Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 8, 2007)
Until recently, I’d not dealt with online DVD rentals since the turn of the millennium. Back during this site’s early days, I belonged to Netflix and liked it quite a lot. I could get what I wanted without too much trouble, and those rentals helped this site build up a respectable catalog of reviews. It also was a godsend in terms of filling out some of our special pages. Without Netflix, I’d never have been able to form our Oscar Best Pictures and AFI 100 listings.
But I completed the “back catalog” elements of those pages years ago and dropped my Netflix membership around 2001. Since then, I got pretty much all of the new releases I needed from the studios, so a Netflix membership became pointless. Oh, I’d occasionally rent a disc from so I could compare an old version to a new one, but my experiences stayed on the local level. I’d visit the brick and mortars nearby and hope I could find what I needed.
This meant that I’d not kept up on the various online sites for quite some time, a status that changed when I received an offer to try out Blockbuster Total Access. This is Blockbuster’s attempt to compete with Netflix, and it works in a similar fashion. As with Netflix, you sign onto Blockbuster’s home page, scan the site for the titles you desire, and add them to your “queue”.
The site lets you know of each DVD’s availability; this varies from “Available Now” through “Very Long Wait”. I think the latter really means “forget about it, dude”, as I don’t think you can expect those DVDs to pop up ever. The other levels of delay are less painful, as I saw DVDs jump from “Long Wait” to “Available Now” with reasonable frequency.
Of course, these DVDs end up in your mail with all your bills and catalogs. You can hold onto the titles as long as desired, and when you finish with them, you use the prepaid mailers to return them.
So far, so Netflix, right? Based on everything I’ve said so far, Blockbuster’s online service is virtually identical to Netflix’s. Of course, you’ll find some differences in terms of titles carried, but otherwise there’s nothing to differentiate the two.
Until you get to the fact that Blockbuster maintains thousands of brick and mortar stores whereas Netflix has none. This allows Blockbuster to stand out when compared to their competition. Originally, Blockbuster rewarded its online customers with moderate benefits. They’d get coupons they could print out to use for in-store rentals. Alone, I’d think that’d have been a reason to prefer Blockbuster to Netflix; a few in-store rentals a month beats none. Customers can also use their coupons for videogame rentals if desired.
However, Blockbuster bettered this concept when they introduced their “Total Access” concept. This came into play in late 2006 and created even greater integration of Blockbuster’s online and brick and mortar operations.
With “Total Access”, customers can return DVDs in two different ways. They can mail back the discs via the usual prepaid mailers, or they can take the discs back to the stores. Why bother? Because if you use that method, you can immediately trade in the mailed DVD for one in the store.
That’s a huge difference. Blockbuster staff checks in the DVD and the online operation mails you whatever sits next on your queue. This means that you get immediate gratification with the exchanged DVD and also receive another disc in the mail in a few days.
As of February 1, 2007, Blockbuster offers six different plans. All of them allow you to return in store or online, and all of them provide a free monthly rental as well. They differ in terms of pricing and number of rentals allowed.
$23.99: permits you to have 4 DVDs out at a time with no limits on the number of DVDs you rent each month;
$17.99: permits you to have 3 DVDs out at a time with no limits on the number of DVDs you rent each month;
$14.99: permits you to have 2 DVDs out at a time with no limits on the number of DVDs you rent each month;
$9.99: permits you to have 1 DVD out at a time with no limits on the number of DVDs you rent each month;
$7.99: permits you to have 1 DVD out at a time with a limit of three rentals per month;
$5.99: permits you to have 1 DVD out at a time with a limit of two rentals per month.
Note that prior to the execution of the Total Access plan in late 2006, Blockbuster Online members got one free in-store rental coupon per week, whereas now they receive one coupon per month. Since the Total Access system allows for in-store exchanges, this isn’t a loss, I don’t think.
For this review, I used the plan that allowed me to have out three rentals at a time with no limits. Over the period of a month, I went pretty nuts with Blockbuster. I used the service mostly to do updates of existing reviews. With 20 new James Bond DVDs on the shelves, I wanted to re-inspect the old DVDs from 1999 and 2000, and this plan gave me a great way to do that.
So just how many DVDs did I watch over a month? Somewhere around 25, believe it or not. I cranked through all the Bond flicks and snagged a few others as well. I got most of these mailed to me, but I also snared some from the retail stores.
Everything worked very smoothly. When I’d mail a DVD back to Blockbuster, I’d get a new disc within three days or so. A couple took four days, but those were rare, as I usually received very quick turnaround time.
This operated the same way when I traded in discs at the retail stores. I’d take that DVD home with me right away but still get a new mailed disc within three days or so. This system functioned well even though I used it right after it came into existence. I worried that the retail staff might not understand the Total Access plan and make it difficult to “exchange” discs, but they seemed well versed on it. I ran into no difficulties during the occasions that I traded DVDs.
I like the fact that the Blockbuster website allows you to search local stores for inventory. This was especially helpful in my quest to re-review all those Bond DVDs. Each nearby Blockbuster offers some of those discs, but the roster varies, and I didn’t want to drive all over town in search of those releases. The online search allowed me to check in advance and not waste my time. I won’t say the system is perfect, as I occasionally couldn’t find the desired disc; perhaps they were incorrectly filed in the store, or maybe they’d been checked out in the interim. Whatever the case, this only happened a couple of times, as I usually found what I expected.
Truthfully, I can cite very few problems that cropped up during the time I’ve spent as a member of Blockbuster Total Access. Only a few desired titles were unavailable, and these usually were older releases. Most of what I wanted to see was readily up for grabs.
Outside of these probably inevitable minor gripes about DVD selection, I thought the service worked really well. It seems impossible for a DVD rental service to offer everything a viewer may want, especially when it comes to re-issues. Geeks like me may want to see the newer versions, but I can understand if it’s not terribly cost effective for rental agencies to replace the old discs every time something new and improved appears. It’d be nice, but I can’t slam Blockbuster because they don’t offer every version of every movie.
What would I do to improve the service? I’d like for the DVD descriptions on the website to make it more obvious which version is up for rental. Sometimes I thought I’d get one edition but received another; this didn’t happen much, but the site didn’t always offer clear information about the disc up for rental.
Of course, one can also hope for a broader selection of titles. For instance, I’d have liked to see some Playboy DVDs, none of which appear through Blockbuster – though Netflix doesn’t have them either. Since Blockbuster’s retail stores don’t rent these, their absence from the website doesn’t surprise me, but I still see room for inventory growth at Blockbuster.
Overall, however, I think Blockbuster Total Access offers a really strong rental program. Customers will find rates similar to those charged by other online rental agencies but their system allows for much greater flexibility – and the potential to snare a lot more rentals since Blockbuster allows folks to trade in their DVDs at the retail stores. Blockbuster Total Access has become the best online rental service out there and I think it’s clearly the way to go.