11 Secrets of Former Blockbuster Employees

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Getty Images

For nearly three decades, Blockbuster was the friendly neighborhood video store for movie-lovers around the United States—and its employees were our friendly neighborhood movie gurus. Though a few independent Blockbuster franchises are still bravely soldiering on around the country, the company had its heyday in the 1990s to mid-2000s, when video tapes and DVDs were still the dominant way to watch a movie. Doling out recommendations and patiently dealing with our late fee complaints, Blockbuster employees were a crucial part of our movie-watching experience, and frontline observers of the changes in our movie consumption. Mental_floss talked to a handful of former Blockbuster employees about what it was like to work at the video rental franchise from the company's heyday through its decline.

1. THEY RENTED MOVIES FOR FREE.

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Working at Blockbuster had plenty of perks if you were a movie lover. Employees not only received five free rentals a week, but got to watch new releases a week before they became available for rental. Matt, who worked at a Blockbuster in southeast Michigan from 2004 to 2009, explains that the free rental policy was really a win-win for Blockbuster and its employees. “This was actually a necessity because you’d have movie buffs and store regulars come in and ask for recommendations,” he explains. “It was a good way to catch up on movies I missed or had never heard of. I definitely dug up some oddball gems this way.”

2. THEY HATED IT WHEN YOU COMPLAINED ABOUT LATE FEES ...

Over the years, Blockbuster experimented with a range of policies regarding late fees. For a while, the store tried a “no late fees” policy, which, according to former employees, replaced late fees with a confusing “re-stocking fee.” Regardless of policy, employees say dealing with late fees was among the most annoying parts of the job.

“People proved to be astoundingly bad at math, and though they’d agree on how long they kept the movies they had and how much each of them cost for the night, they were just unable to comprehend how they owed us the amount they did,” explains Lex, who worked at Blockbuster in Scranton, Pennsylvania, from 2012 to 2013. “Dealing with people trying to get out of what they owed was basically how we interfaced with 40% of our customers on a daily basis.”

Brie, who worked at a Blockbuster in Salt Lake City from 2007 to 2008, during its “no late fees” era, explains that customers would always fight her on the store’s $1.25 restocking fee. “I would say 95% of the customers would fight me on paying them 100% of the time,” she says. “Customers would argue, ‘What is this restocking fee if not a late fee?’ You’re totally right, I know, it’s a loophole to get around saying it’s a late fee. I didn’t make it up, please don’t fight me on it.”

3. ... BUT THEY'D TRY TO HELP YOU OUT IF YOU WERE POLITE.

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When it came to getting out of late fees, there was really only one strategy that worked: Be nice. “Once I hit Shift Lead status, I would make deals with customers and try to waive a fee or two here or there if customers were regulars or particularly nice,” says Brie .

“We were able to minimize some late fees, eliminate others,” says Tim, who worked at a Blockbuster in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, from 2004 to 2007. “Come in calm and respectful and apologetic, poof, you owe $0.00. Come in hooting and hollering and it’s ‘I’m sorry, sir. There’s nothing I can do. You cannot rent another movie until you pay your $3.75.’”

4. THEY KEPT SECRET NOTES ON CUSTOMERS.

If you ever caught an employee giving you a strange look or holding back a laugh when you tried to rent, there’s a chance there was a note left on your account. Blockbuster used point of sale software that let employees look up your account information, and leave little warnings for each other if you habitually tried to worm your way out of late fees or misbehaved.

“People would constantly complain about late fees, so we had a system where you could write a note in the computer, like ‘Forgave one late fee, don’t do it again,’ or ‘This guy constantly turns in tapes late and says he paid his fees,’” says Mike , who worked at Blockbuster in Malden, Massachusetts, from 1999 to 2003. “Depending on who wrote the note, it could be very professional or sometimes it would just be like, ‘This lady is crazy.’ It would be flashing in yellow and you’d be keeping one eye on the customer, and one eye on the screen, trying to read it, and sometimes trying to keep a straight face.”

