside-out design philosophy. The cashier island would be located near the entrance/exit, splitting the circulation flow between in and out, complete with the customary greetings upon entry and exit. The perimeter walls would be lined with shelving and racks, a ring of movies thus encircling the store, with the internal portions divides into row upon row with shorter shelving reminiscent of library stacks. A queuing space, linear or amorphous, would exist near the front of the returns/register area and define the check-out process. The overall design was skewed towards transactional efficiency, expediting the “browse, select, check-out” process. Layout, finishes and case goods all reinforced the speed mantra.

Providing no desirable place for cinephiles to converge, meet and discuss, and share recommendations, the Blockbuster store design removed emotion from the overall process. Lacking a sense of community or belonging to one location over another, the stores would become interchangeable, with preferred location being based on in-stock product availability, accessibility and parking. As much as the newer stores were efficient, to a certain extent, Blockbuster had managed to design the joy and wow factor of the original concept out of them.

Blockbuster 798 Us Route 302 Barre VT 1

Blockbuster, US Route 302, Barre, Vermont (source: maps.google.com)

Shopping plazas and strip malls, with their mix of revolving and interchangeable tenants, provided a perfect canvas with end caps, linear, or mall locations, each one as non-descript, sterile and anonymous as the other. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Blockbuster thrived in the car-friendly suburban/ex-urban milieu where strip malls and shopping plazas endowed with ample free parking areas abound.

DSC04336 - Blockbuster Retail Strip Arsenal Street Watertown NY

Commercial retail shopping powercenter, Arsenal Street, Watertown, New York

DSC03951 - Blockbuster Retail Powercenter  Trainyards Industrial Road Ottawa ON

Commercial retail shopping powercenter, Trainyards, Industrial Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Brand specific exterior alterations tended to be minimal, exemplifying the quick turn around from vacant Commercial Retail Unit (CRU) into a fully operational Blockbuster. By design, few ornamentation or embellishments were required.

DSC05303 - Blockbuster 39 9th Street Cornwall ON

Blockbuster, 9th Street, Cornwall, Ontario, Canada

DSC12269 - Blockbuster FORMER Elmvale Acres Shopping Centre Ottawa ON

Blockbuster (FORMER), Elmvale Acres Shopping Centre, Smyth Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Even stand-alone stores had little to no form factors to speak of, nothing particularly unique, instead adopting the aesthetics of the adjacent buildings, development project, or retail agglomeration where the building existed.

DSC12180 - Blockbuster FORMER Central Shopping Plaza Northwest 7th Street Miami FL

Blockbuster (FORMER), Central Shopping Plaza, Northwest 7th Street, Miami, Florida

Functional and design worthy, window awnings, the most popular being the quarter round shape extrusion along the window head, populated many Blockbuster locations. Nonetheless, the presence and shape of the awnings never seemed to be a prescriptive architectural design feature that the brand held firmly.

Blockbuster 15 Webbs Place Dover NH 3

Blockbuster, Webbs Place, Dover, New Hampshire (source: maps.google.com)

Blockbuster 219 Waterman Dr South Portland ME 1

Blockbuster, Waterman Drive, South Portland, Maine (source: maps.google.com)

An expansive glass retail storefront, combined with a busy intersection, and a pool of potential customers to draw from made for ideal stores. High transparency storefronts combined with high visibility/high traffic locations were the best fits.

Blockbuster 1608 Memorial Dr Chicopee MA 3

Blockbuster, Memorial Drive, Chicopee, Massachusetts (source: maps.google.com)

Blockbuster 2601 SW 147th Avenue Miami FL 6

Blockbuster, SW 147th Avenue, Miami, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

Street facing orientation to maximize exposure, especially on major intersections, arterial main roads and state roads was given favour. Although not always facing the street, the stores did have a bias towards the front façade, investing the bulk of the exterior design capital on that particular elevation, even if it faced a typical suburban parking area.

Blockbuster 926 W Boylston St Worcester MA 3

Blockbuster, West Boylston Street, Worcester, Massachusetts (source: maps.google.com)

Blockbuster 3300 Aramingo Avenue Philadelphia PA 4

Blockbuster, Aramingo Avenue, Philadelphia Pennsylvania (source: maps.google.com)

Blockbuster’s multi-location strategy became a decisive competitive advantage, blanketing several markets with multiple stores within a short distance of each other in an attempt to dominate any given geographical region. Fitting seamlessly into many retail formats, other video store competitors could easily copy and emulate Blockbuster’s barren aesthetic lead, but none could keep pace with the brand’s new store deployment velocity. At the height of Blockbuster’s popularity, the company operated close to 10,000 stores.

DSC09689 - Blockbuster Ave des Pins and Rue St-Dominique Montreal QC

Blockbuster, Avenue des Pins and Rue St-Dominique, Montreal, Québec, Canada

DSC12097 - Blockbuster FORMER Ave des Pins and Rue St-Dominique Montreal QC

Blockbuster (FORMER), Avenue des Pins and Rue St-Dominique, Montreal, Québec, Canada

Building design, format, size, height, width, depth, form, articulation, few of the typical architectural features that can define a brand’s built environment held sway against speed’s siren song.

