Greater Greater Washington

Metro stations could get DVD kiosks and trolley tour tickets

What kinds of businesses that don't serve food would want to pay to open locations in Metro stations? That was the big question when the WMATA Board decided last year not to entertain any bids for food-related retail, even packaged food like frozen dinners that are not geared toward eating on the system.


Subway DVD rental in Tokyo. Photo by brandon shigeta on Flickr.

Now we know the answer: DVD rentals and trolley tour tickets. WMATA received six bids in December: three for DVD rental kiosks, one for Old Town Trolley Tours, one for newsstands that would serve food, and one that would have combined a variety of retail including Smithsonian Museum stores, cleaners, and more DVDs.

WMATA disqualified the newsstands with food because food wasn't allowed, and eliminated two of the others because they didn't have enough business experience, financial resources, and/or solid business model in the RFPs.

The three retail proposals that passed muster are Blockbuster, for DVD rental kiosks at Gallery Place, Metro Center and Pentagon City, Movie Solution, for DVD rental kiosks at Farragut North, Farragut West, Foggy Bottom, L'Enfant Plaza, Metro Center Union Station, Bethesda, New Carrollton, Shady Grove and Rosslyn, and Old Town Trolley Tours, for ticket sales and information booths at both entrances of Smithsonian.

If approved by the Board, these licenses would run for 8 years. WMATA will earn a guaranteed $116,000 the first year and gets a percentage of sales after that, which they estimate will bring in $928,000 over the full 8 years. Based on the profits after the first year, WMATA can renegotiate the agreements. The retailers will need to handle all cleaning and maintenance, and get necessary business licenses from the jurisdictions where the stations are located.

It would be nice to know how much the newsstand bid would have brought in had it not been disqualified. Knowing how much money candy bar and gum sales would earn WMATA could be very useful in budget debates. If it's a lot of money, maybe it's worth paying more cleaning crews. If it's not much more than the DVD rental kiosks, then we can know for sure that edible items aren't an option to help close budget gaps.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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DVD kiosks in Metro stations makes a ton of sense. Same with Tourmobile booths. Good way to collect a little revenue but not attract rats.

I wholeheartedly agree about WMATA's decision to maintain its food ban that dates back to the opening of the system because rats are bad.

by Cavan on Jun 21, 2010 11:04 am • linkreport

I was struck by how little this makes. $120,000 a year may sound like a lot of money, but it's a drop in the bucket in a $190M budget gap. If Metro staff had to spend any significant amount of time on this project, you may have barely come out even.

Every little bit helps, but we're not going to be able to balance our budget with DVD kiosks.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 21, 2010 11:10 am • linkreport

If rats are bad, why do Gallery Place and Metro Center have problems with vermin that riders have seen but Metro denies, but systems like the MBTA (which sells food in fare control) and CTA (bans food but sells food outside fare control) have no vermin problems?

Like with so many other things, Metro has put itself into a box with the food ban. It isn't like the ban is actually enforced and it isn't like the stations are vermin free. If it makes money, do it.

by Jason on Jun 21, 2010 11:11 am • linkreport

@Jason,

You really think that MBTA is completely vermin-free?

As for Chicago's lack of vermin - that would likely have a lot to do with the fact that most of the system is 20 feet above the ground.

And it's not just about revenue, it's about profit. I'm doubtful that the added revenue to Metro from food would offset the added costs for trash removal, vermin control, etc.

by Alex B. on Jun 21, 2010 11:19 am • linkreport

You've got to be kidding me about the gum and candy sales. Cleanup costs would be astronomical.

I agree that as usual WMATA does not keep the stations very clean anymore, and I'm not suprised if rats are coming in.

Mperkins is right; 120 a year is not a lot. Also 8 years in an eternity for DVD kiosks sales. We will even rent DVDs in 8 years? Why make the contract that long? I often suspect metro staff often makes this cheaper and more diffcult than it needs to be because they don't want to run a real estate service. I can think of several other options out there which make more sense (shoeshine, bike repair/valet, fedex). When airports can offer better vendor service you are not trying very hard.

