Studio street-date policies on major direct-to-sell-though titles still need fine-tuning, said panelists at SN's video roundtable. In the aftermath of widespread street-date violations on "Jurassic Park" last fall, the video industry put its spotlight on this issue. As the result of increased awareness and improved supplier procedures, there have been no recurrences. Indeed, many on the panel described it as a "blip." "Last year, one aberration occurred in a system that generally has worked very well for our industry," said Bernard Herman, president of Star Video Entertainment, Jersey City, N.J. "Preserving a street date is probably one of the highest priorities to a studio because it allows for a true event to take place with the consumer," said Andrew Kairey, senior vice president of sales and marketing at MCA/Universal Home Video, Universal City, Calif. "We are trying to eliminate any potential problems that could occur and trying to be as proactive on the front end as possible about avoiding a weekend mishap," added Craig Van Gorp, vice president of sell-through sales for Turner Home Entertainment, Atlanta. But with different studios using different approaches to street date, confusion remains, especially at store level. "It is very confusing when you've got this national advertised availability date and that's the one that's really in bold print," said Clifford Feiock, video coordinator at Nash Finch Co., Minneapolis. The retailers on the panel agreed that they would prefer to see a single-date approach. But, responded Dennis Maguire, vice president of sales at Buena Vista Home Video, Burbank, Calif., "this is where retailers can gain a competitive advantage based on how well they communicate to their stores and their ability to move quickly and efficiently." Here is how the roundtable conversation went on street-date issues:
SN: A major issue that emerged last year was street-date violations on major sell-through titles. Starting with the distributors, please comment on what kind of system works for street dates and what doesn't.
HERMAN: Last year one aberration occurred in a system that generally has worked very well for our industry. But when the aberration occurred, it was upsetting to everyone in the industry. That problem is over. I think it was a blip. On the few titles that have come out since that one, there have been almost no problems. It has been as close to 100% as you can get. My sense is that will continue.
SN: David [Ingram], do you think it was just a blip?
INGRAM: I think so. We certainly take street dates extremely seriously. I got personally involved in each case with any of our customers that broke street date. The problem [occurs] when you get a big decentralized chain with a couple thousand stores that's not in video day-in, day-out, and there is a new store manager here, a new store manager there. In one case, the video coordinator was on vacation during the period when a certain title came out. That created some problems. It's all about communication and training and making sure that all the store managers understand how important street dates are to the whole industry. Some ideas like Turner's War Room, for instance, have been very good in helping us help police the problem. Bernie [Herman] is right; it was a blip. The Video Software Dealers Association and everybody rallied around and said let's fix this. It's chaos if we don't have street dates.
SN: Ron [Eisenberg], would you like to comment on street dates?
EISENBERG: I agree with Bernie [Herman] and David [Ingram]. It was a blip. I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for the studios on this particular problem. Realistically as an industry, it's the kind of problem where you try to minimize it and keep it under control. It is naive to think you will ever get to the point where it is 100% nonexistent. It's naive for people to call upon the studios to punish the customer that violates street dates. Name me any industry in America where manufacturers go about willy-nilly punishing their customers for the way they're doing business. That is just not realistic and is just not going to happen. The one bad experience that the industry had was a one-time unfortunate incident. Beyond that, you have violations here and there.
SN: To the retailers: Were broken street dates a problem for you?
FRENCH: I didn't have any problems with it at all. On the cartons that the movies come in, I'd like to see it in bigger letters: Do not open until such and such a date. That would help when a lot of the people are out on vacation, and somebody in the store sticks it up [on the shelf] just to get it out of the way.
SN: Clifford, was it a problem in your area?
FEIOCK: Yes, it was. We certainly had a lot of problems with the "blip" title. It certainly hurt our sales because we did not put it out ahead of time.
SN: Had it been a problem in the past?
FEIOCK: No, and it has not been a problem since. The big thing, though, as the studios have made adjustments to keep that from happening, it's become very confusing out there now as to what is the street date. There are some titles streeting on Thursday and some titles streeting on Tuesday. So certainly the shippers need to be prominently labeled or there will be future problems.
GLASEMAN: Actually the movie in question was not a big problem as far as we were concerned. We did a pretty good selling job on our people. Now we are getting large, large stickers on our sell-through cartons.
JONES: When we send tapes out, we label them that they can't be put out before street date. But we get calls from our customers, saying, "Why did you tell me that? Everybody else put it out." Other than that, it hasn't really been a problem.
SN: To the studios: What are your policies on street dates, how have they changed and why are you doing it the way you are?
