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updated: 9/22/2020 8:28 AM

Round Lake Beach store among few Family Video locations in suburbs to survive the pandemic

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Salena Albert knows her customers' tastes and what to recommend for movie night, whether they have a penchant for shark movies, horror, action or chick flicks, children's and family-friendly features, or binge-worthy TV shows.

"We have a lot of regulars. We know families by name," said Albert, manager of Family Video in Round Lake Beach. That personal touch, she said, is one reason the store is among the last movie/game rental places left in the suburbs.

The nationwide chain headquartered in Glenview is shuttering 200 stores, including 20 in the suburban Chicago market, due to declining demand and the coronavirus pandemic hurting business. Its Lisle store was among the first to close amid the pandemic. Stores in Antioch, Arlington Heights, Bolingbrook, Cary, Downers Grove, Glenview, Grayslake, Mundelein, Plainfield, Schaumburg and Wheeling will close by the end of October.

Stores in Belvidere, Homewood, Loves Park and Zion will remain open for now.

A remnant of a bygone era before online streaming services transformed the movie-rental experience and viewing landscape, Family Video has stayed open after giants like Blockbuster Video and Hollywood Video folded in 2010.

Owned by the Hoogland family of Glenview, the chain has operated since 1978, with many stores a part of those communities for years. The focus is serving blue-collar customers who "maybe didn't have tons of money," said Ryan Leaf, a Chicago-area district manager.

Stores are strategically placed near schools and community centers rather than strip malls and shopping centers.

Pandemic-related business shutdown hurt foot traffic -- down 40% to 60% from pre-COVID patronage -- at stores now targeted to close. Stores in major metropolitan regions were hardest hit, while those in rural areas are hanging on.

"People couldn't come and rent from us so they got their entertainment from somewhere else," Leaf said. "We operate in 19 states, primarily in the Midwest. After this closure, we will be down to 300 stores. This is not a decision that was made lightly."

The company will now focus energy on its other brands that are doing well, he said.

Family Video's parent company, Highland Ventures, operates more than 930 retail sites in the United States and Canada. Its businesses include Hoogland Foods (aka Marco's Pizza), Stay Fit 24, Highland Pure Water and Ice, and Legacy Commercial Properties.

What sets Family Video apart from its now-defunct competitors is patrons don't need a credit card to open an account since there is no membership requirement, and its customer service -- something Redbox, Netflix or Hulu can't provide. Its stores offer free children's sections and host family-friendly events, such as free movie/pizza nights and ice cream and root beer float socials.

"We do grass-roots events where we do things for the community every so often," said Albert, of Round Lake Beach. "We give away free movies for kids' grades. On Christmas and Easter, we give away hams and turkeys. We do canned food drives (and) people who bring in canned foods get free movie rentals. We did a coat drive last year. We try to be involved in the community."

For a year, the Round Lake Beach store has been selling CBD (cannabidiol) products -- oil, bath bombs, water and herbal supplements -- free of THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces a high.

Albert said evolving to meet customers' needs, such as offering older movies and TV shows that online services have stopped streaming, and low rental costs ($2.99 for five nights), is what will keep the business alive.

"As a company, Family Video has always tried to give customers choices and more options," Albert said. "If you stay stagnant and you don't ever try to grow, there's only so much you can do as a company to keep customers coming back. There's so many people who come in here that grew up with Family Video and now they bring their kids."