The list of excluded vendors -- red box, bergmans cleaners, smithsonian stores -- makes no sense. These are pretty well established brands.

by charlie on Jun 21, 2010 11:20 am • linkreport

The food ban is interesting. Other cities that do not have a food ban in their subway systems seem to be doing fine. Sure, things are a little bit dirtier, and there is more garbage around. In DC, there is such a profound emphasis on rules and order, though, that people might not be able to handle such a free environment where food is allowed. It would cause some kind of awful rip in the nanny fabric.

by aaa on Jun 21, 2010 11:22 am • linkreport

@Alex B. and Jason

I'm in Boston several times a month and I ride the MBTA every time I'm there. I have never seen rats like in Manhattan in a Boston station, nor have I seen them in Washington stations. However, I have seen mice at Metro Center and Chinatown just like I have seen mice on the Orange and Red lines in Boston. Honestly, I think the two systems are about the same when it comes to cleanliness. I would even argue that because Boston stations are better lit, it might be easier to see when they get dirty, so they might be cleaned more often. Another difference is that Boston trains don't have carpet flooring like we do and that might facilitate clean-up. Obviously, I don't know how much they spend on their janitorial services, but it would seem to me that the Dunkin Donuts in their stations probably brings in more revenue than the $1 movie rentals (they will be $1 like Redbox, right?).

by Teyo on Jun 21, 2010 11:26 am • linkreport

"I think mice are rather nice.
Their tails are long, their feet are small,
They haven't any chins at all.

Their ears are pink, their teeth are white,
They run about the house at night
And nibble things they shouldn't touch,
And no one seems to like them much--

But I think mice--are nice!"

by Bianchi on Jun 21, 2010 11:33 am • linkreport

I can't remember the last time I went a week without getting on at least one metro car that had a pile of chewed up sunflower seeds on the carpet or fast food bags crumpled up and stuffed in some gap between the walls and the seats. Metro is relatively vermin free b/c they pay crews to clean the system and the crews do a pretty good job. With or without food sales, there will still be jerks who treat metro like a trash can, but most will not. I, for one, would love to sip a diet coke on the way to work, and would gladly pay for the convenience. I would also guess that there would be no more food trash on trains than there is right now.

by JTS on Jun 21, 2010 11:35 am • linkreport

I think it would be great if the Metro stations had coinstar machines that you could use to add fare to your card.

by mtp on Jun 21, 2010 11:37 am • linkreport

aaa, while your mini objectivist screed was cute, it really has little real world practicality. What's the point of your brand of "freedom" if we all live in filth? I'll take a collective positive approach if it gets the job done.

by Cavan on Jun 21, 2010 11:38 am • linkreport

This is giving away long-term contracts for next-to-nothing to uncreative bids. Another embarrassment for WMATA management.

by Jasper on Jun 21, 2010 11:42 am • linkreport

How did this get into a comparison with Bostons rail system? Its hardly a comparison considering MetroRail carries more than twice the number of daily riders that Boston's system does.

I use the Metro Center and Gallery Place stations each 3 or 4 times weekly, and I have never seen a rat. Even if you could say there are a few living there, is that a really big surprise? Where there are lots of people, there will be vermin. You get what, 35-40K people walking the platforms in Metro Center? Thats like a sellout crowd at Nat Stadium passing through there every day. Considering that, I've always thought Metro Center was pretty clean. Stations further out along the spoke, much more so.

The food ban works. Anyone who has used Chicagos, Bostons or NYC's system would admit that freely. While I think it should be enforced a heck of a lot more, I do occasionally see it in action, like last week where some metro police person approached this person eating (and spilling) an icecream cone all over the platform. They made them throw it out, and gave them a ticket.

I agree with some others, Metro folks really didn't look that hard in terms of possible alternative retail uses. I could think of half a dozen other things off the top of my head that pay sizable rents.

by nookie on Jun 21, 2010 11:45 am • linkreport

I could count on one hand the number of vermin I have seen inside Metro stations in a couple decades of riding.

I am however intrigued by the impromptu gardens growing in the light wells next to the tracks inside Friendship Heights.

by Lou on Jun 21, 2010 11:57 am • linkreport

Isn't there already a shop in the McPherson Square Metro that sells candy and sodas and other food?

by Shipsa01 on Jun 21, 2010 12:02 pm • linkreport

@Lou: The gardens in the light wells seems to be a regular thing for stations in the very deep stretch between Woodley Park and Medical Center.

by Jason on Jun 21, 2010 12:02 pm • linkreport

I don't know about McPherson Sq but certainly Union STN can be interpreted as a stop where snacks are sold.

by Bianchi on Jun 21, 2010 12:04 pm • linkreport

cavan - I have no idea what you are talking about. But I've always said that it is better to be filthy and free then clean and oppressed.

by aaa on Jun 21, 2010 12:06 pm • linkreport

The NYTimes recently had a story (at least on-line) about a study conducted about the rats in the NYC subway. The study found that the rats were after the trash kept in trash rooms adjacent to the platforms. Apparently they live in the walls surrounding the rooms. Makes it sound like it's not about food, but surely the trash is filled with food.

