Angry that Redbox Is Hiking DVD Rental Prices? Blame Congress

The company isn't simply following Netflix's recent rate increase -- it's responding to new financial regulation

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This post has been corrected (see "update").

Has Redbox learned nothing from Netflix? By now, you're probably familiar with what Netflix did: it raised prices dramatically, driving a million customers (and counting) to cancel the service. Since the price hike was first announced in July, its stock price has plummeted about 73%. So what would possess Redbox to imitate that blunder? The company says that last summer's Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill deserves part of the blame.

Wait, What?

Redbox announced this week that it intends to raise the price of renting a DVD for a day to $1.20 from $1. That's a pretty straightforward 20% increase. This price hike may appear smaller than Netflix's increase, which was as much as 60% for some subscribers.

Still, Redbox customers aren't likely to embrace the change -- especially since they won't get anything in return. Its third quarter earnings announcement states: "The change is primarily due to the increase in operating expenses, including the recent increase in debit card interchange fees as a result of the Durbin Amendment."

I know what you're thinking: what can financial regulation possibly have to do with DVD rentals? You know how they say that when a butterfly flaps its wings it can have unexpected consequences on the other side of the world? This is kind of like that. When politicians in Washington regulate, unintended -- and sometimes even strange -- consequences can follow.

You may have heard about the new debit card fee rule referred to above. It limits the interchange fees that retailers must pay banks when debit cards are swiped. It has already agitated consumers since its implementation earlier this month. You probably recall that Bank of America and others said that they will soon charge customers a fee to use their debit card in response to the new rules. This same rule also had a hand in prompting Redbox's rate hike.

How could this be? The Durbin Amendment also creates a debit interchange fee floor, which makes small transactions -- like those to rent a DVD from Redbox -- much more costly for retailers. John Kraft, an equity research analyst at D.A. Davison & Co, estimates that the new law will increase transaction fees for Redbox by about 10 cents per rental when debit is used. He concludes that this will average out to all rentals being about 5 cents more expensive.

Netflix Provided Cover

Under the circumstances, Redbox might not feel so worried about scaring off customers with a small price increase: its competitor Netflix continues to suffer from a price hike debacle. Redbox's price hike may appear much smaller than Netflix's increase. For a customer who uses Redbox once a week and returns the movie on time, they'll pay around $1 more per month. A Netflix subscriber on its basic plan would pay about $6 more per month after its price change. You would have to add together the rate increase on 30 DVDs from Redbox to equal Netflix's rate hike.

Presented by

Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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