The video rental industry has undergone numerous transformations with the introduction of online streaming, online rental companies such as Netflix, and a general shift in the retail economy in which big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Target are able to offer consumers deep discounts based on the volume with which they do business. As a casualty of these shifts in the retail economy, independently owned and operated video stores are quickly becoming as unfamiliar a sight on the retail landscape as the Beta-Max and Laser Disc. However, independent video stores offer substantial benefits from an interpersonal perspective, primarily because they provide a superior working and retail environment for both employees and consumers. Additionally, the connection between small businesses and the community within which they do business illustrates that such companies fill a niche which Internet shopping and chain stores cannot imitate. This essay will analyze the communicative and social practices of one such establishment, Movie Mecca, through the perspective of the Uncertainty Reduction Theory and the Social Exchange Theory to demonstrate how both theories impact on the abilities of the store's owners, employees, and customers to connect with one another on a personal level which goes beyond that which is normally expected in common retail transactions. This high level of interpersonal connection illustrates the important function of small businesses within a community as a vehicle for bridging gaps between disparate groups of consumers and in providing a location where individuals can socialize, communicate, and build deeper relationships with one another.
The growing popularity of illegal Internet movie downloads and legitimate video streaming companies such as Netflix have presented substantial challenges for Movie Mecca's profitability. This is due, in part, to the fact that many of their customers are young, highly computer-literate, and less inclined to reject online methods of procuring movies than their older counterparts. In the past, Movie Mecca has been able to overcome local competition from big box stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy (which sell DVDS), chain retailer Blockbuster (which rents and sells DVDS), and several mom-and-pop style operations (mostly convenience store/video rental combinations) by situating themselves as a store which offers a wide selection of films in a friendly and congenial atmosphere. Their emphasis on customer service above all else is heightened by the casual environment of the store (which features a sitting area to encourage customers to stay awhile), the open and non-judgemental attitude of staff, and local events staged and sponsored by Movie Mecca, such as their annual Elvis Retrospective and support of a local high school film festival. Despite this strong connection with their customer base and community, Bracebridge and Chambers acknowledge that their store is not as successful as it once was, and are actively seeking ways to encourage loyalty in their customers in order to counteract the negative effects of Netflix on their profit margin.
Despite recent setbacks, much of Bracebridge and Chambers' success as businessmen can be traced to their use of social capital in creating strong relationships with their employees, customers, and community. Although financial gain was, understandably, one of their reasons for starting Movie Mecca, the application of the social exchange theory illustrates that there are many more factors at work within their organization than merely the exchange of money for goods. According to Sierra and McQuitty, social exchange theory provides a model through which service relationships in sectors such as the retail industry can be better understood. They argue, in part, that when service providers employ positive emotions in their interpersonal interactions with customers, the customer begins to feel invested in a particular company or organization. This, in turn, creates a shared sense of responsibility to the company, resulting in increased customer loyalty. The emotional connection between service provider and customer is key to this social exchange, and is something which Bracebridge and Chambers have used to ensure that customers seek out Movie Mecca for their film needs, despite the fact that big box stores may be cheaper and online stores more convenient. This shared sense of responsibility discussed by Sierra and McQuitty was illustrated in very practical terms in 2009 when a small basement flood threatened to destroy Movie Mecca's inventory. A large number of customers turned out to help clean up the mess, and a local plumber provided repair services in exchange for six months worth of free movie rentals.
When viewed through a social exchange theory perspective, the interactions that take place in a retail environment can be viewed as a series of symbolic exchanges which occur between the customer and the employee and the employee and management which create a relationship based upon often unstated responsibilities and obligations. As Shore and colleagues point out, social exchanges share similar characteristics with economic exchanges, but also involve "socio-emotional resources indicating a broader investment in the relationship." The manner in which this exchange of resources may be 'cashed in' by either party is left to the discretion of the parties involved and, as such, is dependent on a high level of trust and respect that neither party will try to take unfair advantage of this social relationship. Thus, social exchange is at work in multiple ways at Movie Mecca as demonstrated in the reciprocal relationship which underlies many of the interactions between customers and employees.
For example, although Movie Mecca has a fairly firm late policy for its films, these charges are often waived for customers who are understood to be loyal and frequent visitors to the store. As well, policies concerning renting films without showing a membership card are often waived by staff because the high number of repeat customers allows for employees to recognize their customers, rendering membership cards unnecessary. Although a small detail, the ability of employees to recognize frequent customers and access their accounts during checkout without asking for a membership card or phone number causes the customer to feel that their frequent patronage has afforded them a special level of prestige and recognition, thereby creating positive emotional responses which reinforce the customer's sense of obligation to the store and its employees. This type of relationship does not develop overnight, as Cropanzano and Mitchell emphasize in their interdisciplinary review of social exchange theory literature. The rewards which Bracebridge and Chambers extend to their most frequent customers are contingent on those same customers returning to the store on a regular basis so that a relationship of mutual trust and dependence can develop. Social exchange theory allows for strong interpersonal relationships to act as both "a goal to be achieved [and] a valuable benefit that one can bestow" (Cropanzano & Mitchell), but this process requires a substantial amount of time in order to establish the parameters and obligations of the relationship.
