At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it—was it the free movies? Maybe. Was it the ease and monotony of checking those VHS tapes back into the ancient computer system one by one? Probably not. Given my visual nature, it could have easily been the endless supply of new and old movie covers that filled our shelves. It wasn’t. The reason I enjoyed this one of my many high school jobs was the customers, and their transformation as they entered a different zone. A zone not only of sight and sound, but of mind. The Twilight Zone is probably a Blockbuster video store.
That said, Blockbuster would’ve been a step up for me. I worked at the other one, their upward-striving closest competitor. It was just a little bit louder, a little bit dirtier and a little weirder, but the customers didn’t notice. In fact, I began to realize that as soon as they passed through the metal detectors, they changed. Between my bouts of teenage angst, I began to try and decode this strange phenomenon. About 5,000 customers later, it finally hit me. It was fun, plain and simple. In the same way that smell is a big part of taste, the anticipation of fun and leisure is a part of the experience. For many, Friday night at the video store was the bridge between work time and fun time. You may not be there quite yet, but you’re anticipating it. For a place that vends moving pictures, the video store was like suspended animation. From roving groups of ninth graders to suburban families, it held everyone in elongated anticipation of their fun evening ahead. As the cash drawers dinged over and over, I began to realize how special it was. Everyone was in a good mood. Even after the movie they wanted was already sold out. And they had to wait in line for twenty minutes. And you told them they had late fees… oh wait, I’m sorry, “Additional Rental Charges”. They were still talking, joking, laughing, recommending, critiquing, candy-selecting and kid-reprimanding. It was beautiful.
You’re thinking; “So what. People went to video stores. Big deal.” It isn’t a big deal, but as the video stores faded out and internet streaming faded in, we lost something along the way. What we lost was a rich experience. As we design a vast array of different experiences, we should be thinking about the video store mindset. The anticipation of fun conjured a magical scenario where large amounts of exhausted, hungry and stressed people voluntarily drove out of their way to stand around in aisles and spend more money than they had planned. This is a critical piece of the experience design puzzle: encouraging participation, helping users or customers along the way, and sometimes, making a sale. Maybe it was the A/C cranked to eleven? Or the popcorn, candy and soda ‘deals’? I think it was the exciting anticipation of leisure. In other words, crossing the bridge from regular time to fun time. What will we find? Who will be there? Can we get candy?