x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Emergence of digital is killing the video store

An Emirati woman owns Dubai¿s oldest video rental store, but she is now struggling to survive.

DUBAI // Feryal Sharif has seen a lot of changes in her country over the decades.

In Dubai, towers have emerged from the sand, connected by a sprawling road network. In Abu Dhabi, a sleepy capital was transformed into the centre of white-collar industry.

But her business, Video Hi-Fi, has seen big changes of its own. The emirate's oldest movie-rental store witnessed the boom of analogue media and is now suffering in the aftermath of the digital revolution.

"The original store was in Safa Park and business was booming back in the 80s," Ms Sharif, an Emirati of Iranian descent, said as she sat outside the store at the Park N Save strip mall on Al Wasl Road. "Channel 33 was the only English-language channel on TV. There were three of four shabby cinemas in Dubai back then that played old movies, and no one had heard of satellite television.

"I had hundreds of customers, eight employees and four stores located in different parts of Dubai."

In those days, Ms Sharif was building up a sizeable bank balance with her business, and even bought herself a Mercedes Benz.

When satellite television arrived in the late 1990s, she said, business was not really affected. When more cinemas opened, she noticed little difference. Even the advent of widespread internet access didn't change her bottom line much, she said.

But now, with legal media download sites like iTunes, illegal pirating sites and bootleg sales, Ms Sharif says times are tough.

"Yes, I lost some business when satellite TV arrived," she said. "But not like I am losing now. When high-speed internet service and downloads began seven years ago, that's when things began to get bad. I lost most of my 14 to 22-year-old customers. Then I lost their parents, because the kids were telling their parents, 'Why rent when you can download?'"

She said she was most frustrated with the bootleg DVD vendors who sell films for as little as Dh10.

"I complained to the Media Council about the women who show up at people's doorsteps with suitcases filled with hundreds of movies. The council said it was a widespread problem and that they were doing the best they could. What can I do? Now I can barely pay the bills," said Ms Sharif, who long ago sold her Mercedes for a more economical car.

She has thought of closing shop and moving on, but said she is held back by a thorny issue: she is responsible for nearly a quarter of a million dirhams' worth of customer deposits.

"I have hundreds of customers who over the years paid a Dh150 deposit each," she said. "If I shut down, I will have to pay each and every one of them their deposit back. That would be around Dh200,000 to Dh250,000 I would have to come up with. I cannot afford to do that all at once. So I carry on, just happy to pay the bills. I used to be a wealthy woman because of this business, but not anymore."

Now Ms Sharif sits outside her only remaining store with her companion, Muddles, a cat that followed her into the store one day. "Muddles lives here in the store," she said. "All my customers know her."

Mahesh Kanchan, 34, and Pramod Salian, 30, both from India, are Video Hi-Fi's only remaining employees. They both are worried that they may soon be out of work. "Sales and rentals have dropped by more than 50 per cent," Mr Kanchan said. "And what's also killing the business is that so many people rent movies and don't return them. Yes, we are very worried about our jobs."

Janet Baker, a housewife from the UK, has been a customer since 1997, and said she had resisted the trends threatening the store.

"I don't feel honourable buying pirated movies or downloading movies illegally from the internet," she said. "It's immoral. I like to support the local businesses here."

Ms Sharif wishes everyone would think the same way.

ealghalib@thenational.ae