Remembering the Britannia video club: get four videos, pay for one!

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Before the days of heavy movie and music discounting, the Britannia Music & Film Club was as good as it often got – we take a look back.

Way before the world wide web made the idea of mail ordering your films and music completely mainstream, there was one organisation in particular that was trying to lure the UK public to buy their entertainment through the post. With its origins in the late 1960s, the Britannia Music – and subsequently Film – Club found a gap in the market. And with the help of the back page ad on most Sunday supplements, it set about convincing us we were getting stuff for cheap.

Spoiler: we weren’t. But we’ll get to that.

The Britannia Music Club, then, was launched in 1969, and the ongoing idea was to lure people in with an incredible offer, and then get a commitment off them to buy several more products at full price (consider it the US equivalent of Columbia House). This was pretty straightforward when it came to music cassette tapes and CDs, and it was relatively common by the 80s and early 90s to see a deal where you bought, say, five and only paid for the one of them. Plus some inflated postage and packing charge, of course.

It would be fair to say that was the best deal you got. The initial collection of purchases, at an insanely low price, was the only flat-out bargain. After that, a regular catalogue would pop through the post, and if you forgot to reply saying you didn’t want that issue’s choice – accidentally if you were paying, deliberately if someone else was – then you got it automatically. The further gimmick was that it took a month or two for your order to be processed anyway – none of this next day Amazon Prime shite here – and so you’d have forgotten about it by the time your purchase turned up.

There were other variants. The Home Computer Club – which I believe was run by WHSmith – allowed you access to a couple of cheap ZX Spectrum/Commodore 64 games before the full price catalogue came in. Smiths also did various book clubs. And what these all had in common was that you ended up paying for a regular release the same or slightly more than you would have done in the shops. If you hadn’t made the most of your opening offer, you were going to be quids out by the time your contractual membership ended.

For with Britannia, you were locked in for two years for the most part, with a commitment to buy around six more. Sure, there was a tease that the catalogue would have special offers. But on the whole, what made these offers stand out was just how unspecial there were.

All this notwithstanding, it was a cracking business model. Sure, everyone knew a friend who got their intro package sent to a fake address, but such were the margins on everything else, these never seemed to be chased up. It’s like the person at the Southport video shop in the 90s who rented a Nintendo 64 game but gave them my address. I don’t bear a grudge.

It’s important to note that all of this mail order selling was against a backdrop of music, games and videos very rarely being discounted. When Back To The Future Part II was made available on sell-through video, its asking price was £9.99 – £10.20 after a VAT rise if memory serves – and that was the price you paid. Discounting would follow in due course, but it was the accepted norm that you paid the recommended retail price for your entertainment. When HMV did a buy three videos for £20 offer, it really meant something.

Thus, the Britannia Music Club inevitably shifted its focus to the VHS market as it sought to expand. Given that it was owned and run by Polygram, that up until its acquisition by Universal in the later 90s was becoming a sizeable player in the UK film market, it made sense.

As such, we got offers such as the following…

Source: ebay

This was not an uncommon offer, but the bulk of sending VHS tapes through the post limited how many Britannia was willing to give you free up front. Still, what you’re getting on the front of that catalogue is effectively four videos for the price of one and a bit (again, once the deadly P&P had been added on). What was key was that these offers – sneer should you wish! – were led by the cream of that particular month’s new releases. Furthermore, all of the major studios were on board, and for a while, everyone bathed in money.

On the film side, though, changes were coming.

Firstly, and very much playing to the strengths of the Britannia model, there was the rise of the DVD format. This launched in the UK in 1998 (we got it later than most places), but really soared off the back of the release of The Matrix on the format the following year. Here was a new, cheaper to post premium film format, with the retail prices to match – discs selling from £19.99 to £24.99, double that of a video – and Britannia was quick to apply its offers.

The problem, though, was the obvious one. Hand in hand with the rise of the DVD format came the world wide web, and in particular its widening availability in people’s homes. With the world wide web came internet shopping. Again, it’s easy to overlook, but in the early days of internet shopping, there was a simmering distrust of it. Was it safe to type your credit card number into a computer and send it off somewhere else? Would they defraud your card, or take your money, and was it safe to buy stuff from someone without a shop or a phone number?

Early etailers, therefore, reacted logically: they overcame a lot of security concerns by heavy discounting. It would not be exaggerating to suggest that a lot of early DVD retailers came to prominence thanks to insane levels of price cutting, to the point where – in the US in particular – I remember some on online forums refusing to buy a brand new release DVD unless they could get it at least 70% off. More often than not they did.

Of course, this heavy discounting bubble had to burst, and it duly did. Forerunners such as CDNow, Reel, Streets Online, Music Boulevard and DVD Express would eventually fall. But the damage had been done too to traditional outlets. High street stores now had no choice but to follow the discount strategy. And even Britannia was left opening up an internet sales channel, that underlined to a degree what had made its model so successful in the first place.

Polygram would be sold to the Universal Music Group in 1998, and it kept the assorted clubs in place for a while. But through the early 2000s, sales dwindled. The likes of Amazon rose, and in 2007 – after its website had been in stasis for a little while – Britannia Music Club, and its film side, fell into administration. At its peak, over three million people were said to have been on its mailing list, but its business model was simply too inflexible to ultimately compete.

It’s perhaps odd how little it’s mourned, but its last few years brought with it stories of sending increasingly stern letters to round up every fiver it was owed. Its customer service was never on the incredibly effective side. Plus, also, it was an accord with its customers from day one. We ultimately knew we weren’t, long term, getting the better end of the deal. Half of us forgot to cancel. And a number of us ended up with not very modestly priced videos we hadn’t asked for, because we forgot to tick the sodding box.

That said, browsing the catalogues before you joined up was a joy. Even if lots of us did end up with films we didn’t necessarily ask for…

Lead image: BigStock

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