5. THEY COULD SEE YOUR ENTIRE RENTAL HISTORY.

If you rented anything embarrassing, you can bet your local Blockbuster employee noticed. “When customers brought up tapes, you’d see their previous rentals automatically,” explains Mike . “So, you’d see like, a thirteen-year-old girl renting Titanic for the twentieth time. You wouldn’t say anything, though.”

6. THEFT WAS A BIG ISSUE.

Customers were constantly finding creative new ways to steal merchandise. Matt remembered the “slashers” who would “show up with a boxcutter hidden on them and sneak around the store, slitting the spines on DVD cases and stealing discs,” while Lex recalled a guy who figured out how to remove the magnetic locking strips from DVD cases. “He’d always steal the weirdest, most arbitrary movies,” she explains. “He’d steal sequels of things and not the originals, or individual discs of TV show season collections. I don’t know if he was just trying to tear down the system slowly from the inside, or if he just had very specific interests.”

Mike, meanwhile, says the most notorious criminal to terrorize his Blockbuster location turned out to be a 10-year-old boy. “We had the full security system at Blockbuster—video cameras, security gates, magnetic locks on the cases—but somebody kept stealing video games. Our manager was totally baffled. He started to think it was an inside job,” says Mike. “It turned out it was a little ten-year-old kid. His mom found all the video games under his bed and turned him in. She brought the games back and we promised not to press charges, but the mom wanted us to scare the kid straight, like Maury Povich-style. So the manager and I ended up in the back room with this little ten-year-old kid who’s crying his eyes out. We had no idea what to do. It’s like, there’s our master thief who’s outwitting our corporate security system, and he’s just a kid.”

7. CORPORATE LOGIC WAS A BIT OF A MYSTERY.

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The employees at individual Blockbuster locations didn’t get to choose which products they ordered to rent or sell. Everything was decided by corporate headquarters, whose logic could sometimes be difficult to discern. Back in the early 2000s, that often meant receiving hundreds of copies of new releases to rent, which stores would later struggle to sell off, or receiving books and magazines that customers never even noticed were there.

Gladiator was the biggest movie that came out while I was at Blockbuster. We had so many copies, just walls and walls of Gladiator. Then, later on, we couldn’t sell them. We had like 200 copies left and nobody wanted them,” recalls Mike. “We’d also sell video game guides and magazines, and they would never sell. At the end of the month, we’d rip the cover off and throw them away. Sometimes instead of tossing them, I’d take them home—to this day, I have so many books without covers.”

8. THINGS REALLY STARTED TO UNRAVEL TOWARD THE END.

By 2012 or so, when the chain was really struggling to stay afloat, Blockbuster locations would often receive seemingly random shipments of movies to sell off, says Lex. They’d set up large tables around the store covered in DVDs for sale. “It was a completely random assortment of stuff,” recalls Lex. “We’d have, like, 50 copies of some mediocre 5-year-old romantic comedy, and then two copies of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and none of the rest of the series), and then 12 copies of some obscure art-house film. There was no curation.”

“The most bizarre thing,” he concludes, “is that we had 135 copies of Dinner For Schmucks. I made it its own table. On the Black Friday I was there, we had a ‘door busters’ sale, with select, new DVDs for $5 a piece. We got 24 DVDs to sell—not 24 titles, 24 individual DVDs. Of those 24 DVDs, six were Dinner For Schmucks. The 135 copies were already selling for $3 apiece. We didn’t have much of a Black Friday rush that year.”

9. THE SWITCH FROM VHS TO DVD WAS PURE CHAOS.

Long before Blockbuster lost its showdown with streaming video, the company was faced with another seismic technological shift: the transition from VHS to DVD. According to Ben, who worked at a Blockbuster in central Pennsylvania from 2001 to 2002, the company struggled to get rid of its excess VHS tapes once the medium became obsolete. "We pulled them by the hundreds and put them on sale," he recalls. "After a few weeks, we started pulling them for destruction. It was kind of a shame, but it was fun at the same time. We just smashed the hell out of them behind the counter. I was washing through an ankle-deep layer of black plastic and magnetic tape … Later destroy pulls were authorized to instead send to local charities, but that first big one was fun.”

