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  D.F.'s Column Archive
December 21, 2005
End of Late Fees Brings No Happy Returns
The laws of human nature have not been repealed. A nationwide epidemic of missing Napoleon Dynamite DVDs has provided definitive proof.
In January 2005, Blockbuster thrilled the movie-renting masses by announcing it would no longer impose late fees for those who failed to return movies on time.
No late fees! Sort of like going to the borrow-your-neighbor’s-garden-tools system. Why worry? If you need to use them, they’ve been in my garage for seven years. (Oh, when you’re done, can I borrow them again?)
The promotion, er, “worked.” Blockbuster rentals went up. At the corporate level, the no-late-fees policy was hailed as a success. But at the store level, employees began having conversations that went something like this:
“Yeah dude.”
“Why don’t we have any movies in stock, dude?”
“Dude! Nobody’s returning the movies, dude. Bogus.”
Nobody was returning the movies, which is only a problem if you actually need to have the movies available to rent to the next person. In the pre-no-late-fees era, the stores would simply keep charging you for every day you kept the movie, so it was just like someone else came in and rented it as soon as you returned it (except that they still didn't have the movies on the shelves).
But now? Bogus, dude.
“Wait, dude! We still have our full stock of Gigli!
“Dude, Gigli sucks.”
Light bulb. It would appear we have rules for reasons. You can always find the occasional libertarian who insists that paying taxes is voluntary. But even they realize that if they actually tried exercising their imaginary option not to pay, they’d be reading Atlas Shrugged in federal prison.
So in recent months, approximately 150 Blockbuster stores have quietly resumed charging late fees. So quietly, in fact, that many of their customers didn’t quite get the message until they got around to bringing back their movies and learned of the charges on their account. (There’s something about stapling a notice to someone’s receipt that seems oddly less effective than just telling the person.)
Now, lawyers are involved. Upset customers who didn’t read the notices, but sure remember what they heard on the no-late-fee commercials, are bewildered and offended. The same lawyers were also on the case earlier in the year, when customers who didn’t read the fine print discovered that “no late fee” didn’t necessarily mean “no $1.25 restocking fee.”
Some state attorneys general even came down on Blockbuster for that one. Now that late fees are returning, it could be the biggest crime scandal since grocery stores started letting those sticky price tags fall off their food items – forcing bewildered customers to read the signs.
It’s not hard to see why movie rental companies are looking for innovative ideas. They tried a few years back to eliminate movie return issues with the Circuit City-originated concept of DivX DVDs – those silly things that, if you bought a DVD player that could play them, would just stop working after 48 hours. The public’s embrace of DivX didn’t even last that long. 
Now they face the advance of download technology, which may soon render the notion of going out to pick up a DVD as obsolete as the DVD has rendered VHS.
They need something. But announcing a no-rules-no-worries policy that you can’t sustain, then making people mad when you do the inevitable about-face, might not be the thing. Maybe they could tell people that if they don’t bring back the movies, they’ll send them a copy of Gigli. That would motivate me.
© 2005 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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