Viewer Got Dirty Deal on Video Rental

Question: We used to rent two to three videos per week from a video shop. Recently, when one of the videos, “The Living Daylights,” was rented in an unusable condition--we had difficulty in even removing it from our machine--it became apparent that it could have been played anywhere from 20 to 200 times. By the way, our machine, which the store manager maintained must have been at fault, has had numerous purchased tapes played on it since with no problems. It is quite new, has stereo and is a top-of-the-line model.

We feel the fault must have been with the tape. The store demanded payment, at retail , for it. So it cost us $89.98, plus tax, or $95.82, for something that we threw into the trash. The point is this: All they said was, “read your agreement,” so I’ve sent you a copy of that agreement and, as you can see, it says we agree to pay a reasonable cost to “repair,” not replace , and certainly it doesn’t say anything about replacing it at retail.

If this is common practice, then our video renting days are over! Do you think the statements on the “agreement” are valid?--R.D.

Answer: The key phrase on the agreement is that business about paying “full cash value” in the event the tape being rented is “lost, destroyed or stolen.” Some video-rental stores interpret this as meaning the price they have to pay to replace the tape, which might have been $10 or $11 less than you were charged. But your video store seems to stand in a decidedly minority position in interpreting “full cash value” as meaning “full retail price.”


As in any type of rental business, naturally, renters generally handle videotapes with the same sort of grace that one associates with a teen-age boy’s approach to egg-cracking--heavy-handed. “You wouldn’t believe how some of them come back,” says Israela Nahmias, co-owner of Video Journeys, 2730 Griffith Park Blvd. “The kids get hold of them, drop them and crack the case, spill things on them, you name it.”

Not to mention dirty heads on the VCR itself, “which can leave a line right through the middle of the entire tape,” and a bug in the rewinding mechanism that can snap the leader on the tape like a dry twig. “Still and all,” Nahmias concedes, “unless there’s visible damage to the tape when it’s returned, it’s hard to say it’s the customer’s fault. Some flaws, like a streak on the tape or static in the sound, can go out three or four times before somebody calls it to our attention. A real video freak, of course, demands perfection and will jump on it at once.”

Most shops visually check all videotapes before they go out of the shop--primarily to establish that the leader is in good working order--and again when they are returned. “Damage to the leader, because of a bug in the rewinding mechanism, is fairly common,” Nahmias adds, “and we have a standard $5 charge to repair this. Some people refuse to pay even this. What can you do?”

In general, according to John Power, executive director of the American Video Assn., which has about 2,500 members nationwide, a newly purchased tape should be good for about 200 plays before giving up the ghost.

And while Nahmias agrees with this estimate, she also adds the proviso that “the estimate is several years old, and they’ve been turning them out so fast the past couple of years that I’m not so sure that the quality hasn’t suffered and that 200 plays might not be a little on the high side now.”

When a customer complains about the quality of tape, however, she says “we put it on a monitor and check it out, and if the customer’s right, we naturally credit him with the rental.

“I’ve never had a customer who didn’t have a brand-new VCR--top of the line--that couldn’t have ruined the tape. But when a tape is ruined from whatever source, we never charge the full retail price. If it’s a brand-new tape,” Nahmias says, “our price, which is what we charge the customer, might run as high as $55. But, if it’s an older tape--say 6 or 8 months old--then we take this into consideration, and for a tape that would cost us $65, we might charge the customer half, or less of that, to replace it. But retail ? Never!”

Which, according to American Video Assn.'s Power, is the overwhelming policy among his members too. “A customer’s VCR can do a lot of things to damage a video--it can crinkle the tape, feather the edges, cause streaks, anything,” he said, “but it’s certainly not fair to charge him the full retail price to replace it. It’s a very short-sighted approach. If this person had been renting two or three tapes a week, that makes him a good customer, and you’ve lost him for good.”

I don’t know what sort of satisfaction you can take from all of this support--you’re still out $95.82--but don’t give up on video rentals because what you experienced is not the industry norm.