Blockbuster lives! (But for how long?)

Blockbuster logoI blogged recently about the financial travails of Blockbuster and its pending sale … indeed, whether the brand would survive or be liquidated instead.

Wednesday evening’s auction was the scene of some drama as various groups contended with each other for the right to purchase this white elephant. As the evening wore on, Dish Network was vying with Monarch Alternative Capital for placing the high bid.

It was a true battle between old and new forces … with Dish Network seeing Blockbuster as a conduit for augmenting its suite of services, and Monarch looking only to liquidate Blockbuster’s substantial real estate holdings while shuttering the enterprise for good.

When the dust finally settled, Dish Network was the victor, agreeing to pay ~$228 million in cash at closing, which is expected to occur within the next few months. In total, the deal came in at ~$320 million, which tracks with the current value of Blockbuster’s assets.

What in tarnation is Dish Network thinking of doing with Blockbuster? It turns out that the company is hoping to use at least some of Blockbuster’s ~1,700 store outlets to facilitate cross-marketing of its satellite programming and related video services.

The industry is already abuzz with what this really means. Is the Blockbuster acquisition by Dish Network a master-stroke … or a big blunder?

Dish Network looks like it will attempt to keep Blockbuster afloat by having it provide free or discounted rentals as a value-add to Dish’s pay TV subscribers. But industry watchers are also looking at potential online opportunities which could turn out to be more lucrative, since Blockbuster holds streaming rights to various video titles that Dish can use to expand its existing streaming offerings. It could also roll Blockbuster licenses into a Dish-branded online video-on-demand service offering.

In a likely related move, Dish Network has also acquired the assets of financially troubled satellite operator DBSD North America. That purchase provided access to a broadband spectrum that Dish can now use to roll out wireless networks for voice or data communications. This way, it wouldn’t need to rely on the broadband networks of other Internet service providers to stream the content to its satellite TV customers.

But with the pace of change and the fickleness of customers, any effort to bring synergy to these new acquisitions must happen very quickly. Dish Network doesn’t have the luxury of time to make things work; it’s got to happen in weeks and months rather than years.

So the coming months will be interesting in seeing how the Dish/Blockbuster union pans out. One thing is certain: Blockbuster won’t end up looking anything like it does today. But on the bright side, the brand won’t be thrown into the dustbin of corporate history – at least not yet.

And that probably surprises more than a few industry observers – the ones who have been loudly predicting the death of this iconic brand for months or years now.

End-Game for Borders and Blockbuster?

Blockbuster logoBorders logoTwo items reported this past week are yet more bad news for one of the most beleaguered sectors of the retail industry. Borders Books & Music will be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Blockbuster is preparing itself for sale.

Does this mean we’ve now reached the end-game for these iconic brands – and for the entire retail book/movie store segment?

Actually, we’ve seen this play out before. Less than 15 years ago, Tower Records and Sam Goody were two vibrant national chain store operations selling CDs and other recorded music. But these and most other music merchants are now history.

In fact, the only bricks-and-mortar music retail segment remaining is made up of used record and CD stores – typically one or two shoestring operations operating in major urban markets that manage to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence.

It appears that the same thing may now be happening to books. Consider Borders. It’s tried all sorts of ways to branch into other revenue-producing endeavors to make up for the consumers’ shift to buying books online or downloading to e-readers. Those endeavors have included coffee and juice bars, greeting card kiosks, giving customers the ability to download books and music, and even to explore genealogy and family history. Despite all that, Borders has been unable to stem the decline of its business.

Mike Shatzkin of consulting firm Idea Logical Company contends that the problem is bigger than Borders. He believes bookstores are going the way of music stores. “I think that there will be a 50% reduction in bricks-and-mortar shelf space for books within five years, and 90% within ten years,” he predicts.

The immediate question is whether Borders will be able to restructure its business, or in the end will be forced to liquidate. Borders’ debt is so high (it’s expected to report nearly $1 billion in liabilities when it files), the company is already committing to closing about a third of its ~675 Borders and Waldenbooks store outlets.

