Russ Homer has been on the cutting edge of the video rental business before, but not always on purpose. When he opened his first store in Robinson in 1982, he thought the big bucks would be in selling equipment so people could tape stuff off TV.
He sort of casually picked up a supply of movies when he bought out the stock of another business that wasn't making it. "The movies were just kind of a sideline."
Now, he's got seven Instant Replay Video stores whose shelves hold as many as 18,000 films. "Today, we don't even sell equipment," said the businessman with amusement.
In early March, Homer will become a pioneer - or perhaps guinea pig - again. He's agreed to be one of the first merchants in the country to install video kiosks developed by a New Jersey software company.
The yellow-and-black towers use DVD technology and a touch screen to let customers search up to 160,000 titles by category, actor, even rating. They can read reviews, too.
But the real selling point is that the little kiosks promise to deliver hundreds, eventually thousands, of movie trailers - those short film clips that studios create to tantalize audiences by showing scenes from the flick.
A customer not sure about renting "Pleasantville" might bring up the clip on the small screen and check it out. Then he might choose to see a bit of "Mulan" to decide if the kids would be happy.
Eventually, the customer should be able to put in a credit card, order a movie that's not available in the store and have it delivered to his home by the next day.
The FastTake kiosks debuted at a video dealers show in October and went into production in January. About 30 are scheduled for delivery in March, with another 70 to go out in April.
Homer is only taking two of those machines - one for his Robinson store and one for Moon.
And he took a bit of convincing to go that far.
The Robinson dealer saw the prototype at the October show. A couple of months later, George J. Febish, president and co-CEO of ObjectSoft, came to town looking for likely users.
At $400 a month, Homer wasn't convinced the kiosk would bring in enough business to pay for itself. "I said, 'Let's make it cheaper so I can afford it.' "
Febish had been hearing that sort of thing from lots of smaller operators, the kind who don't have budgets the size of, say, Blockbuster or Hollywood Video.
To make the numbers work, he went back to the people who got his small Hackensack company involved in the video business in the first place - the Hollywood studios.
Founded in 1990, ObjectSoft first got the attention of studio officials through informational kiosks it developed for cities like New York, San Francisco and Seattle. Users can do everything from ordering a dog license or a copy of their birth certificate to finding out the hours of a Thai restaurant in Manhattan at the sites.
Last year, an ObjectSoft investor who happened to run a studio in Hollywood suggested the company use its expertise to develop something for the video business.
So, when the prototype was ready, ObjectSoft asked studio officials to contribute between $800 and $1,000 worth of videos a month to stores in exchange for having the films featured prominently in the kiosk's program.
For them, that's not much more than the price of having a poster displayed in a small store, Febish said. For the store owners, that's probably enough income-generating merchandise to cover the expense of the kiosk.
Between eight and 10 studios are expected to participate, Febish said.
There have been other attempts to inform video store customers and increase rentals of older movies. Staff are always expected to internalize details about John Wayne and Austin Powers. Many stores buy catalogs that allow consumers to look up titles or categories of movies. A more advanced system involves putting a computer on the countertop, allowing customers to conduct complicated searches.
Febish thinks his kiosk is better because even non-computer people like the touch screens and because the system makes actual recommendations that may persuade consumers to try something rather than leave the store empty-handed. He's hoping showing movie trailers will drive sales the way allowing customers to listen to CDs has helped music stores.
Industry observers say others have tried to make kiosks work before without success. One problem was the cost-benefit ratio, which Febish hopes his company has conquered.
The other big issue was the technology. Febish said ObjectSoft couldn't have managed it without the new DVD technology that packs lots of information into a very small space.
The key now is proving to the studios and to advertisers that large numbers of consumers will take time to use the kiosks. And proving to store owners that the little towers actually contribute to sales.
"It seems like a good solid idea," said Homer. "We're willing to take somewhat of a chance on it. And they're willing to take somewhat of a chance."
Newsbit furnished by:
A: NetShift Software Ltd.
A: Hughenden Yard, Marlborough, Wilts,SN8 1LT, UK
T: +44 (0)1672 511 094
F: +44 (0)1672 511 078
E: [email protected]