26 years ago. 1986. Many Barrie houses still had TV antennae towers. The 'early adopters' had laid out big bucks for a new VCR in the entertainment area. The Molson Centre hadn't been built. There were a couple of bars downtown and the movie theatres were downtown. No Sunday shopping. Nothing was in the southend... no houses, no businesses.

Two couples--four friends--raised money and opened the region's only video store. Wellington Plaza offered enough parking and Keith and Karen Higgs joined friends Ford and Nancy Lake and Bandito Video was born.

The owners quickly divided the work, each excelling in their roles. And they all learned how to work the front counter. They bar coded every video and computerized the customer experience, unheard of in 1986 when most businesses still sported huge IBM typewriters on the front desk!

December 4, 1986 was opening day. Their theory was simple: computerize so you know what your customers like; have multiple copies, lots of inventory; let people touch and feel and read; have fabulous, friendly, knowledgable front counter staff; charge a fair price.

More than a quarter-century later, after so many video stores--small and huge--have come and gone, Bandito still works the same philosophy. Technology has pushed further into store operation and new owners Brian and Lisette Hughes look at their past four years of ownership and years ahead with positive thoughts.

Founder Keith Higgs looks back to those early days. "I was a big retail enthusiast... buying inventory, stocking shelves, hiring and mentoring staff. We divided up the responsibilities so we weren't tripping over each other and it worked. We each got really good at our area and we all got good at the front counter. Ford was the security, insurance and building details guy. Nancy was terrific at staffing and movie orders. Karen was the comptroller and took care of our books.

"We were spending close to $450,000 a year buying movies at that time. The movies were all VHS and cost $100 each. When DVDs came in they were $20 and our inventory costs dropped to $150,000 a year."

Bandito dared to be different, right out of the gate. No membership fee. Most of the other stores were charging $120 a year for a membership to rent videos. "We didn't tag movies and keep them behind a counter," says Keith. "We put them out on shelves so people could touch them, read the synopsis, and actually have choice." Because many homes didn't yet have a VCR (VCRs came down in price to $750 in 1988 when Canadians bought en masse), Bandito also invested in a few VCR machines and rented them for $8.99 a night with two free movies. Those Emerson VCR's only played movies and 20-25 of them went out the door daily at Bandito.

The four owners got so busy that Keith reached back to Janice Boynton, former colleague from TD Bank and she and her husband Rod became critical employees of the operation. Adding that third couple gave some time off schedule to everyone.

At any given time Bandito had 27 staff on the payroll. They ran two shifts and the number one rule was "acknowledge everyone in line" and often there were lines 20 deep, 7 to 8 hours of the day.

Early computerization effort drew interest from other businesses who wanted to see the automatic invoices that just came out of a printer. At that time, most businesses were handwriting their invoices in triplicate, handing one to the customer and filing two away.

Bandito was also the first to rent video games... remember Nintendo? Remember Gameboy?  The store boasted an academy award section, historical, foreign, Japanese categories, sections not available in any other stores.  The staff (who are still there today) knew their product and knew who was interested in what.

And then Blockbuster came along. And then Rogers video stores. Bandito owners worried about the competition but put their heads down and did what they do best... ultimately holding their own with 4 Blockbusters and 2 Rogers stores, now all gone.

During all that time, the guy who maintained their computers also had his eye on the business and when the original owners were ready to sell, Brian and Lisette Hughes were ready to buy. It was 2008, recession time, and they survived those first economic hiccups and continue to make change.

Brian and Lisette say Bandito's longevity is multi facetted.  Staff like Julinda Morrow--a walking movie catalogue who heads up the Barrie Film Festival, Julie Wilson--a 12 year movie veteran, Ryan Freer--the relied-on source for movie opinions... they've been there forever!  Just like the customers!

Brian recognizes while people enthuse about downloading and pay per view convenience, there are still customers who love the Disney section, who pick up several videos for the whole family. Bandito's 97,000 members are loyal, committed. The other reason is that Bandito is adaptable. They're small, two stores in Barrie and Angus, no corporate head office to slow things down.

But Brian offers another reason. He says Canadians like human contact. In the US, consumers embrace the lack of human contact as they order from boxes in big box stores. "In Canada people want to walk in, ask for a suggestion, talk to someone if they have a problem. If you're dealing with a machine and it doesn't work, the machine still charges."

Brian and Lisette have added a website (www.banditovideo.com) and have automated the ordering process, using the internet for their communications with suppliers. The customers are younger than they were four years ago, so their demographic is changing.

Today, Bandito's VHS division takes up huge, expensive square footage and is on its way out. But the store still offers 33,000 unique titles including xbox games, blue rays, and dvds. You can find Bandito on facebook.

Today, there are no TV antennae up the side of every house. Cable is just one choice for consumers now.  You Tube offers hours of entertainment. Home computers hook up to huge flat-screen TVs for movie downloading and playing. Homes have actual media rooms with surround sound.

And, Bandito Video is there, where it started 26 years ago, offering a human hand, head and heart.

Thanks, Brian.  Thanks, Lisette.  And thanks Julinda, Julie and Ryan.

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