MAGUIRE: Street dates are important. They're important to the consumer, they're important to the retailer. Our policy for rental and sell-through is the same. Product is available on Tuesday and we also ask and require that the advertised availability is that Friday. We try to take pressure off our own system as well as distribution systems. We try to allow them to ship products in a certain amount of time so that the products are there by Friday. That's when we're telling the consumer it will absolutely be available. Unfortunately, everyone does gear to that Tuesday date. I believe in putting in the right system and putting the right management power behind it, as David [Ingram] said he has gotten personally involved with some of the retailers. If the right steps are taken, it is a nonissue. But when you have 100,000-plus stores selling some of the bigger titles, there is going to be a store here or there that might have it early, and you have to react and we do react. I certainly get personally involved and talk to store managers, store buyers, and go wherever I need to go to get products pulled off the shelf. SN: Something we've encountered as we have surveyed stores by phone and in person, especially among supermarkets that are not in sell-through regularly, is a fair amount of confusion as to when they could put it out. As a result, there are stores that are putting the products out late -- on the Friday advertising date, even when they have it in on the Tuesday display date. How prevalent is this confusion?
FEIOCK: I don't necessarily disagree with the way Disney does it, but it is very confusing when you've got this national advertised availability date and that's the one that's really in bold print. The other date is kind of lost. Certainly for stores that don't know what's going on, it is very confusing. On "Lion King," everything you see says March 3 [the national advertised availability date], but we all know it's going to be ready to sell Feb. 28. But March 3 is the date that's in big bold print and certainly seems to take precedence if a store is not familiar with what that terminology means.
MAGUIRE: This is where retailers can gain a competitive advantage based on how well they communicate to their stores and their ability to move quickly and efficiently. Now I understand that, when it comes to "The Lion King," Friday, March 3 is the most prevalent date. To a large degree, that was our strategy -- that's the date everyone knows it is absolutely going to be at retail. Even the stores that hold it will certainly have it up by Friday. But perhaps we can do a better job in communicating to our distributors and from distribution out to you guys, and then in distribution, timing the product to arrive on Tuesday. Then the stores can sell it Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for sure. KAIREY: The video industry is very unique. I can't think of any other industry that has the ability to do what we do. Preserving a street date is probably one of the highest priorities to a studio because it allows for a true event to take place with the consumer. Over the past several months, the industry has grown a lot in terms of dealing with street dates on sell-through products. There is some terminology that is being accepted across the board, such as "retail availability date" and "national advertised availability date." Whether those dates will be consistent still has to be determined, but at least the terminology is becoming pretty consistent. From a supplier standpoint, it's extremely important to build an event on that national advertised availability date, when all the ads are breaking. There is basically a consumer surge going on at retail. There are not very many other businesses that I can think of that can do something like this and that's what keeps this business very special and very exciting. We should not compromise that position.
SN: What is your policy now and how has it changed?
KAIREY: We have moved to a Tuesday-Friday timeframe on our sell-through titles. We have a Tuesday retail availability date, and a Friday national advertised availability date. The Tuesday retail availability date also serves as a will-call release date. We asked distributors to basically use adjusted shipping methods so the product doesn't get there too far in advance, so we eliminate some room for error.
SN: Craig [Van Gorp], what is Turner's policy?
VAN GORP: The street date for most titles is Tuesday, but for sell-through event titles -- the first one was "The Mask" -- we are going with Thursday street dates. It's a Thursday street date -- a retail and advertising availability date all in one.
SN: Why the single date approach?
VAN GORP: We are trying to eliminate any potential problems that could occur and trying to be as proactive on the front end as possible about avoiding a weekend mishap. With the way distribution channels are set up, you can hit just about anywhere in the continental United States by shipping on Monday. You can get products to retail locations within a three-day, or in the worst case a four-day, shipping time frame.
SN: Retailers, what approach do you prefer, the staged kind of release, or the single date? What works best for you?
FRENCH: I would like to see it all on the same day.
FEIOCK: Yes, I have to agree. It's just too confusing the other way.
GLASEMAN: Yes, it is confusing. We live with it, but perhaps there's a better way. Maybe it's the single date approach. At one time it was the single date, but now it's going back and forth. I have a feeling it's eventually going to settle down to one accepted way.
SN: What is the distributors' perspective?
HERMAN: I would like everything to be one date. But I don't have any problem with the concept of receiving it on Tuesday, and then the advertising can't begin until Friday. I would just like to see everything arrive on Tuesday and have that universally accepted.
INGRAM: From our perspective, as a distributor, we prefer whatever is most efficient from a shipping standpoint, a common date. We are most interested in efficiency, and not in the advertising availability.
EISENBERG: It's fair to state that 99 times out of a hundred, the street-date violations that do occur are usually direct or rack job accounts, not accounts serviced by traditional distributors, who have it under control.