Zip vs VHQ: Who is the Canadian Online DVD Rental king?
By Chris Parry
Posted 10/01/04 14:55:11
Being as these days I’m perched in western Canada, the world of online DVD rental has been a little more strained for me than most people. In the US, Netflix has long been delivering DVDs to people’s doors the day after said people select the disc online, and in my home country of Australia, there are many comparable services (as long as you’re prepared to fork out ridiculous money to large faceless telecommunications giants). Unlike the globular nations of the US and Australia, Canada is one long stretched out giant of geography, with cities spread far and wide, and features a postal service that doesn’t exactly rush items from one side to the other, nor work on the weekends, so which online DVD rental service to choose up here becomes a really difficult question. Do you go local, so that your discs can get to you in three days instead of six, or do you go to the biggest company with the largest selection and just deal with the fact that you’ll spend a large amount of your month waiting? Personally, I had no idea what was preferable, so I took one for the team and set up an account with two different companies, aiming to roadtest both of the premier alternatives (Zip.ca and VHQOnline) so that I could, eventually, give you the guff on who is the better option. That day is now upon us.
I was introduced to online DVD rental by a company called Cinemaflow.com, and I immediately liked what I saw. The concept of online DVD rental is still foreign to many people who haven’t got their brains around how much better it is than going to Blockbuster, but it basically goes like this: You go to the website of the company in question and you pick what movie you want. They slap it in a mailer, with a stamped, return-addressed mailer thrown in, and they plop all of that in the post. A few days later (or next day if you live close to a Netflix distribution point) you get the disc in the mail. You then watch it whenever you want – there are no late fees, so there’s no rush – and when you want another disc, just send the movie back in the mailer provided. As soon your film is back at the company HQ, they send you the next film on your list.
Quite simply, it’s great. You never pay another cent in late fees, you always have movies sitting around waiting to be watched, and because you’re dealing with a website, not a minimum wage teenager who can’t spell ‘Citizen Kane’, you can find the movie you want easily, or browse just as you would at the video store. And all this usually costs you about $20 a month – or the same as a four-night late fee at Blockbuster.
So we’ve established that online DVD rental is awesome, and that CinemaFlow was getting my juices flowing, but they were in no way the only kids on the block. Soon they had been bought by VHQ, a video store chain up north, and the competitors started to loom.
So with the marketplace increasingly crowded, the next step is to figure out who to rent from. Well, if you’re American, you click on the Netflix logo at the bottom of this page and look no further, because they are the undisputed kings of US DVD rental, even in the face of competition from corporate juggernauts like Wal-Mart and Blockbuster. They’re number one because they did it first, did it right, and because quite frankly people hate Blockbuster and Wal-Mart.
But in Canada the question isn’t so easy, especially if you’re living outside of the Toronto/Ottawa region. In Vancouver, the furthest west side of the country, it was even more confusing, being as Zip was based all the way out east, but after much consideration I’ve gone through the merits and failures of each option and here’s what it comes down to:
Zip.ca has a fantastic deal that allows you to have four discs at a time, with no limit on rentals, for $24.95 a month. This is, for me, the perfect plan because it allows me to rent from several different genres and have something on hand for any occasion. Feel like a comedy? Got one right here. Feel like an art flick? Got one right here. Zip also has a 6-disc plan for $34.95 if you’re a hardcore user, but their 2-disc plan for $18.95 is an utter waste of time, especially since that package has an inexplicable limit of four rentals per month.
VHQOnline used to charge the same price for only three discs per month, but they recently rejigged their pricing to keep up with Zip’s aggressive approach. They also now offer a 3-disc package for $19.95, which is a good deal if you’re on a budget, or a 5-disc deal for $29.95, which is again a good option.
The winner on price: VHQ beats Zip here, but you have to wonder whether they can maintain those prices, especially since their mail-outs have said they’re temporary deals.
Zip.ca has an incredible selection, the biggest in Canada by a long way – 20,000 titles and growing. They include all the Criterion discs, which for a film buff like me is just heaven. They have old stuff, obscure stuff, and if something you want isn’t actually on hand, they’ll still let you select it, and then they’ll put it on order for you. I figure I’ve probably cost Zip more than I’ve spent on membership fees being as I’m always selecting the most obscure films imaginable – movies that will likely never be rented by anyone else – but hey, that’s the chance you take when you attempt attain the level of ‘unbeatable’. To their credit, Zip also loads up on both the widescreen and fullscreen versions of each title, though I’m baffled as to why anyone would choose to rent a fullscreen title that cuts 1/3 of the frame off so that it will fit on your TV better.
On the other side of the fence, VHQ claims to have the largest selection (300,000 DVDs), but a cursory search for Seven Samurai shows no results. In fact, a search for any films by directing legend Akira Kurosawa shows only three results, no Rashomon, no Sanjuro, no Yojimbo… The same search on Zip finds 18 different discs, including Criterion discs that normally cost $50 or more to purchase in stores. If they want to really improve their standing, VHQ may well have 300,000 DVDs in stock, but personally I see no great benefit in having access to 500 copies of Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo. One plus on VHQ's side is that they do offer video games, but you need a separate account to get them.