And, do those kiosks make money? I figured virtually everyone had a Netflix account by now. And how many years before most people just stream movies?

by rdhd on Jun 21, 2010 12:23 pm • linkreport

I am nominating rdhd for the Jamie Award for GGW commentator least likely to look at prices.

Yes, Giant is cheaper than Whole Foods. Yes, not everyone can afford $12 a month for Netflix. And yes, not everyone has broadband at home.

by charlie on Jun 21, 2010 12:27 pm • linkreport

I wonder if they could lease space to banks for ATMs? That would seem to be an incredibly lucrative opportunity...

by andrew on Jun 21, 2010 12:27 pm • linkreport

If WMATA was smart, they'd lease every available square footage for upscale eateries, lockup the hidden bathrooms, and roll out self-cleaning paytoilets at $20 per evacuation. Get them coming and going.

by monkeyrotica on Jun 21, 2010 1:07 pm • linkreport

I wonder if this proposal could help push Metro to go forward with the Farragut connector tunnel. See proposal at http://www.dupontcircle.biz/pix/farragut.gif - the drawing includes a section for retail. I wonder if any retailers could commit to funding, to help get the ball rolling. Connecting the Red Line to Blue and Orange would help reduce congestion at Metro Center, provide redundant routing options in the event of a station closure, and save travellers time.

by M.V. Jantzen on Jun 21, 2010 1:08 pm • linkreport

Hey, it's not so bad. This is Metro's first shot at this: it's not too ambitious, but it's a start. I'm willing to cut them slack to try some things and see what works. Hopefully it'll get a good start and from there we'll expand to more services at more stations generating more revenue.

by Gavin on Jun 21, 2010 1:08 pm • linkreport

@Andrew,

Metro entered into an exclusive contract with Chevy Chase Bank years ago so that they paid to be the only bank allowed to put atms in Metro Stations. They outlined the cost benefit and I remember thinking at the time "eh, thats it?" having just been involved in a couple retail redevelopment projects not a couple years before where BAC and C were paying something along the lines of 300% more per ATM location, and they certainly weren't places that got the daily foot traffic of metro.

Yet another lost opportunity...I hope that contract comes up for rebid at some point soon and Metro realizes what a goldmine they have.

Another idea I had ~6-7 years ago after visiting Vegas (and the architectural purists here are gonna hate me) is to replicate the Freemont Street Experience in the overhead vaults of a few metro stations. Take Gallery Place for example. It has hundreds of rectangularg square "vaults" in the overhead ceiling. Recess an equally sized LCD in each one. Programed to work as one, it would appear from the platform to be one huge over head display and companys would pay huge bucks I imagine to bascially run silent commercials all day, especially with the foot traffic of the half dozen or so most trafficed stations.

Each LCD could be recessed enough I imagine to not completely detract from the architectural view when looking at it. I dunno...someone could computer model it easy enough. Knowing what ViaComm gets per month for those electronic roadside billboards, I figured this would be worth atleast 4-6 million per year in ad revenue if Metro just did it to say Metro Center and Gallery Place.

by nookie on Jun 21, 2010 1:47 pm • linkreport

@ nookie: +1. Just go to London for creative advertising. Get some of those folks over.

captcha: police vends

by Jasper on Jun 21, 2010 2:35 pm • linkreport

@Jamie Thanks, I've been waiting for an award. Being an economist, I'm not totally ignorant of the role price plays in people's decisions. That said, it's far cheaper for me (and I suspect most others) to use Netflix. $12/month compared to renting a movie or two every weekend? How much do these kiosks cost anyway? I went to Redbox's website and can't find pricing info.

And just because some of the population will use these, doens't mean that anyone will find it profitable to serve that customer base.

Thank gawd for the snide internet commenters of the world. What would we do without you?

by rdhd on Jun 21, 2010 3:17 pm • linkreport

@rdhd Redbox charges $1 and you have to return the movie by 7 pm the next day, if I remember correctly. Every extra day is another dollar. Since I usually only watch the movie once, renting a movie or two every weekend like you do would cost you a dollar or two. I didn't know blockbuster did kiosks, so I don't know if they also do dollar rentals.

by Teyo on Jun 21, 2010 3:23 pm • linkreport

@Jamie -

yeah, I have to say, as someone who has certainly had to make a technology-related purchase sometime during the last 10 years, surely you are familiar with the frustrating fact that these goods get cheaper the longer you wait, and usually accelerate in cheapness over time.