4-United by colour

Although there was no unifying architectural theme or design scheme, Blockbuster excelled in identifying their properties through the use of brand colours and signage, utilizing these elements to build a cohesive, consistent and dominant brand presence.

Blockbuster 270 S Robertson Road Beverly Hills CA 1

Blockbuster, South Robertson Road, Beverly Hills, California (source: maps.google.com)

The use of the yellow and blue was overly present on building exteriors, interiors and signage, creating instant and evocative recognition. The torn ticket logo in the identifiable yellow and blue adorned most stores.

Blockbuster 175 Broad Street Glens Falls NY 2

Blockbuster, Broad Street, Glens Falls, New York (source: maps.google.com)

Blockbuster 1115 S Federal Highway Fort Lauderdale FL 4

Blockbuster, South Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

Blockbuster 20595 Old Cutler Road Cutler Bay FL 5

Blockbuster, Old Cutler Road, Cutler Bay, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

Predominantly locating in buildings of neutral paint colours and tones, the blue and yellow brand colours would stand out against such pale backgrounds. A discreet nod to its South Florida (Fort Lauderdale) heritage, where the landscape is populated by pale coloured (beige, cream, white) and pastel (blue, pink, yellow) coloured buildings can be inferred.

DSC07432 - Blockbuster Retail Strip A1A Lauderdale-by-the-sea FL

Commercial retail street, North Ocean Boulevard, Lauderdale-by-the-sea, Florida

Blockbuster 10 East Palmetto Park Boca Raton FL 1

Blockbuster, East Palmetto Park, Boca Raton, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

Nonetheless, Blockbusters would also locate in buildings with darker colours, and of varied materials and exterior finishes.

DSC08792 - Blockbuster Montreal Road and St-Laurent Blvd Ottawa ON

Blockbuster, Montreal Road and St-Laurent Boulevard, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

DSC12289 - Blockbuster FORMER NOW Desjardins Montreal Road and St-Laurent Blvd Ottawa ON

Blockbuster (FORMER), Montreal Road and St-Laurent Boulevard, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Blockbuster 1900 North Federal Highway Hollywood FL 5

Blockbuster, North Federal Highway, Hollywood, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

There was a noticeable willingness and flexibility to modify and omit brand elements to achieve harmony within particularly distinct shopping areas and neighbourhoods, such as Miami’s art-deco influenced South Beach district.

Blockbuster 1501 Alton Rd Miami Beach FL 8

Blockbuster, Alton Road, Miami Beach, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

Therefore, many of the distinctive brand elements, signage and colours seemed to be after-thoughts, appliqués that could be grafted onto any building that would fit the formula of high visibility, high traffic and ideal demographic mix. And in those cases were the brand colours and logo would offend the local ordinances or neighbourhood sensibilities, they could just as easily be jettisoned from the building exterior as the Blockbuster format designed the stores from the inside-out.

5-The final act

The growing proliferation and progressive adoption of the internet throughout the 1990s and 2000s, along with the rise of new competitors that would embrace the emerging technology would begin to chip away at Blockbusters business model.

Although Blockbuster had come to dominate the rental category, the internet’s capability to deliver media content continued to gain strength and acceptance with consumers. Counter intuitively, CEO James W. Keyes would propose a business strategy that would return the emphasis on the in-store, retail-focused model and de-emphasize unprofitable online services in 2007 (source: wikipedia.org). However, by 2010, the rapidly changing landscape, which now included competition from internet streaming, lower-cost alternatives such as Netflix and Redbox and video on-demand services had caught up with the rental industry.

DSC12212 - Blockbuster RedBox Kiosk Winn Dixie N Ocean Blvd Lauderdale-by-the-sea FL

RedBox Kiosk, Winn Dixie, N Ocean Blvd, Lauderdale-by-the-sea, Florida

In early 2010, Movie Gallery/Hollywood Video filed for bankruptcy. Subsequently, on September 23 2010, Blockbuster filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to mounting losses, debt and competition (source: wikipedia.org). Massive store closings followed.

DSC11269 - Blockbuster Hollywood Video Main Street Binghamton NY

Hollywood Video, Main Street, Binghamton New York

Acquiring company Dish Network shuttered unprofitable stores and streamlined the remaining operations with a plan to leverage the Blockbuster name into the online space. On October 4, 2012, Dish Network announced that it was scrapping plans to make Blockbuster into a Netflix competitor (source: wikipedia.org). Store closings persisted as multiple Blockbuster locations continued to underperform.

Blockbuster FORMER Liverpool Route 57 near John Glenn Blvd Liverpool NY 5

Blockbuster (FORMER), Route 57, Liverpool, New York (source: maps.google.com)

Devoid of any communal sense that existed in the formative years, lacking a comprehensive architectural identity, hampered by continued bouts of management demonstrating smugness and arrogance, along with persistent denial and general lack of acknowledgment of the transformative digital revolution happening in the video industry, Blockbuster was eventually shuttered by the end of 2013.

Disclaimer: All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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