Living On Rented Time 📼

The death of Family Video, the last notable major video rental chain in the U.S., reflects how COVID-19 destroyed even businesses that survived prior disruptions.

A die-hard of retail chains, sadly, finally found something hard enough to kill it. (roujo/Flickr)

Want to find a ready-made metaphor? Try going to the Family Video website. In visuals nearly as prominent as the films and videos the chain once famously rented far later than any other U.S. chain, the company is using the domain to sell CBD stuff, because that’s what companies that no longer have their original value do.

In the online business, companies that give their domain over to CBD sales so aggressively are generally seen as scammy—but Family Video appears to be still selling actual movies and movie memorabilia on its site. But what gets the big play? CBDs, of course.

As you may or may not be aware, Family Video was a die-hard of the video-rental business, with more than 700 locations well into the late 2010s. But the chain, which effectively survived because it was strategically built as an anchor for mini-malls owned by its operator, Highland Ventures, did not survive the pandemic in one piece. Amid all the other headlines of the past year, Highland Ventures announced at the beginning of 2021 that it was shutting down its physical locations for good.

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Shirts and CBDs—all that’s left of the Family Video empire.

Family Video, mostly a midwestern endeavor, never got the national prestige of its larger competitors, such as Blockbuster Video or Hollywood Video, or even the famed independent shops that rented VHS tapes and DVDs for a discerning audience. But Family Video largely outlasted them all because of a company that had seemingly figured it all out.

Obviously, it knew about streaming, which slowly chipped away at its business, leading to the unexpected move into CBDs in 2019, but it did not have COVID-19 in its contingency plans—because the outbreak did significantly more damage than Netflix or Hulu ever did.

And now, it’s at the end. A recent documentary, based around the closure of a store in Kalamazoo, Michigan, highlighted just how brutal this loss is. It’s not that it died. It’s that it died after seemingly surviving an inevitable death that killed every one of its competitors. The documentary is short—less than ten minutes. But it tells a great story of a chain that lived because it served a clientele that had not learned about Netflix & Chill, that thinks Wi-Fi and streaming is cost-prohibitive compared to video rentals, when it’s actually cheaper. But that audience, made up of largely older adults, couldn’t come to the store to rent videos because they were the people most at risk.

The thing that killed Family Video was not streaming. It was COVID-19. 

A couple of years ago, I wrote about another die-hard of physical rentals, Japan’s record-rental shops, which survives into the present day because it caught hold before the country’s music industry could kill it. I have not researched in depth, but I am curious if COVID-19 did any damage to this business.

To me, it seems like the death of Family Video is a reminder that the economic impacts of this disease will most deeply impact the businesses living on borrowed time. And that’s unfortunate.

All the company has left is diversification—a diversification seemingly emphasized on its own website by the overwhelming CBD ads.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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