Metro could be cornering itself if/when bandwidth gets even cheaper over the next five-ten years and DVDs become obsolete as those cash strapped consumers you defend turn to netflix and other services for better variety, convenience, and price. The new DVD player I bought for $9.99 three years ago barely gets used these days as my bandwidth has increased by 20 mbps for no additional cost over the same time.

I for one, fully endorse nookie's suggestion.

by JTS on Jun 21, 2010 3:26 pm • linkreport

@Teyo Thanks. As I said, I couldn't find info on Redbox's prices. I always forget to stick my Netflix in the mail the day after I watch it. Not to mention that I seldom watch a movie the second I get it. Back in the days of Blockbuster I would rent one or two and watch them that night--put that was also a time when renting movies was a big deal--no 150 channels to choose from.

I wonder if people did the math, how many would find Netflix cheaper.

by rdhd on Jun 21, 2010 3:29 pm • linkreport

I like the DVD kiosk ideas A LOT! I would absolutely use them.

by Kyle F. on Jun 21, 2010 3:49 pm • linkreport

Netflix is already planning for post-DVD and online delivery as their business model.

by Q on Jun 21, 2010 4:37 pm • linkreport

I have only seen a rat once in and underground station that was a Metro Center; but i have seen cockroaches before in any stations and in trains.

How about selling smartrip cards and other WMATA products also. Those should be a given to any place that sells anything within the system.

@ Q

Netflix forgot one thing most of the US does not have access to fast enough internet to stream movies without lag.

Most places in the US outside of a major city and its closest suburbs can not get DSL or Cable internet you have to be a certain amount of miles for a routing/distribution point (dont know the actual name of what the place is called) if you are further than that you can not get there service.

The other options for internet are Dial Up (slow as hell), or Satellite (goes out with movement of the clouds, weather and stuff in space).

Netflix wont be launching a streaming only service for at-least 5 years and thats the quick end and if people want to stream Bluray quality or "3d" movies it will be worst since those could end up being 10-40GB's. If they want to stay in business they wont go to streaming only until atleast 2016 and I would bet they would still get request for DVD's or some other company will appear to fill the void.

by kk on Jun 21, 2010 6:58 pm • linkreport

I'm glad Metro is letting some vendors in. However, they had so many other choices. First of all, they could not only sell tickets to the tourist stuff at Smithsonian, but they could go at any station with a heavy hotel presence. Also, Coinstar, newstands that don't sell candy and cigarettes, kiosks with souvenirs, those machines with the claw that kids want to play, the list goes on. Also, I could see this working in other places with major transit stations who need money.

by Kristen on Jun 21, 2010 11:24 pm • linkreport

@kk

I think what we need to remember is that these Blockbuster kiosks are not being placed on a farm in Iowa but in urban metro stations in a metropolitan area. I'm sure some people still use dial-up in DC, but they're probably not the target audience for these products (they probably only own DVD players because their VHS players broke and they could no longer find a replacement for sale). Personally, I like the idea of picking up a movie on my way home for a dollar and returning it the next morning on my way to work, but I don't think an 8 year contract is a smart idea especially since it is going to Blockbuster which is currently in the process of going bankrupt and might not even be around in 8 years. It should be noted that companies like Redbox and Netflix are part of the reason that Blockbuster's going bust, so while it's nice to see Blockbuster getting in the DVD kiosk business, it's surprising that Redbox was not picked instead given the aforementioned reasons. Given the investment that the vendors have to make, it makes sense not to have a year to year contract, but 8 years is excessive. It should be 4 or 5 years at most.

by Teyo on Jun 21, 2010 11:45 pm • linkreport

1 million over 8 years seems like a low ball offer. I don't know how these things work (and I realize that)...but this is valuable space..with millions of riders per day. which means millions of dollars for the kiosk per year(multiple kiosks/multiple millions). I think Metro should of opened it up to a bidding war. -why redbox was turned away is beyond me. 8 years seems a little excessive. 1 year-"let me see your profits-wow, ok this space is a little more expensive for the next year."

