‘All about the experience’: Former Blockbuster and 7-Eleven CEO explains why we can’t let go of the ’90s

News & Politics

1990s nostalgia has quickly expanded from the pleasant memories inside a Gen Xer or Millennial’s mind into a gigantic economy. No stone has been left unturned to squeeze every penny out of nostalgia addicts, collectors, or even gamers; and they couldn’t be happier about it.

The world wide web is riddled with ’90s nostalgia pages with millions of followers, offering glimpses into the past that remind us of a time that seemed like it was free of global conflict, political divide, or any emotional trauma. It’s a world where footage of people shopping at a mall in 1996 is watched by 560,000 viewers in just eight months.

The nostalgia hits so hard that a video of nothing but 1990s commercials reached 1.5 million views in just three months.

Perhaps nothing stands out more in the mind, however, than a trip to Blockbuster Video. The smell of the popcorn, the wall-to-wall coverage of new releases, and the eye-burning pleasure of playing new video games before they come out.

Even Blockbuster pop-ups have become a thing, visiting Los Angeles, New York, and other locations. Netflix also saw fit to release a documentary on the last surviving Blockbuster franchisee, which has become a tourist destination in Bend, Oregon.

Why Blockbuster? “Blockbuster represented ‘community,'” says James Keyes, chairman and CEO of Blockbuster, Inc. from 2007-2011.

“It provided an opportunity to gather and to explore. It also, to many, represented a childhood tradition … [of] making it a ‘Blockbuster night,'” Keyes continued. “It was all about the experience of having access to entertainment that had previously been relegated to the theater experience.

“Blockbuster allowed you to see your favorite movies at home,” he added.

The ‘90s were an incredible time to be a teenager.
You knew your friends’ phone numbers by heart, you walked to Walgreens to get your film processed from silly pics you took at summer camp. You could let your generalized teen angst out with some Smashing Pumpkins, but really, nothing in society warranted true concern.
— Jennifer Boardman, copy editor for Blaze News

The feeling of that experience has turned out to be quite lucrative, and plenty of new experiences are capitalizing on it. For example, an entire video game studio was developed for the genre.

Combining the love of retro with the sanctity of physical media, Limited Run has produced physical copies of over 1,000 games, the latest of which was a sold-out run of a game based on the “Rugrats” cartoon. The company released original Nintendo cartridges, along with VHS collector’s editions for the ’90s-inspired game.

In a much larger scope, we can see the nostalgia market at play in the experience genre. Along with the aforementioned Blockbuster pop-ups, the 2025 Universal Epic Universe theme park plans on capitalizing on that same market. The park will include a Super Nintendo World, one of many themed experiences already popular in Japan.

What made the ’90s so … ’90s?

“Why were the ’90s great?” asks Blaze News senior editor Dave Urbanski. “Incredible music. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins. …They don’t write ’em like that anymore.”

“Back when trans-fat was the only trans we knew, we would make crank calls on a public telephones then wander over to the arcade at the public swimming pool,” added writer Joe MacKinnon. “After dinner, which was probably as delicious as it was unhealthy, we watched the 2-day rental due back yesterday, never once worrying about what was happening outside our fair city.”

The obvious ingredient in the nostalgia genre is Americana. This is also apparent to Keyes, who served as the 7-Eleven CEO from 2000-2005. That iconic American brand stands out for many reasons, he explained.

“With its ability to keep pace with change … the brand stands for the American Dream,” the executive told Blaze News. He noted that franchisees have come from over 130 countries to participate in the American project and leverage entrepreneurial power with the scale of a global corporation.

Also key to an American franchise, Keyes added, is the ability to implement technology to keep up with consumer needs. “7-Eleven is highly nimble and uses technology to respond – in real time – to changes in everything from weather to consumer trends,” he said.

The reason I can tell the 90s were so great is that during every decade of my life, some portion of it has been devoted to returning to the 90s and appreciating more about it.
If I could time travel, the 90s would be the decade I’d be returning back to the most.
Today, the great artists of the world are just nomads roaming around a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Cody Clarke, filmmaker

While the new marketplace for the ’90s may be in full swing, Keyes doesn’t believe that certain verticals can return, particularly DVDs and CDs. When asked specifically about Taylor Swift’s recent monster sales of vinyl records, the CEO pointed to a key difference in the medium.

“Vinyl represents an actual improvement in quality versus most digital experiences; hence, the popularity with music aficionados. DVDs do not represent an incremental improvement in quality versus most streaming; therefore, the return of DVD popularity is unlikely.”

In response to a possible comeback for physical copies of games or movies, Keyes simply said, “Not a chance.”

James Keys, former Blockbuster & 7-Eleven CEO

Gen Z & the future

The possibility of replicating, in any sense, the feeling of the past seems nearly impossible. Many attribute this to social media’s ability to reach every corner, allowing for very little exclusivity or mystery.

“Before social media, you went weeks or months over the summer not seeing your friends, and then finally saw them at school. Now, you’re constantly stalking each other. I think it was the last time I truly missed someone,” said “Shallow End” podcast host Katherine Krozonouski.

She and cohost Natasha Biase pointed to a time free of political correctness and overstimulation. “Growing up in the ’90s was a real blessing, there was an overall sense of unity that’s lacking in our culture today. Gen-Z kids are on their phones all day,” Biase added.

Social media, lockdowns, and a lack of connection have caused a void in work ethic among the latest generation, UFC President Dana White has said.

Or, to quote him directly: “This next generation is just such a f***ing group of p***ies, man. For the small group of savages out there, run these f***ing kids over man, run them all over.”

Entertainment writer Christian Toto added that “cultural rot” at the collegiate level has sunk in, and “outraged citizens” are too focused whipping up cyber-mobs with just a few clicks.

Keyes does not see it that way.

“I disagree with those who are disparaging of the next generation. Are Gen-Z workers different from Baby Boomers? Of course! Just as the Boomers were different from the generation before. Change equals opportunity and ‘different’ isn’t necessarily ‘worse.'”

The “Education Is Freedom” author said that the generation armed with the “power of technology” has the opportunity to transform the future of humanity.

“I have confidence in them!” he said.

Keyes’ advice for new entrepreneurs? Don’t focus on public policy or ideas, “focus on satisfying the customer.”

“America is obsessed with policy and too often paralyzed by fear of change. We worry about tax increases and tax decreases. We worry about tiny minimum wage increases AND minimum wage insufficiency. The reality is that commerce is about adaptation. Those who are able to adapt will succeed. Those who complain about policy often wallow in blame and victimhood while those who adapt will win.”

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