SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Bel Air Markets is tapping the power of video promotions to build traffic during the summer season and combat increasing specialty store competition. Video has become a major event for the retailer, which has rental departments in all 17 stores and two freestanding specialty stores, said Rick Ang, director of video operations. Now with Blockbuster En-tertainment, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Hollywood Entertainment, Portland, Ore., expanding in Bel Air's market area, continued aggressive promotion of the chain's video program is essential, he said. "Summertime is one of the busiest seasons for video and game rentals. With an increase of video competition in our area -- Blockbuster and Hollywood recently staked several claims in our market area -- we thought it important to keep the customer coming back to our store for video rentals during the summer," he said. But summer also can be an inconsistent time for grocery sales, noted Ang. Sales peak for the three big holidays -- Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day -- but sometimes slack off in between. "People also eat lighter in the summertime, so they have a tendency to not shop as heavily," he said. "So with our video programs, our intention is to bring them into the stores more often. That way, we can put our best foot forward and put out the products that we want to highlight during the summertime," said Ang. To do this, Bel Air kicked off three video promotions at the beginning of June:
With "Summer Video Matinee," Bel Air invites customers back during the week with a rent-one-get-one-free coupon given out on the weekends.
"The Bel Air Game Master Program" is the chain's first major game promotion. It targets younger customers with a rent-10-get-two-free punch card.
A "No Fault Renting" program, which extends relaxed studio policies on damaged tapes to customers, also will be promoted during the summer.
The matinee promotion seeks to lure the retailer's many weekend renters back Monday through Thursday when both the supermarket and the video department are slower, said Ang. "With every weekend rental, we give the customer a coupon in the shape of a movie ticket. If they bring the coupon back Monday through Thursday and rent a video, they can pick up another video of the same or lesser value for free," he said.
"In the summertime, the kids are home from school and parents have more of a babysitting responsibility. The idea is, when you are at home during the day, we want to give you this free summer matinee," said Ang.
"We are giving the customer a break on video rentals during the summer and we also are getting people back into the grocery store," he said. Bel Air's rental rates are $2.50 for new releases and $1 for catalog titles. Both are for two evenings -- tapes are due back before closing the next day, or by 7 a.m. the following day in the case of 24-hour stores.
Ang has boosted his video buys about 15% in anticipation of the increased business from the promotion. "I've upped the numbers on new releases for the summer. Fortunately, there are a lot of good titles coming out and a lot of big promotions with them," he said.
Bel Air will get the word out on the program with in-store signs, and "we are running an ad in the local paper's entertainment section," said Ang. The retailer will consider a second ad, depending on the response to the first one, he noted.
The game promotion is tailored for a younger audience. Customers receive a punch card with space for 10 rentals, but get a free rental when the card is half full and another when it is complete, said Ang. "Kids are a little more anxious than adults and a little less patient. We didn't want them to get frustrated by it taking too long to take advantage of the program," he said.
"We thought that it wouldn't take kids more than a week or two to get up to five rentals and get the free rental. Then they can look forward to the next five and the next free rental," said Ang. While punch card promotions do not work very well when aimed at adults -- they usually have too much in their wallets already -- it's a different matter with kids. "Younger people don't have anything in their wallets," said Ang.
Bel Air also allows the young customers to work with their friends to get the free rentals. For example, someone with three punches on a card can come in with someone with two punches and redeem them for a free game rental. "That way, we encourage them to get their friend involved in the promotion, too," he said.
The game program includes a three-tiered sweepstakes as well. After the cards are completed and redeemed, customers drop them into a box in the store. Once every three weeks, each store holds a drawing for T-shirts, hats or other promotional items provided by the movie studios and game producers, said Ang.
Every month, the stores will give away a more substantial prize, such as a Sony Walkman. At the end of the program in September, the chain will give away four Sega Game Gear handheld units. All entries will stay in the boxes for the duration of the promotion, unless they are drawn out as a winner, said Ang.
"The kids can participate at any level they want. They can continue to rent and get more chances, or they can just complete one or two cards during the summer and still have a chance to win in the drawings," he said.
