A chain of Blockbuster stores in the Pacific Northwest licensed to Trient Partners of Seattle commissioned the Retail Group Inc. to remodel its stores. Trient was suffering from a high "walk-out rate," meaning that 20% of those who entered the store left without renting a movie. That was no surprise to J'Amy Owens, president of the Retail Group, a Seattle-based strategic retailconsulting firm she cofounded 12 years ago. Owens calls the entrance to the typical Blockbuster "a submarine air lock" that traps the customer. "The message there is 'We don't trust you, but come on in." The sensory assault continues with "screaming" yellow fluorescent light so bright "you could do open-heart surgery right there," says Owens. She notes that most customers come to Blockbuster after work, which means that a visit to the store is "a p.m. occasion." According to Owens, the typical customer is thinking, "I'm tired, I'm sick. All I want is to find a video and go home and veg out. And they're putting me under these lights that show how old and tired I am and asking me to browse."

Owens blew up the submarine-air-lock entrance and created an enchanted tunnel. It was painted a soft purple, suggesting evening, with video monitors on the walls showing customized classic-film clips to draw customers in. She built semicircular desks, dubbed "directors' circles," which are staffed by knowledgeable employees. She also broke the wall of videos into discrete "bitable" sections, with the inventory cross-referenced not only by type of movie but by director and thematic or historical relationship. Owens also softened and darkened the colors in the store, lowered the counters, and increased the number of cash registers to remove barriers between customers and employees, who are now equipped with headsets in order to communicate with one another across a suddenly friendlier, hipper, state-of-the-art store. The warmer, more appropriate setting makes the stores feel more upscale - even though they continue to sell a commodity product. It all works. The new format has boosted both video rentals and concession sales.