Digging in for a lengthy war

Many predicted cable would spell the end for video, but with retailers boosting video sales and cable’s image suffering, the battle is far from over.

I’m told that one of the major grocery retail chains had the charming, if rather apeist, idea of selling videos of Disney’s The Jungle Book from a dump bin next to the bananas. It apparently outsold any product in the section of the store dedicated to video sales. Congratulations, Tesco.

The retail implications of this initiative for the video industry are considerable. Pulp Fiction could be sold alongside Jeffrey Archer’s paperbacks. And Basic Instinct could be sold anywhere in the store that there are aren’t any knickers.

But I’m getting over-excited. What The Jungle Book exercise tells us is that there are, potentially, very much more imaginative ways of flogging – or, I suppose, renting – videos than in a section of the store marked “Video”.

When you come to think about it, Tesco’s idea was a rather obvious one. While superstores have progressed from guidance signs reading “Magazines” and “Confectionery” to a rather more integrated mix of product, video (and, indeed, audio) has remained largely in its own retail ghetto.

This is all rather odd. Retailers have never had signs up reading “Impulse Buys”. The whole point of the impulse purchase is that it is made on the spur of the moment.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said on entering a London department store: “I never realised there were so many things I don’t need.” That en-

capsulates the principle of impulse marketing. You infiltrate the shopping basket by placing life’s impulses alongside life’s necessities.

That’s why magazines and sweeties came out of their own sections and popped up alongside special-interest products and the checkout queues. And what

is video if not an impulse purchase? Hence Disney alongside bananas.

If the trend catches on, it could represent something of a new lease of life for the video industry. My colleague Torin Douglas last month rattled the cages of ITV programmers by drawing attention to the manner in which Blockbuster Video is getting its marketing act together in the rental game. That, if you like, is the home front of the video industry. What will really take the battle to video’s enemies – satellite and cable – is the mass marketing that other retailers can provide.

The task is to use the likes of grocery chains as Trojan horses, to break into the market through their retail outlets. These have a much higher penetration than the distributive channels of the home front, represented by the likes of Our Price, HMV or, indeed, Blockbuster.

There is some evidence that the process is already underway. I’m indebted to Peter Dean, European video correspondent of movie magazine Billboard, who writes in the latest edition of the British Video Association’s Yearbook that Disney-with-bananas pioneer Tesco now stocks video in 353 stores, Asda in 190 stores, while 730 other outlets – comprising Safeway, Sainsbury, Somerfield and Makro – offer video product.

Apparently, supermarkets now account for some 13.5 per cent of the total video retail base and the market is only just developing. In specific video sectors, penetration is considerably greater. Some 25 per cent of what is repulsively called the “kids’-vids” market is provided by the supermarket chains – a direct consequence of the same sort of impulse purchasing exploited by confectionery marketers.

Largely as a consequence of this supermarket renaissance for video, the industry as a whole turned in performance figures that fly in the face of commentators (me included) who were writing video off in the wake of the seemingly exciting challenges that were supposed to be coming from cable companies.

The retail video industry grew by ten per cent in 1994 and the industry as a whole is worth more than 1bn. That growth and stature could, of course, be severely eroded if movies were to be efficiently and cost-effectively delivered through cable.

And there’s the rub. The marketing of cable, generically and specifically, has to date been the stuff of blocked drains. In the same way that everyone has a retail banking horror story

(see passim), so almost no dinner-party conversation about domestic media will be devoid of tales of dug-up streets with no in-

formation, far less advertising

of service, from the cable

company doing the digging.

In fairness, there are restrictions on what the digging companies are allowed to say about the potential of cable delivery. And, it should be added, the cable medium is in such infancy that those in the vanguard of delivery as yet have little idea of what that potential might be.

Nevertheless, the marketing of cable has been notable for its absence. It really is quite an achievement to build up a considerable degree of consumer resentment – just listen to the stories of blocked-off streets and noise pollution – ahead of the launch of services that will ultimately depend on consumer goodwill.

To summarise the cable industry is about domestic media revolution, rather than a creeping evolution. And you can’t sell a revolution to the antipathetic. The cable industry is facing a challenge of its own making – it will have to make up lost ground (in the shape of unexplained dug-up ground) before the marketing proper can begin.

Not a happy prospect for the industry. A rather jollier one, however, for video. I am not for a moment suggesting that there will not be tougher times ahead when the cable industry eventually gets around to telling us why it has been making our roads and streets rather more pot-holed than those in Grozny.

But, meanwhile, you do not start a war by giving those you intend to invade every opportunity to refortify their borders. And that appears to be precisely the opportunity that has been handed to the video industry.

It seems to be taking it, if the penetration of the retail market over the past 12 months is anything to go by. As the BVA’s director general, Lavinia Carey, puts it, rather ominously for cable operators: “The battle for consumers’ viewing time is not over yet.”

To paraphrase someone who has been in the news lately, this is not the end for video. It is not even the beginning of the end. It might, given its coming of age in the retail market and the doughty battles it faces ahead, be the end of its beginning.

George Pitcher is joint managing director of media consultancy Luther Pendragon.