While many supermarket video departments have one price for games, Bel Air has two game rental rates: $2 for new releases and $1 for catalog. "We've done that since day one," said Ang.
"We've noticed that it is like the movies: A new release is good for about 90 days and then the kids want something new. But they still enjoy the older games, and when a kid has a couple of dollars, he's
going to spend it, but he's looking for value, too. Most of our game renters are younger people with limited incomes," said Ang. The lower price helps keep products moving from Bel Air's comparatively large game inventories, he said. The retailer's smallest departments have at least 250 games for rent, while the freestanding stores have 1,000. "With the limited space we have in most of our stores, that's a pretty substantial display," said Ang. Because of the large game inventories, Ang will not significantly increase his buying for the summer promotion. "We are already pretty much on top of the game situation. We are just trying to get more activity out of the games that we have," he said. The "No Fault Renting" program takes advantage of a greater leniency on the part of the studios in taking back damaged videocassettes, said Ang. Buena Vista Home Video and Warner Home Video both have instituted these policies, he said. "We have noticed that we are getting a lot more damaged tapes and we fear that we are losing customers over them," he said. One reason for this is that many videocassette recorders are getting older and are damaging videos, noted Ang. Most retailers make customers pay for videos damaged while out on rental. "But we feel as though we're losing customers because they are afraid to come back," he said. This is especially important in the supermarket environment where the customer renting a movie also may be spending more than $100 a week on groceries, he noted. "If a customer has a bad feeling about us if they have to replace a tape that was damaged through no fault of their own, we don't want that feeling to transfer over to the grocery business," he said. The studios' no-fault replacement programs will help defray the cost of Bel Air's new policy. "With the few studios that are not yet involved, we are going to cover the costs of those videos ourselves," said Ang. "We don't believe that we will get any increase in damage because we don't think people are purposely damaging the tapes," he said. The no-fault policy does not cover nonaccidental damage, "like if they use the tape as a hockey puck or something," he added. The retailer will gain more than it loses from the program, noted Ang. "It also may force some of our competition to do the same thing. We wouldn't have any problems with that," he said. Promotions have long been an important part of Bel Air's video program. "Doing promotions with video is a really classy way to bring people into your store. It has that event-type of excitement to it, as opposed to a new type of grocery product," he said. "You have an exciting item in your store, you have an ability to draw people to it and you are dealing with an industry that has a lot of money to spend on promotions," said Ang. Building good relationships with suppliers is a key to tapping those funds, noted Ang. "You do that by cooperating with video rental programs that they are offering. For example, I may buy a few extra copies of a movie that a studio is pushing in the first part of the year, and that will build the good relationship for something I may want to do in the summertime," he said. Among the people Ang works closely with are Brent Bowers, major account representative, Video Products Distributors, Sacramento, and Mike Altizer, account executive in the Sacramento branch of Ingram Entertainment, La Vergne, Tenn. Ron Wong, Bel Air's vice president of marketing, helps coordinate the in-store advertising and signage, said Ang. While directing Bel Air's video operations, Ang also is a buyer for Video Mart, which racks Bel Air's video departments and two freestanding stores. Video Mart used to be the in-house video operation of Bel Air, but it was spun off when Bel Air was acquired by Raley's, Wrest Sacramento, Calif., about two years ago. Video Mart is owned by the former owners of Bel Air, who still serve as the top executives of the Raley's division. One recent example this close cooperation between Bel Air and its video suppliers was a series of promotions relating to baseball movies. It began with the giveaway of valuable autographed baseballs in conjunction with the release of FoxVideo's movie, "The Sandlot," last October. Bel Air used co-op money from the studio and distributor to buy the balls, which had the autographs of famous players such as Mickey Mantle and Nolan Ryan. For the future, Ang sees more video game and computer software promotions, especially now that big game companies Sega and Nintendo have expressed a stronger interest in the rental business. As a result, more games and game promotional allowances will be available through video distributors, he said. "The games, computer software and related items are becoming more popular. People are getting more personal computers in their homes and there seems to be more money, and a lot more reasons, to do these promotions," he said.