What Marketers Can Learn from VHS Rental Stores in the 80’s

Marketers could learn a lot by revisiting the values and tactics employed by VHS rental stores in the 80s and 90s.

Everything changed the day my father hooked up our first VCR. Prior to this TV was as fleeting as SnapChat (hat tip, Gary Vaynerchuk) and the only place to watch a movie outside of live TV was in the theater. With the VCR we got our first taste of the on-demand media we are accustomed to today.

It’s hard to imagine life before the VCR (especially since I was a toddler), but the commercialization of this device was not an inevitability. In fact, the film industry fought hard against VCRs just like the music industry fought the advent of radio and much later downloading of MP3s.



Eventually the film industry embraced the VCR and launched an entirely new focus on home videos. Much like the ‘sharing economy’ that drives so many businesses today, the video rental businesses allowed consumers to ‘own’ the movie for a few nights and then return it for others to do the same. This sounds so obvious, but keep in mind some of the younger marketers out there may have never stepped foot in a video store.



The convenience of VCR’s and the efficiency of the rental market led to a boom in video rental stores. Although the experience eventually became homogenized (Blockbuster), the original video rental stores were small locally owned businesses.

In those early days successful rental stores traded on a unique mix of old world charm and new technology. Not as old as the local butcher shop (damn I miss going to Soltz Meat Market in my hometown!) but not a far cry from that when you consider today’s rental options (Redbox, Netflix, AppleTV, etc.).

With that in mind, here are a few lessons we can learn from those original video rental stores:

Personalized service:

After a few visits they knew who you were and greeted you like a friend. If you developed a great relationship with the store clerk he or she might even call your house when a copy of the film you were looking for came back.

Can you create this same personalized service or dynamic offering?


Loyalty incentive:

Your card was stamped with every rental and you worked your way up to a free one.

Are you rewarding your customers each time they return?



Have you ever seen Clerks? If not, stop reading this post, go to your local rental store cue up Netflix and watch it. Trust me. The point is, just like the audiophile’s who worked in record shops, every video store had an expert on film. This was driven by the job perks (free movies) and the fact that there was usually a film showing in the video store at all times. Given this knowledgeable staff, and the personal interactions, many stores also posted employee picks/favorites.

Are your team members knowledgeable about your company, products, and competitors?



There were only one or two video stores in each town, so it was inevitable that you’d run into friends or family. There was something special about sharing a resource like this, much like the butcher shop I referenced earlier. This was a social media experience before the web.

Are you finding ways to create connections between your customers? Would they appreciate knowing each other based on their shared interest in your product or service?




Because there were so few stores, if you wanted to see Karate Kid when it first came out you either purchased it or you went to your local video store the day it came out.

Do you produce limited edition products or special offers?



Upcoming releases were promoted in the stores and you would begin lobbying your parents to rent films weeks in advance. Copies were so limited that you might collaborate with friends to share these hot rentals or time your visit with someone else returning (back to the example of building community).

Do you build excitement around new product releases?



Movie posters, elaborate displays, TVs showing previews or the actual films, kids sections, adult sections, discount bins, buy one get one, free ‘classic’ with the rental of two new movies, etc.

Are you developing creative offers, cross-selling, upselling or utilizing sampling tactics?


Diversified Inventory:

Soon these stores offered video games and gaming consoles in addition to movies. Snacks were another natural product for this environment.

Are there complementary products or services you should be offering or partnerships/collaborations that would make your offering more appealing?




We could add content marketing, experiential marketing, social media (you had to be social to get the media) and more, but you get the point. Small butcher shops have made a comeback so maybe we’ll see a reincarnation of the local video store some day.

In the meantime, what are some other endangered/extinct businesses or models we could look to for marketing inspiration today?


Brady Sadler is the EVP of Growth & Innovation at GYK Antler. Connect with him on TwitterInstagram and LinkedIn

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