It’s possible that book superstore rival Barnes & Noble will see at least a short-term gain from Borders’ travails. It’s a larger entity and is doing better financially. Gary Balter, an analyst with Credit Suisse, believes Barnes & Noble could add as much as $1 billion in sales if Borders ultimately goes out of business.

But that kind of benefit may well turn out to be temporary. After all, Tower Records benefited from the closure of Sam Goody – for a time. But ultimately, Amazon and online sales were the big winners, and there’s every indication that they will be the main beneficiaries now as well.

In the movie rental business, things aren’t any better. I’ve blogged before about the challenges faced by Blockbuster, the nation’s leading movie-rental chain that went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2010. The company is now preparing itself for sale, but there are ominous signs that the initiative may be stillborn.

Some bondholders, led by investor Carl Icahn, are concerned that the company’s value is eroding in bankruptcy court, which has made it more difficult to take the steps necessary to compete with Netflix and other rivals that aren’t hobbled by the cost of running retail storefront operations.

According to business news reports, that is what’s behind the drive to try to sell the company now. Blockbuster’s holiday sales were lackluster at best, and the cost estimates for effecting a successful turnaround are going ever higher. The bondholders have essentially lost their appetite for plowing more money into the enterprise.

So who’s actually going to be interested in buying Blockbuster? That’s a very interesting question, because the company’s business model and financial situation don’t look like strong ingredients for business success. So if a buyer emerges, it may be from among the ranks of those who already have a financial stake in the business – like Mr. Icahn.

Will we look back on this week a few years from now and say that it was the beginning of a turnaround – or the final nails in the coffin? If you’re a betting person – or an investor – where would you place your money?

The Movie Rental Business: Blockbuster … or Blockbusted?

Blockbuster logoWhat’s going on with Blockbuster? For several years now, business analysts have wondered whether the company’s movie rental stores could withstand the competitive pressures from alternative delivery systems such as Netflix’s monthly subscription program, or the growing popularity of movie downloads direct to the customer’s own computer.

The latest announcement by Blockbuster’s management seems to suggest that we may be entering into an endgame phase for the company. Blockbuster reported that it will be closing as many as 40% of its stores over the next two years. This figure – nearly 1,600 of its ~3,750 total store population, is significantly higher than had been signaled by the firm earlier in the summer.

Blockbuster seems to be caught in a situation where its business model is no longer attractive – or even relevant – to a large and growing chunk of movie consumers. The company has nicely appointed, well-stocked stores scattered all across the United States. But these outlets are an expensive way to rent movies when compared to Netflix’s “movies by mail” program or Coinstar/Redbox’s $1 movie vending machine kiosks. The Blockbuster stores are losing money – and customers.

Come to think of it, Blockbuster has been playing catch-up ball in the movie rental game for quite some time. When Netflix introduced the idea of “no late fees – ever,” Blockbuster resisted following suit for a time … until it became clear that charging late fees was becoming a deal-breaker for many consumers. And with the end of late fees, a major source of revenue and profits dried up.

Blockbuster has also tried to compete with Redbox, but the latter is expected to have nearly ten times more kiosks than Blockbuster (~20,000 versus ~2,500) installed by the end of this year.

Blockbuster has even tried to compete with Netflix by introducing its own monthly mail-order subscription program. But that program, which had grown to ~3 million customers, sank back to ~1.6 million once its aggressive promotional program for the service had run its course.

And then there’s the direct download business – the proverbial “elephant in the room” that is a threat not only to the Blockbuster model, but also to aspects of Netflix and Redbox’s business as well. Blockbuster is taking a stab at this segment of the business by working out a phone-download program with Motorola plus a TV-download program with Samsung, but it’s not clear at all that these efforts will help preserve Blockbuster’s market dominance.

Looking at the current volume of business done by Blockbuster compared to its competitors, the casual observer might think that the company has nothing at all to worry about. After all, its customer base numbers more than 50 million compared to just shy of 11 million for Netflix. But these point-in-time figures belie the fundamental problems facing the company. Blockbuster – the lumbering ocean liner – is losing upwards of $40 million each quarter, while its rivals – the swiftly maneuvering speedboats – are making profits.

Wonder how much longer that can go on?