Halifax's last video chain knows its niche role

Tom Michael, owner of Video Difference, opened the Quinpool location in 1982. Photo: Sarah Mateshaytis

It's the last full-service video store on the Halifax Peninsula. It offers a vast, alternative selection of films with approximately 50,000 titles to choose from. And it's big on promotions, offering customers--often students--free rental coupons and discounts.

In more ways than one, Video Difference is unique.

The Halifax independent video store's method behind film renting sets it apart from the rest, or what used to be the rest of video stores in the city. And while those other video stores are now defunct, it's this alternative approach to film renting that seems to be keeping it afloat.

With more long-term rental periods--many two-week rentals with plans to move towards month-long rentals--Video Difference knows its place in the market.

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Gigantic Video on South Park Street has had to cut back on video rentals. (Photo: Adam Scotti)

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Dalhousie students share where they usually get their movies from.

"We're more of a planning destination. So people come in, not necessarily to consume the product tonight, but to consume it sometime in the future," says owner Tom Michael.

According to Statistics Canada, as of 2005, Canadians watched an average of 2.3 hours of television per day, approximately 16 hours a week. While it's the most recent data released by Statistics Canada, Michael says that today we look at screen time, not just television time.

"We only occupy a very small part in that ecosystem, even smaller when you look at it in terms of total screen time," says Michael

Fighting for screen time--the total amount of time spent in front of any one screen, including conventional TV, online TV, online movies, rented movies, video games, Facebook, online forums--is a constant battle in the movie rental business.

With the top 20 per cent of customers renting about two videos every two weeks, on average Video Difference takes up only four hours of a household's total screen time. "And that's only for our best customers," says Michael.

The competition

While still open, Halifax's Gigantic Video--a part convenience store, part video store--no longer focuses on movie rentals. They're focusing on the grocery aspect of their business.

"You can get whatever you want on the computer, why should you pay?" asks Blanche Nachaalani, one of three employees at Gigantic Video. She says rentals have dropped off since movies became available online, so they've drastically cut back their video selection.

Nachaalani's brother owns Gigantic Video, and while they used to have three stores in Halifax, employing between eight and 10 people at each location, she says the lone South Park Street store is now more of a "family business." She used to be the manager of all three stores.

"We still have to have movies because we didn't change the name," says Nachaalani. She says for now, they'll continue to rent videos--$3.29 plus tax for a one-night rental--but not in large quantities.

Like many video stores, Gigantic Video suffered with the industry's move towards online movie streaming and downloading. Netflix, the leading aggregator for movie and TV streaming, had one million Canadian members at the beginning of August, each paying $7.99 for their subscription.

It's no coincidence then that big box video stores are shutting down. Blockbuster closed its doors to Canadians last summer and Rogers Video announced in December that it was also closing 40 per cent of its locations.

But Video Difference on Quinpool Road (there are also locations in Bedford and Charlottetown) says it still has between 25,000 and 27,000 active members--someone who has rented from the store at least once in the last year. Michael says that membership has remained relatively stagnant, increasing slightly since Blockbuster shut down. 

Students' say

 Jaime Trueland, a third-year King's student, says she watches at least half a movie each day--an average of four or five a week.

"[It's] so much better to rent it. For convenience sake, it's better on your computer, but it's not the same as when you can sit in the living room with [your roommates] and watch," she says.

For Trueland and her roommates, renting a video is a treat. At $6.29 after tax, rentals at Video Difference aren't cheap--almost double that of Gigantic Video.  Without a coupon, students have to splurge for their viewing experience.

But Video Difference knows that many customers consider renting a video a special occasion, and tries to cater to people with this sort of movie-watching mentality.

"Most people, to take the analogy back to food, are Tim Hortons cream and sugar people. But occasionally there's somebody who wants a special coffee, and that's where we would come in. We'd be that very small percentage of the market place," says Michael.   

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