10. BEING A MOVIE BUFF WASN'T A JOB REQUIREMENT ...

You didn’t have to be a cinephile to work at Blockbuster. Most managers were more interested in hiring people who were reliable and punctual than employees who could recite the entire filmography of their favorite director. “You didn’t need to love movies at all,” recalls Mike. “You just had to get there on time.”

11. ... BUT MANY EMPLOYEES REALLY LOVED MOVIES.

Nevertheless, many Blockbuster employees really did love movies. “My interview basically amounted to them making sure I was a human that could read,” says Lex. “But everyone I worked there with was pretty big into games, movies, and TV, and we spent a lot of time talking about them.”

14 Secrets of Food Sample Demonstrators

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Ever turn a corner in your local grocery store or warehouse club and see the aisle backed up? You might be able to blame a food sample demonstrator, those stationary sales representatives who invite congestion in stores by offering up free bites of food products in an effort to raise sales. (The strategy works—one study found that samples can increase sales by as much as 2000 percent.)

The task might look easy, but it isn’t. Sample demonstrators have to endure annoyed customers who can’t navigate aisles due to the traffic, unattended kids, and more—all while adhering to food safety regulations. To get a better perspective on the job, Mental Floss spoke with two former demonstrators. Here’s what we found out about life in the apron.

1. THEY’RE USUALLY NOT EMPLOYED BY THE STORE.

Food demonstrators are often mistaken for store employees, but they're usually not. The people working behind sample trays at Costco, for example, are often employed by Club Demonstration Services (CDS), a separate entity that hires sample representatives to present products endorsed by Costco and usually backed by the product manufacturer. (Companies can send their own reps out, too.) “CDS might have an office set up in the back of the store,” says Jim, a former food sample demonstrator for Costco locations in California. “We’d sign in, go through the warehouse, and get a quick brief on the product we were demonstrating.”

Though CDS is owned by Costco, CDS employees aren’t technically store employees, and don’t migrate to other work areas. But because customers figure the demonstrators work for the warehouse, they’re often asked for directions. “People just assume you know where stuff is,” Jim says. “I usually told them to find someone in a red vest.”

2. THEY CAN SPEND HALF THEIR SHIFT PREPPING.

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It may seem like a sample demonstrator is burning calories at the rate of a Queen's Guard, but they're usually very busy during the course of a six- or eight-hour shift. Food prep—including mixing ingredients for things like chicken salad or cooking steak strips—can take up as much as half of their time. It’s worth it, as cooked food has a huge advantage over ready-to-eat samples like chips. “There’s a kind of anticipation you build up when cooking something like steak,” Jim says. “It could take a few minutes or 45 minutes, and people are standing there asking when it will be ready.”

3. THEY NEED TO STAY WITHIN A 12-FOOT RADIUS OF THE CART.

Food sample demonstrators may sometimes work in a massive warehouse, but they don’t have the run of the property. Once they’ve settled into their work area—typically near where the product they’re demonstrating is stocked or wherever there’s free space in the building—they’re expected to never be more than 12 feet away from the cart. “The 12-foot radius has to do with the fact that you’re responsible for maintaining your station and keeping customers safe,” says Skyler, a former demonstrator for Costco. “If a kid sees an unattended station with a hot grill running and grabs a sample off of it and burns themselves, it’s a liability.” Demonstrators also need to make sure no one is grabbing a sample and then putting it back, which would be a gross (literally) violation of food handling safety. Once you touch it, it goes either in your mouth or in the garbage.

4. THEY FOLLOW AN ACRONYM FOR SALES SUCCESS.

Vice-president Joe Biden greets food sample servers at a Costco
Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

Food sample pushers don’t work on commission, but they can get bonuses if they sell through their inventory, so it benefits them to make sure people are consuming what they’re offering. One method for enticing customers is what Jim describes as a corporate acronym called SITGA. “It stands for Smile, Invite, Talk, Give Sample, and Ask,” he says. Demonstrators are also free to come up with their own strategy. “I liked to rhyme, like ‘come on by, give it a try,’ that sort of thing.”

