Business

With the advent of Netflix, Vashon's Movie Magic finds a new path

Jackie Merrill is trying to find a way to compete in the era of Netflix. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Jackie Merrill is trying to find a way to compete in the era of Netflix.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

For more than 20 years, one Vashon business has enlivened Islanders’ rainy afternoons, weekends and sick days with the magic of home film viewing. But Movie Magic has struggled in the last few years to compete with mail-in DVD service Netflix and cable TV movie offerings, so much so that co-owner Jackie Merrill said the business is shaking things up to stay viable on Vashon.

“We want to reinvent the magic after 20 years,” she said. “We need to spur some interest in movies again.”

February is Customer Appreciation Month at the family-owned store, Merrill said, and she’s rolling out new offerings to draw customers back to her store, which saw its movie sales decline 30 percent from 2008 to 2009.

The shop, which carries about 4,000 DVDs, used to have a long list of regulars who popped into the store for a movie or two several times a week; now that list can be counted on one hand. She sees the average movie renter only once a month.

“We’ve lost our frequent renter,” Merrill said, mostly to Netflix and cable’s popular OnDemand service, where it takes one click of a button to order a movie from home.

Movie Magic’s popular espresso stand now makes up half the business’s sales, said Merrill, who owns Movie Magic with her husband Austin.

The couple, who inherited the family business from Austin’s parents when they retired, has two elementary-aged children who attend Chautauqua.

“Our coffee sales help pay the rent,” Merrill said. “I’m just glad you can’t mail-order hot coffee.”

To bring Islanders back to Movie Magic, Merrill is starting an unlimited-rental program similar to Netflix: For $24.99 a month, customers may rent as many movies as they want for a month, with two DVDs out at a time.

The plan includes all new releases and Blu-Ray movies. Customers must sign up for their “Rentflex” account in the first week of the month, Merrill said.

Other new offerings the store is beginning in February include the option to purchase any movie in the store, an extended five-day rental period on movies that aren’t new releases and a Magic Five option, where customers can rent five DVDs — new releases and Blu-Rays excluded — for five days for $5. Variations on the Magic Five include the Magic Six and Magic Seven.

Customers can also pay $40 for $50 worth of movies, candy or espresso.

It was just more than a year ago that Movie Magic sold off its stock of VHS movies and began carrying Blu-Ray high-definition DVDs. Customers have embraced the change from video to DVD, Merrill said.

But like other independent movie stores — and even behemoth chain stores — across the nation, Movie Magic isn’t renting as many movies as it did a few years ago.

Merrill said 2006 was Movie Magic’s banner year, and every year since sales have been slower.

“We’ve had to rebudget everything from payroll to recycling — every little thing I can tweak,” she said. “We have a bare-bones staff, and we’ve tweaked our hours too.”

The business used to be open earlier and later; now it opens at 11 a.m. every day and closes at 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, though the shop is open until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Business has been so slow this year that Merrill has considered closing the movie store entirely on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the slowest days of the week for her business.

There was even a time when Merrill considered shuttering the movie rental store and letting Movie Magic Espresso carry the business, but she realized some Islanders depend on the shop for entertainment, and she didn’t want to take that away from them, she said.

“I’ve really questioned that — wouldn’t it be easier just to have the coffee stand? But people want to rent movies,” she said.

Her customers are glad Movie Magic is persevering through tough times.

“We always get our movies from them so we can support Island business,” said Sandra Noel, an Island illustrator. “Everybody’s very friendly there; they know what we like and they’ll recommend things.”

Supporting local businesses will “keep our community alive,” she added.

Customer Lyman Burk concurred that the face-to-face interaction with Movie Magic employees is a reason he rents movies there.

“Everybody who works there is really knowledgeable about film,” he said. “You get to talk to an individual, and you can’t do that with Netflix. It’s a great store.”

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