How much did VHS tapes cost in the 80s?

Last Updated on May 11, 2023 by Dave Farquhar

How much did VHS tapes cost in the 1980s? How much did VHS movies cost? A lot more than they should, at least in the case of pre-recorded movies. The concept of VHS tapes can be hard to wrap your mind around if you didn’t grow up in that era. And companies had a hard time for a while figuring out how to price them. So the first VHS tapes were surprisingly expensive in the 1970s and into the 1980s.

How much blank VHS tapes cost in the 1980s

blank vhs tapes
A surprising amount of effort went into the design of blank VHS tapes’ packaging to help them sell and keep them from looking generic. Even blank tapes cost several dollars each in the 1980s. Adjusted for inflation, the cost was close to that of a modern Blu-Ray release.

In the 1986 Sears catalog, name-brand blank VHS tapes cost $8.99. If you bought them in quantity, they cost $6.99 each. That works out to $23 for a single, and $18 in quantity when you adjust for inflation in 2022 dollars.

That was the cost for blanks, which you would use to record television over the air, or, if you had a second VCR or could borrow one, to copy commercial tapes. A VHS tape could hold about two hours of video.

The price seems absurd compared to a modern subscription to a streaming service, where for around that price every month you can watch whatever you want.

It’s also fairly close to the price of a pre-recorded movie on Blu-ray when you buy one at retail.

The price did come down slightly over the course of the decade, and they did eventually become available at big-box discount stores. But that was a convenience thing as much as it was a price deflator.

How much VHS movies cost in the 1980s

how much did VHS tapes cost in the 80s
In the 1980s, consumers rented movies, frequently from independent video shops like this one at 2817 Cherokee Street in St. Louis that were common in small towns and cities alike. This building, pictured in 1988, is now a Mexican restaurant. Photo credit: John Margolies

Knowing that a Blu-ray costs 15 to $25 at retail today, it surprises people when they hear what a VHS edition of a hit movie cost in the 1980s.

A first run popular movie on VHS sold for around $80 or 90 in the 1980s. That is $230 in today’s money.

The main reason pre-recorded VHS movies were so expensive was because they generally did not get sold directly to consumers. Instead, rental stores bought them and then rented them to consumers.

How movie rental worked

Eventually there were national chains like Blockbuster Video that rented movies, but initially they tended to be small, independently run video shops owned by someone who lived in the community they were in. They rented tapes, but early on, they’d even rent you a VCR too, if you didn’t have one. Some had side businesses repairing VCRs as well, and most of them expanded into renting video game cartridges.

Later, grocery stores got into the rental business, sectioning off part of the store for a selection of movies which customers could rent.

It worked kind of like a library. You would get a membership card, and you would pick out a movie, pay a few dollars, and keep it for a period of time, often a couple of nights. Renting a movie on a Friday night became a popular pastime.

How much did it cost to rent a VHS tape?

The rental price varied depending on how long you kept the movie, and how new the movie was. $5 for a 3-day rental was fairly typical, but some stores charged less for a shorter period of time, or for older movies.

Since a store could rent the movie out about 100 times a year, the studios felt no guilt whatsoever about charging $80 for the privilege. In theory a shop could turn a $430 profit on each VHS tape it bought to rent out.

The movie production houses never really liked the rental model. They assumed every time someone rented a movie, they copied it. So even though the rental business gave them a chance to make money on films after their run in theaters, they saw each rental as a lost sale.

But the price was part of the problem. It was pretty clear that $80 was too high to sell to consumers. They would just copy any movie that they wanted to watch again, whether that meant copying a rental, or recording it off TV. It was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Budget releases

Even in the mid-1980s, there were cheaper pre-recorded VHS tapes available. The 1986 Sears catalog had a selection of pre-recorded tapes priced at $15. They were generally instructional videos or sports themed videos. Over time, the number of movies available at price points below $80 increased, but it took a while. Generally, anything available for under $20 was priced that way for a reason. Especially early on.

What caused VHS movie prices to drop

How much did VHS tapes cost in the 80s
In the 1980s, VHS tapes were surprisingly expensive because they didn’t generally sell straight to consumers. That started to change in 1987.

In 1987, Top Gun sold for $27, which was the lowest price ever for a major Hollywood hit. It set records, and proved that selling at the lower price point was profitable because movies sold in much higher volumes.

In 1988, Steven Spielberg’s movie E.T. followed at a price of $24.95, with a coupon available to lower the price to $19.95. This proved even more successful.

This is what led to the studios figuring out that they could charge slightly more than the cost of a blank tape, and people would buy them for the benefit of having a higher quality copy in nice looking packaging that they could watch as many times as they wanted, at least until it wore out. And if they did wear the movie out, they might buy another one. As tapes became reasonably affordable, people started buying VHS copies of their favorite movies and building up personal collections of legally purchased tapes.

Copying became more rare, but didn’t completely go away.

How much did VHS tapes cost in the 90s?

In the 1990s, VHS tapes generally followed the pricing model of the late 80s, with new releases of popular movies selling for around $20 or $25, and budget titles for less, sometimes closer to $10. Budget titles in the 90s were sometimes straight-to-VHS releases that never appeared in theaters, but frequently they were older movies that had run their course at full price but still had some commercial viability.

This pricing model held for much of the decade, though studios still worried about piracy.

The studios loved the DVD model because it was easier to put anti-copying mechanisms on digital technology. So they could sell at a lower price without fearing someone was buying the movie cheaply and then making copies for all of their friends. So that’s why DVDs and Blu Rays sell for very close to what blank VHS tapes cost in the 80s.

The cost of VHS movies in the 80s is one reason I think VHS tapes are an underrated collectible. But Gen Xers are more nostalgic for their video games than for movies, at least for now.

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