5. THEY HAVE TRICKS FOR STAVING OFF BOREDOM.

Speaking with the Yes and Yes blog, Sam's Club food demo specialist Jan said that the hours spent sporadically interacting with customers can require demonstrators to make up their own fun. "I deal with the boredom in several ways. I practice standing on one foot and count the seconds before I lose my balance ... I count and rearrange samples. I reorganize the equipment under my cart. I alphabetize equipment. I grab items off the shelves and read the ingredient and nutrition labels, read slogans on T-shirts, or I try to engage customers in conversation."

6. THEY GET TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME RESPONSES.

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Sometimes it's hard to tell what's worse—going for long stretches without customers, or hearing the canned answers they love to give over and over (and over) again. "Customers make stock remarks about certain foods," Jan said. "If you serve sausage, they ask, 'Where are the pancakes?' If you serve a cold drink, they say it would be better with vodka. Coffee samples inevitably get, 'Now I need a donut.'"

7. THEY HAVE TO DEAL WITH “SAMPLE NINJAS” ...

There’s usually no cap on the number of samples a customer can grab from a cart. Still, people can feel a degree of embarrassment going back for seconds—or thirds—and sometimes try to sneak a taste without being seen. Skyler calls these people “sample ninjas” for their attempts to go undetected. “People love free food,” he says. “They don’t want to be seen as freeloaders, they don’t want to hear a sales pitch, they just want snacks.”

8. ... BUT THAT SHAME CAN WORK IN THE STORE’S FAVOR.

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When people are so addicted to a food sample they keep going back for more, they might opt to just buy the product rather than risk being perceived as a greedy shopper. “There have been cases where I’ve been shopping at Costco myself and went and bought something because my overwhelming shame kept me from grabbing a fifth sample,” Skyler says. “The system works.”

9. THEY HAVE A HEIGHT POLICY.

Kids represent a dilemma for demonstrators. If they’re unaccompanied by a parent, it can be potentially problematic to offer up a baked good or other food that could contain an allergen. Fortunately, most kids are aware of their food sensitivities. According to Jim, the unofficial rule of thumb is to give out samples to unattended children if they’re tall enough to see what’s on the cart. “We can’t really determine the age of a kid just by looking,” he says. “They just need to be tall enough to see the sample and discern what it is.”

10. THEY HAVE REGULARS.

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Many Costco demonstrators stick to one store or district, making them a familiar face for people who shop there frequently. “There were definitely regulars,” Skyler says. “I would see old teachers from school, old friends, new friends, and regulars who would know my sales pitch and always play along—for more free samples, obviously.” Others were memorable for other reasons. “I was making cookies once and a woman grabbed the raw cookie dough and yelled at me because it was not cooked.”

11. THEY DEMO NON-EDIBLE PRODUCTS, TOO.

While Jim estimates that 90 percent of his time was spent demonstrating food, CDS also handles accounts for a variety of indigestible products, like Ziploc bags. “I’ve done dish soap and laundry soap, which is hard to demonstrate on the floor,” he says. “You have to give someone a sample and hope they try it and then come back.” Another time, Costco charged him with selling prefabricated outdoor tool sheds. “No one is buying a $3000 shed on the spot. They take a flyer. We didn’t get a sale the entire week.”

12. THEY HAVE A PLAN TO MAKE SURE NO FOOD GOES TO WASTE.

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Toward the end of their shift, demonstrators start to estimate how many more samples they’ll need to meet remaining demand without setting out food that will wind up going to waste. “I do what I can not to waste anything,” Jim says. “We’ll usually make sure we’re done cooking by a certain time so nothing is left over.” Sealed food might go to a food pantry, depending on store policies, but prepared and unused food goes into the garbage. And no, it's not going to the demonstrators: They’re prohibited from taking the excess home.