The winner on selection: Zip.ca by a landslide. On this front, it isn’t even close.
When I first started looking at Zip.ca as an option, I was really concerned with a few aspects of their system. I’d already been using VHQ for a few months and was getting annoyed with some of the things they were doing, so I sent an email to customer service at Zip asking them pointed questions about how they do their business. Not only did I get a quick reply, not only was that reply nearly three pages long, but that reply was from the CEO of the company himself. Color me impressed. He conceded that some of my concerns, such as postal waiting times, were legitimate, but also pointed out how I could work around that, so I conceded and gave Zip a shot. I can safely say that, in the time since, not only has his reasoning proved correct on most of my points, but the level of customer service from his employees has been nothing short of stellar. Discs are turned around the same day they receive them, there have been no problems with said discs, such as scratches or receiving the wrong disc, or getting a title that was low on my selection list when I expected something else. And when I order something obscure, they go find it. Top notch.
VHQ, on the other hand, could hardly have performed worse in this category. When I emailed their customer service folks to enquire as to why was receiving my #5, #9, #13 and #15 selections instead of #1, #2, #3 and #4, I got a rather blunt email back telling me that such things were part of life and that the films I wanted weren’t always in. Hey, I can grant you that a time or two, I have no problem if I’m trying to get the latest, newest title in release and it’s already out – fine. But I don’t rent the latest, greatest, newest films, I rent documentaries and Swedish dramas and films from 1987. And when I do so, I expect to get them. I explained to the VHQ guys that I’m a journalist, and as such I often need to rent a particular title for professional purposes – I can’t be asking for Satyricon and end up getting Summer Catch. Their reply to that? The same as the first. No promise to improve, no offer of a discount, no apologies, no hope for the future. Hmm.
The winner on customer service: Zip.ca, and it’s not even close.
Zip.ca was really up against it here, because VHQ is Vancouver-based (or at least they bought up Cinemaflow.com, which was Vancouver-based prior to their acquisition), so their delivery times are as good as it gets… when you’re relying on Canada Post, anyway. To deal with Zip I had to wait for discs from Ottawa, then send them back to Ottawa before I’d get my next disc, which sometimes meant a turnaround time of 8 days between films. The company’s advice in the early stages was to stagger my films so that I always had something on hand, which was an okay workaround, but not at all what I was looking for on a permanent basis. So what did Zip do? They set up a Vancouver distribution center. It still takes a little longer than I’d like to get the discs (come on, Canada Post, would Saturday deliveries really be that hard?) but it’s good enough that delivery time isn’t a dealbreaker anymore.
VHQ has no problems with delivery times to Vancouver at all, and never have. I can’t vouch for their ability to get a film to the Yukon, but I’ve no complaints about this aspect of VHQ’s service. In fact, it’s the one area where they’ve always left Zip for dead, and quite frankly still do.
The winner on delivery times: VHQ, but it’s getting closer…
Zip.ca’s selection system has a lot going for it, but also needs work. Rather than a ranking system, they use an ‘ASAP’ marker, which you put next to the two films you want next in your queue. This is fine if you’re a casual movie fan that simply wants certain titles – soon – but if you need four specific films sent to you, you better stagger the days you send your recent titles back, because otherwise you’ll get two of the ones you wanted and two other random selections from your ‘wishlist’. I really don’t like this system at all, because I don’t want to hold a movie for an extra day just so I can make sure I get the right movie up next. Obviously some people dig the simplicity of the ASAP system, I’m just not one of them, so obviously the smart thing for Zip to do would be to allow me to choose – ASAP or ranking? Zip’s system is also clunky in terms of rating the films you’ve seen, and having an entire page reload whenever you mark a title down to rent. If I’m looking at all of November’s releases, and every time I click ‘rent’ I have to wait for the entire page to load all over again, that’s clunky. And that’s what Zip makes you do right now.
VHQ, however, is not a lot better. They’re ranking system is easy to use – simply mark the title you want and select ‘move to the top’, and it’s your next queued title. Pretty easy, but that’s not to say it works. I don’t think there was a single time I ever got the top movies in my queue in the four months I spent on VHQ’s system, to the point where I stopped even caring about what was top of my list. Often they had films listed that were still in theaters, meaning they sat on my queue for weeks at a time before I finally got them.
The winner on selection systems: Dead heat. Both need work.
So who is the king of Canadian online DVD rentals? For my money (and they’re getting my money from here on in), it’s Zip, and quite easily. Their selection is a big plus for me, their customer service impeccable, and their recent moves to shore up distribution in Vancouver are the kicker that hands them the title.
Interesting sidenote: When I closed my VHQOnline account and they asked for a reason, I wrote that their queuing system was terrible, their customer service abysmal and their price only low because Zip forced them to lower it from where it once was. I also outlined my annoyance with my earlier customer service encounter, and told them that it was a shame they didn’t perform better, because I see them as the ‘little guy’ battling against the ‘goliath’ of Zip, and I prefer to send my business to the little guys whenever possible.
Their response? An email saying, “We’re sorry you decided to close your account. If there’s anything we can do to better serve you, feel free to let us know.”
I already had. And they clearly hadn’t bothered to read it. Zip rules.