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Starflix 2004 trial

Updated Dec 2004

These are the original notes from my Starflix trial in late 2004, which led to my determining that their inventory claims were highly inflated. My updated summary can be found here.

Someone brought Starflix to my attention back at the end of August 2004 - I hadn't heard of them previously. A little research turned up the information that they were incorporate in Quebec and seemed to be using a turnkey software package for their website. No-one else on the various forums seemed to know anything about them, and there didn't seem to be any advertising on the internet outside Montreal or the Quebec region. They claimed 16,000 titles (now 23,000) and three warehouses, which seemed somewhat ambitious (even implausible) for a low-profile company, but I didn't bother doing any more checking at the time.

In November a couple Starflix customers turned up on the onlinedvdrentalguide.ca forums, and I finally got around to doing the inventory checks to add them to my chart. They came out rather poorly; at just over 40% their score was similar to DVDsToYourDoor.com, which is a small BC operation with under 3000 titles. My database contains mainly theatrical releases, so would not reflect a heavy specialization in, say, TV shows or anime, but as I pointed out in my first email to Starflix it would seem almost impossible to actually have 16,000 or 23,000 titles and do that badly.

I also signed up for their free trial to find out more. My first discs arrived, so here's the details of what I know. In a nutshell, they do have some sort of regional capability, everything about my trial went smoothly, but their inventory claims don't seem to pan out. I managed to get an email contact for someone at Starflix, and sent them a note. They replied, and I sent a followup. I've posted the emails; the last reply I got was both defensive and offensive in content and attitude. You can make up your own mind - take titles from the Missing list (or your own hard-to-find DVDs) and see if they can be found on Starflix, and judge for yourself the accuracy of claims from their site such as "we have virtually every DVD available for rental in Canada".

INVENTORY

Starflix started out claiming 16,000 titles, and has upped this to 23,000 (30,000 by February 2006) Frankly, and putting it politely, I can't find much evidence of this. As mentioned, they come out quite low on my test; I can't see anything seriously wrong with my search routines, so if some of the titles are actually there they must have quite a bug with their website. I've attached the "Missing" list to their line of the chart so you can see what they don't have. Certainly they have next to no Criterion discs, which is more like the MoviesForMe virtual inventory as opposed to a true 20,000+ inventory such as ZIP, and NetFlix or Greencine in the US.

I also did a little looking at their inventory numbers. These seem to go from 16,000 to just under 33,000. However, over to half of these seem to be "dead" entries - most have data if you call them up manually, but don't show up in any way from the site's search facilities. Some are empty, some have French discs, some have info on retail gift packs, and in general would appear to be either unneeded remnants from wherever they loaded their data, or titles they aren't yet making available - in any case they seem not intended to be available to customers. Of the remaining inventory entries, some are multi-disc sets (like TV series), but these still only use a single inventory number. My guess at actual "discs" for my chart would be under 9000, best case. Even at that, there would be no way of knowing if some of this was "virtual inventory" that they don't actually have stock on yet (similar to what MoviesForMe does). So there is no way of knowing just how much under 9000 the number would actually be.

There are some indications that this may be the case. Starflix seems to send titles that span two discs for the actual film as two separate shipments - members get an explicit message such as "Multi-Disc DVD - counts as 2 items in your StarList" (non-members don't get this message and so can't tell how many discs there are). Aside from the fact that most companies ship the very few movies like this as a single shipment, it provides another interesting bit of information. While Starflix shows some 2-span movies like "Godfather II" as multi-discs, there some it should but doesn't. For instance, "Once Upon A Time In America" seems to appear as one rental, even though it is a 2-disc movie, or the Criterion "Scenes From a Marriage", which lists singly even though it is a 3-disc set. It is a reasonable assumption that this is something they have listed but don't actually have in stock yet, when they would break it up for inventory purposes. This theory is buttressed by the recent Criterion version of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts". It is another 2-disc set that only shows as one at Starflix. Since my personal copy from Amazon is backordered, and ZIP doesn't have their stock yet either, it is a good bet Starflix doesn't have this, which is why it hasn't been broken into separate rentals. These could easily be isolated glitches, but the point is that there is no indication on the display or StarList pages of these being on order or not stocked, so for the majority of titles that are a single disc there would be no clue available if they were actually "virtual inventory".

There are also inventory items that do show up in search but look like they should be "dead". For instance, searching on "Wolfgang" will bring up an item (#20620) "Wolfgang Petersen Collection 4-Pack". This is obviously an entry from their data source that should have been split into separate rentals and then removed. If there are only a few like this it could easily just be overlooked glitches, but again shows why I said just under 9000 discs was "best case".

WAREHOUSES

Starflix claims "3 distribution centers" in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver . The return envelopes I got had the address "150-766 Cliveden Place, Delta, BC". A quick Google shows this is the Vancouver location of Video One, a large DVD wholesaler. If Starflix has some arrangement with Video One this would explain how they've started out with multiple shipping points (including the "two more forthcoming" they mention in the email). They specifically deny that these are merely shipping speedup and return points (which is a perfectly valid method used by ZIP, VHQ and MoviesForMe), but I don't know how they are actually working the system. My discs had a label around the inner spindle hole reading "Starflix.com", a number (such as 11479) that I took to be an inventory number, and a barcode. I don't know if Video One has any sort of existing infrastructure for warehousing discs (perhaps for small video stores or something) they have extended to Starflix.

The envelopes I got had no postmark, so I can't tell if they shipped from Montreal or Vancouver. It would seem hard to believe that they are duplicating their complete inventory in 3 (or 5) locations so that most shipments come from there, but they could be doing things like shipping new releases, or pre-positioning titles in advance based on customer queue, instead of or in addition to using them as mail point/return spots. Obviously there must be some speed benefit to whatever the setup is, but given their inventory claims one could wish for more information. Interestingly, I only got two of the three discs one day, and the other the next. It was probably just a delay in Canada Post, but the missing one was "Fahrenheit 9/11", a new release that would be the most likely of the three to ship from a regional warehouse instead of Montreal HQ if they are doing it this way. Since I see very little time difference in shipments from Ontario and Vancouver, it wouldn't be out of the question for two from Montreal to arrive before one from Vancouver. Unfortunately, the preprinted postage authorization (like ZIP's) often seems to bypass the postmarking process, so I wasn't able to tell.

OTHER

- they sent the three movies at the top of my queue ("Fahrenheit 9/11", "Elizabeth", "Betty Blue"). A good sign even though you can't judge from a single shipment (my only Starflix correspondent had the opposite experience and got stuff from the bottom of their list).

- Even if their inventory situation was clear, their pricing is higher than the other major companies (3/$25 instead of 4/$25). I can't see any unique features to offset the higher price. [As of August 2005 they have altered their pricing plans to more closely match the industry standards]

- their envelopes are an apparently identical (blue) version of the old ones ZIP used until this fall, with the peel-off adhesive. Presumably they went to the same envelope supplier that ZIP started with.

- a lot of their titles don't have the actor/director information filled in, so doing advanced searching on these fields may not bring up some titles they do have. Also, the "Quick Find" available on all pages does a keyword search, and searches through the movie's descriptive write-up, which can bring up large numbers of results if you search term is too common. Try the title search from the "Advanced Search" link if in doubt.