13. NOT EVERYTHING THEY MAKE IS APPETIZING TO THEM.

Sample demonstrators are usually expected to taste their supply so they can make informed comments when a customer presses for details. While most everything is intended to be delicious, it may not necessarily be the demonstrator's own personal preference. "[I served] horrifying steak chimichangas, microwaved," Jan told Yes and Yes. "When cut into bite sized pieces, [they] squirt out a nasty brown liquid. Worse yet, lots of people liked them."

14. THEY APPRECIATE A LITTLE CUSTOMER ETIQUETTE.

Food samples are set out on a tray
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While free food can cause some of us to abandon civility and manners, food sample demonstrators always appreciate when customers acknowledge they have a job to do—and it’s not to hand out free stuff. Listening to their sales pitch is the polite thing to do in exchange for the eats. “Just try to remember that it’s a sales job and that final sale number is being held over the sample demonstrators’ heads,” Skyler says. “They’re not just someone being paid to hand out food to boost customer morale.”

17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Bookstores

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iStock

For book lovers, there’s no more magical place than the local bookstore. Endless shelves of stories and characters, all at your eager fingertips. And while most of us have probably spent a significant amount of time wandering the aisles, few of us know what goes on behind the scenes. Here are some insights into the life of a bookstore, gleaned from the people who keep the shelves stocked.

1. EMPLOYEES WANT YOU TO ASK THEM FOR RECOMMENDATIONS.

“A person will say, ‘I have a really strange question, I’m sorry, but can you recommend a book?’” says Phyllis Cohen, owner of Berkeley Books in Paris. “That is the most normal question. It is my favorite question in the world! Give me some clues. I’ll ask them some pointed questions and then I make a pile for them. When they discover it they’re over the moon—it’s like they have a personal shopper in the bookshop.”

2. BUT BOOKSELLERS ARE NOT MIND-READERS.

They want to help you find your book, but they can’t if you don’t know the book’s name, author, or what it was about. This happens all the time, and it drives them crazy. “Customers will say ‘I don’t remember the name or what it was about but it has a blue cover. I think it had this word in the title,’” explains Katie Orphan, manager at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Sometimes the questions are so vague that no amount of Googling will help, and then the customer leaves unhappy.

Even a botched title is better than no hints at all. “One funny thing that happens with customers is they get the titles totally wrong,” says Marissa Rodriguez, who has worked in a bookstore for two years. “High school kids will say ‘I’m looking for ‘How To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Angry Grapes.’”

3. THEY CAN SPOT THE BOOKWORMS FROM A MILE AWAY.

A woman browsing near a sign for half-price paperbacks at a bookstore
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Just browsing? Bookstore workers can tell. “Cookbooks is one of the sections where that happens the most,” Orphan says. “Art books and cookbooks. The people who are going to buy books, I can tell by the way they look at them, touch them, start carrying them around in a stack. I can always tell when people come up who is going to buy a book and who isn’t.”

4. THEY KNOW WHEN YOU’RE “SHOWROOMING.”

In recent years, many brick-and-mortar stores have fallen victim to online outlets like Amazon, which often offer the same books for a lower price. Some customers will browse for books they like, only to buy them later online, and they’re not very sly about it. “They’ll come in and use their phone to take a picture of the cover and barcode and just use the bookstore as the Amazon showroom,” says Keith Edmunds, a former bookstore owner. “It was awful. Seeing people do that was the height of ignorance.”

5. AND WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING THE SYSTEM.

“Some regulars would buy books one or two at a time and then within the two-week return window bring them back and be like, ‘I bought the wrong book,’” said Kat Chin, who worked at The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto for five years. “You’d know they read them because you could see the book was a little bit worn or the spine was cracked.”

6. THE GOAL IS TO GET BOOKS IN YOUR HANDS.

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One trick to get customers to commit to a book is to physically put the book in their hands and have them flip through it. “You can direct them to a part of the store, but that’s only half of selling a book,” Rodriguez says. “It's important to get merchandise in people's hands so they feel there’s already some ownership happening. They say ‘I like the way it looks and feels in my hands and I like the way it smells.’”

