It’s a Friday night in the late ‘90s. You grab a pizza. Then on the way home swing by Blockbuster to get a couple of VHS tapes, and if you’re lucky enough your parents let you grab a box of candy at the counter before checking out. There are fewer things more nostalgic to me than this Friday night tradition from some 20 odd years ago, so you can imagine how excited I was to find The Last Blockbuster documentary on Netflix a few weeks ago.
I hadn’t given any thought to Blockbuster in recent memory, other than when the WallStreetBets drama unfolded a few months ago and was surprised to learn that you can still buy shares of Blockbuster stock on the over-the-counter market for around $0.02. The company has been in a decade-long liquidation process and changed their name to BB Liquidating Inc. back in 2011.
In it’s prime, rental stores like Blockbuster were the only way we could consume movies in our homes without buying VHS tapes outright – which according to the documentary retailed at about $99 per tape. By time the company went public in 1994 there were over 6,000 stores globally. Despite the rise in popularity of services like Netflix and Redbox, Blockbuster seemed to be at the top of their game in 2004 topping out at over 9,000 stores worldwide.
As the title states, there’s only one Blockbuster left on earth. So, what happened? Well according to the documentary, the first bad decision Blockbuster made was the decision not to buy Netflix in 2000, but from a financial standpoint they did okay even a few years after they decided not to buy their competitor. But revenue eventually started to slow around 2005-2006, and yet Blockbuster remained optimistic. In a 2007 forward looking statement the company predicted they’d remain top dog in the industry that year. (Look at how small Netflix was!)
In 2007 Blockbuster had more ways for consumers to rent and consume content than most of their competitors, but their evolving identity crisis was really the straw that broke the camel’s back. From in-store concepts like DVD and game trading, to a plethora of other ideas they had cooking, they had too much to rollout and ended up missing the mark when streaming really started to gain steam. In 2010 Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy and was subsequently delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.
The last Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon now turned Airbnb is privately owned and is just how you remember it all those years ago, but with DVDs instead of VHS tapes. Although they are still signing customers up, it sounds like it’s mostly a tourist attraction at this point. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to visit just to get one of those cheesy t-shirts.
One of the coolest things about innovation is that we have no idea what lies ahead. As a kid who frequented the neighborhood Blockbuster every weekend with my parents, I never imagined I would be streaming content on a smart TV from my living room a couple of decades later with no VHS player, no DVDs, just Wi-Fi and a TV.
As investors it’s easy to get caught up in the flavor of the week mentality when it comes to stock selection. Buying what’s working and selling what’s not sounds like a winning strategy, but knowing who the winners are today is much different than knowing who the winners will be tomorrow.
In the last few years there has been a ton of hype around the FAANG/FANGMA/FAAMA group of stocks, or whatever the most recent acronym might be. Understandably so because these companies are engrained in our everyday lives, and it’s hard to imagine life without even one of them. Not only that but they represent about a fifth of the US market as well.
I’m not saying any of these companies will suffer the same fate as Blockbuster, but I bet they look a lot different in a few years. Amazon doesn’t just sell books anymore, and even though Netflix still mails out DVDs more of their customers subscribe to their streaming service instead of waiting on the mail to consume their content.
It’s incredible to think about what stocks we’ll be buying in 5, 10, even 20 years from now. These companies might be in a different form today, be incredibly small, or may not even exist. The uncertainty can be crippling for some, but for the broadly diversified, it’s exciting to think about what lies ahead as an investor. To think that we’ll be buying products and services from companies that may not exist today, as well as being able to take part in their success as an investor is absolutely mind blowing.