Also KK...I don't think Netflix has the idea of going "full streaming"...their method which seems to be working is rent a dvd or stream..streaming works just fine on my 8 year old laptop. Netflix seems to know what they're doing, providing a good product, while preparing for the future. I don't think there is any argument over the future, that all rental movies will eventually be streamed. 2016 or 2030 it will happen. When that does, Netflix will have a strong foundation.

by whoa_now on Jun 22, 2010 11:11 am • linkreport

@ Teyo

Actually Eastern Prince Georges County near the Patuxent can't get highspeed internet and some portions of Charles & St. Marys County all of which are far from Iowa and are not in the middle of nowhere.

@ whoa_now

I understand that but until there is Fios like internet in the major cities there will not be a huge market for streaming DVD quality movies.

The age of a laptop has nothing to do with it.

Any computer that was built in the last 10 years can probably access anything online except for gaming which would require better graphics cards and more ram.

The problem has to do with your internet speed, not computer. DSL, Cable and Satelite have slow speeds which would make streaming anything that is into the multi-gigabytes of space whether it be movies or games lag.

The average speeds of internet between 256 Kbps and 3Mbps can not stream anything that is over 1GB without stopping for atleast 30 or 90 seconds and those streams are not even DVD quality. If you tried to watch a DVD or Bluray quality movie on those speeds it would be like downloading a 40mb file or trying to watch a youtube video that is more than 3 minutes on dialup.

As for the future all rentals wont eventually go there most will though. As technology advances what we think of as normal does to; we can get internet speeds of those in Japan or Finland our media (music, videos) will catch right up.

Lets say in 10 years internet speeds are 500 Mbps or 1Gbps everywhere; then the movie studios will introduce movies that are like 20/20 vision in terms of quality that take up terrabytes if not petabytes.

by kk on Jun 22, 2010 12:34 pm • linkreport

@whoa_now: Well, it's not "millions" per day if you're talking about individual stations, it's more like "tens of thousands" for the most popular stations, and some of those have multiple entrances, so I would say it's around ten thousand per kiosk.

A high ridership day for the whole Metrorail system is 860-870,000 riders, and most of those ride twice, so the population of potential customers is about 400,000 people.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 22, 2010 12:37 pm • linkreport

@kk: those portions of the county are far from Metro and probably have very low Metro ridership compared to the ridership from DC, Arlington and other close areas.

It would not likely be a good business model to try to rent DVDs in Metro stations based on trying to fill a need for movie rentals for people that cannot stream content due to living in eastern PG county or Charles or St. Mary's counties.

If I were trying to fill that need, I would put a kiosk at the grocery store in eastern PG county or at the 7-11 or a gas station.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 22, 2010 12:41 pm • linkreport

@kk

Sorry, I'm not too familiar with those two counties that you mentioned. How many Metro stations are there in those counties? I don't think there are any, but I might be wrong. Similarly, I was under the impression that Metro did not stretch that far into PG county. A quick look on Google maps shows quite a bit of farmland in that part of Maryland so I think my Iowa analogy stands given that these counties look a lot more rural than urban.

by Teyo on Jun 22, 2010 12:45 pm • linkreport

@ Michael Perkins

I never said that is was a smart business move; I was just listing a response to a fallacy about being able to stream movies which most areas around the area and including DC are not capable of.

@ Teyo

Whether a places has a Metro Station, Metrorail or Metrobus does not make it rural or not.

A rural areas does not have large amounts of people and forest whereas these do so they are not rural Montana, Wyoming and Nevada are rural not Maryland.

I do not see any 10 or 20 square mile farms in Maryland

Where exactly did you look at, I'm looking around route 301, 5, 381, 382, 236, 234, 235 and 6 and all i see is houses with acres of land and State Parks.

The definition of rural excludes areas such as State Parks, Wildife Centers & Forest a rural area is a flat landed area used for farming and not where mass of people live. If there is a farming around a development of houses its not rural anymore.

by kk on Jun 22, 2010 2:25 pm • linkreport

continuation to above comment.

I dont see any areas which seem to be a capable farm I do not see areas with places to store corn, areas for animals to graze upon nor do i see barns, chicken coops, facilities for milking.

Unless your looking at very small family run farms which probably produce next nothing those could or could not be farms depending on if its done yearly or not.

by kk on Jun 22, 2010 2:35 pm • linkreport

I LOVE the idea of Metro bringing Movie Solution DVD kiosks to stations!!

by Denise on Jun 23, 2010 4:31 pm • linkreport

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