7. YOU HAVE TO HUNT FOR THE COFFEE SHOP.

Many bookstores, particularly the bigger ones like Barnes & Noble, have incorporated cafes into their layout. Alex Lifschutz, a London-based architect, told The Economist that putting the coffee shop at the back of the store or, if there are multiple stories, on the top floor, “draws shoppers upwards floor-by-floor, which is bound to encourage people to linger longer and spend more.”

8. THE KIDS SECTION IS STRATEGICALLY LOCATED.

According to Edmunds, the kids books are almost always located at the back of a store. “If the parents want to get a book for the kid they have to go through the whole store,” he says. “They’re hoping the parent will see something they want.”

9. SOMEONE PAID FOR THAT PRIME SHELF REAL ESTATE.

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In many big-box stores, publishers pay for good placement on “front tables, end caps and window space, in the same way General Mills and Procter and Gamble buy space for their breakfast cereals and dish detergents in the supermarkets,” Andy Ross, a literary agent, told The Book Deal.

10. AUTHORS, BEWARE THE “SOCIOLOGY” SECTION.

No author wants their book tucked away in the “sociology” section, claims veteran publishing insider Alan Rinzler. It’s “a catchall section for ambiguous titles, and the kiss of death for book sales,” he says.

11. BOOK THIEVES LOVE THE BIBLE.

At The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, “the Bible was the number one stolen book of all time,” Chin says.

Other frequently stolen books? Japanese comics (a.k.a. manga), expensive medical books, and Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Chin also says Haruki Murakami books were so frequently stolen that her bookstore had to take them off the shelves, only bringing them out when they were specifically requested.

12. EMPLOYEES HATE WHEN YOU LEAVE BOOKS WHERE THEY DON’T BELONG ...

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“Neatening up a bookstore is a daunting process,” says Demi Marshall, a bookseller in Austin, Texas. The next time you pluck a book from its designated shelf slot, put it back when you’re done. Otherwise, “it’s like if you go to a clothing store and unfold all the clothes and then put them back on the shelf but don’t fold them,” Chin says.

13. ... AND WHEN YOU TREAT THE STORE LIKE YOUR LIBRARY.

“It’s nice to be able to go in and read maybe a chapter to see if you’re gonna like the book,” Chin says. “But then when you sit and read the whole book and put it back on the shelf, it gets grubby.” You’ll know a bookstore is trying to nudge you out the door if multiple employees drop by to ask if you need any help. “We would quietly pester people,” says Caleb Saenz, who used to work at Barnes & Noble. “I was at my peak passive aggressive phase when I was working at a bookstore.”

14. THE INTERNET HAS ACTUALLY BEEN A GOOD THING.

A brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore in Seattle
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Before the internet became ubiquitous, the process of looking up a book for a customer was daunting. “We had to look it up in 'Books In Print,’ which is a multi-volume, 4-inch thick, hardcover book,” says Liz Prouty, who owns Second Looks Books in Maryland with her husband, Richard Due. “It was a slow and cumbersome process and if anything was indexed wrong or a customer had the first word of a title wrong, you were out of luck.”

15. IT’S ALSO MADE US LOVE BOOKS MORE.

Some thought the e-book would surely spell the death of the bookstore. But many independent sellers say digitization has actually made people crave physical books more. “I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, so many people come in waxing rhapsodic about the smell of books, the feel of books,” Prouty says. “And they say it more now because the alternatives exist. People are deeply attached to the old-fashioned books.”

16. SOME BOOKSELLERS CAN IDENTIFY BOOKS BY THEIR SMELL.

Especially used booksellers. “These Penguins have their own particular odor,” Cohen says. That odor? Vanilla. Others might smell like almond or coffee.

17. BOOKSELLERS AREN’T IN IT FOR THE MONEY.

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In fact, most of them have second jobs or need monetary support from family members. “It is definitely a work of passion for everyone that I know,” Marshall says. “We don’t do it for the money, we don’t do it because we have any power or prestige. It’s genuinely just that we love books and we love getting them into people's hands.”

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

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