Social exchange theory can also be applied to the relationships which have developed at Movie Mecca between Bracebridge and Chambers (who, as owner/operators, interact in a managerial/supervisory capacity with their staff) and their three employees. Landis, Cheryl, and Tim have been employed by Movie Mecca for 9 years, 5 years, and 2 years respectively, a length of employment which illustrates their overall satisfaction with both their place of employment and their employers. Research conducted by Kamdar and VanDyne indicates that there is a strong connection between social exchange, personality, and the ability to effectively complete workplace tasks and engage in positive citizenship performance by improving the psychological and social working environment. The collaborative and cooperative relationship between Bracebridge, Chambers, and their employees is due, in part, to their hiring practices which is based on a knowledge of the community and a desire to find employees through word of mouth. Indeed, all three Movie Mecca employees were originally customers, a fact which attests to the blurring of boundaries which occurs at this organization between customers, management, and staff, reinforcing the store's sense of being an ingrained part of the larger community. However, unlike big box stores which have high turnover levels, insufficient training programs, and lower rates of employee satisfaction than smaller organizations, the hiring policies at Movie Mecca ensure that its employees understand Bracebridge and Chambers' attitude towards customers and movies in general, thus lessening the likelihood that any employee may not possess the right personality for the job.
An uncertainty reduction theory perspective is especially instructive in unpacking the manner in which employees, customers, and management react to negative events in what is essentially a tight-knit community of like-minded individuals. While long-term employment at Movie Mecca has provided its employees with the skills to deal with small scale uncertainties such as the number of customers who might enter the store on a given day or how to deal with a dissatisfied customer, the general stability of the store has left them somewhat unprepared to deal with current changes in the video rental industry which threaten their job security. As Knoblach explains in her evaluation of uncertainty reduction theory, uncertainty stems from an individual's inability to confidently determine the outcome of specific events and is largely subjective; one person's reaction to ambiguity is not necessarily the same as his or her peers. Although effective communication is one way to alleviate uncertainty, Knoblach notes that it can also cause further uncertainty because not everyone communicates with the same level of clarity, leaving room for ambiguity and misinterpretation.
Behavioral and cognitive uncertainty are both currently in evidence amongst the staff and management of Movie Mecca; the employees are uncertain about their future job security, given changes in the video rental industry, and thus must question how best to make themselves indispensable so as to improve their chances of long-term employment. Additionally, both Bracebridge and Chambers are experiencing cognitive uncertainty as they question the future of their store and their own motivations for entering this business in the first place and whether they wish to expend the energy necessary to keep the store running. Knoblach points out that although uncertainty reduction theory can be applied to relationships between strangers and those that occur between friends and coworkers, the theory essentially deals with the uncertainty that arises whenever an individual is unable to predict the outcome of a specific event or interaction. As such, the strong relationship between Bracebridge, Chambers, their employees, and their loyal customer base has eliminated a great deal of uncertainty regarding the future of Movie Mecca. This is primarily because Bracebridge and Chambers have been up front concerning their intention to keep the store open as long as possible and have engaged in a highly visible informational campaign within the community to promote future events, thus indicating that the store will remain open for the foreseeable future and reducing the level of uncertainty of both their customers and employees.
The highly-social environment of Movie Mecca is one which encourages discussion, collaboration, and debate between staff, management, and customers, an approach which has created an open and welcoming atmosphere which facilitates the creation of strong relationships. An analysis of Movie Mecca from a social exchange theory perspective illustrates that Bracebridge and Chambers have made the core of their organization one which emphasizes emotional connection and reciprocal exchange between customers and employees and employees and management. Recent upheavals within the video rental industry have also provided an opportunity to examine Movie Mecca from a uncertainty reduction theory perspective, illustrating that good communication skills on the part of Bracebridge and Chambers has limited the amount of stress and uncertainty experienced by staff and customers in regards to the store's future. While it is difficult to predict whether Movie Mecca will be able to ride out these industry changes and successfully adapt their business model to counterbalance the negative effects of new sources of competition, the store's value to the community is unmistakeable. Movie Mecca currently exists as not only a place to rent DVDs, but as a community gathering place that facilitates both social events and meaningful social interactions which go beyond the economic transactions which occur therein. As Hornor points out in her requiem to a popular video store which recently closed in Calgary, Canada, independent businesses which emphasize strong relationships between staff and consumers are key to a community's ability to "create the necessary conditions for people to emotionally attach to places outside of their homes." The commitment and loyalty exhibited by both staff and customers of Movie Mecca demonstrates that the video store has created a community-within-a community which will hopefully stand against the forces of big-box retailers and Internet shopping experiences.
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Researching Academic and Social Exchange Theories.