Secret snackers: How should theatres deal with food smuggling?


The issue of smuggling food into theatres has come up many times in my conversations and travels over the past few months. Some of those travels were for trade shows, discussing what would sell, and some of those discussions were spurred by articles written in other publications about this subject. At the NAC theatre roundtable, we got into discussing the smuggling of candy into the theatre. We addressed the problem of price and product comparison in retail outlets now that theatre box candy is available everywhere. We started down the road of discussing the morality of smuggling, before we quickly headed back to safer territory of how to discourage it.

A recent article in HGTV magazine actually encouraged smuggling food into theatres, and justified the action based on high prices. NATO and NAC are aware of the article and have already made individual responses to the magazine. What’s interesting is that the article did dive into the subject of the morality of smuggling. So I thought we should look at both angles: the morality of food smuggling and the quest to stop it.

From the standpoint of an operator, it is easy to justify food and beverage prices in the theatre based on high labor costs, inventory and distribution costs, and management cost to provide fresh product within the environment of a theatre. I think one could make the argument very easily when all factors are included in the discussion, not just a side-by-side comparison of price to a retail outlet. However, this perception is just that to the consumer: perception. The consumer does not think about these factors when comparing prices. Theatre food prices seem high to many customers, and so they approach the subject within this perception. But this opens the door to the ethical question of smuggling: “I am being gouged…therefore I am justified to respond.”

When a business establishment puts rules in front of its patrons, some of them are considered unbreakable and others are not. This is not a foreign concept; most people have zero problem with speeding when they are in a hurry but would not consider driving through someone’s front yard as a shortcut. People make choices every day on what rules they feel are OK to break, some based on morality and some based on consequence. Without going too much deeper into psychology, let’s just look at some of the rules in the theatre. Rarely do people come in without shirts or shoes on, rarely do people try to sneak in with false tickets. They consider these actions unacceptable for the most part, both morally and consequentially.

But bringing in food in their purse or jacket to eat during the movie because the concession prices are too high? This is pretty acceptable, and does not cause anyone to lose sleep at night. They paid for their ticket, they paid to be there. “What’s the harm in bringing my own candy bar or bottle of water?” It’s like speeding: ‘I’m probably not going to get caught, especially at just five miles over the limit.” So the question/answer on the morality of this issue is that it is difficult to win it. We can argue, and I could do so personally, about why a business has the right to refuse to allow outside food or drink into an establishment that is serving them. But if you look at all the types of businesses which have this rule, very few of them have a structure in place to enforce it. Enforcement is costly and potentially damaging to the image of the business. So our solution is to find ways to lessen the desire to break the rule in the first place.

How do we stop food smuggling? First, we have to make our offerings attractive, reasonable, and maybe even irresistible. Fresh hot popcorn, ice-cold water and soda, just-prepared pizza, and candy that does not look exactly like the retail product are what we have to offer. All these things contribute to creating the impulse buy. They also take away some of the “guilt” that the customer has for paying what might be considered a “premium” price. Second, make sure we keep our prices reasonable and, more importantly, stable in relationship to the economy. Price does matter here. Finally, we could advertise what this theatre does for the community around it. I don’t see very much of this, but when I do I think it has an impact. Being an employer for the community and a place of activity and entertainment for the community are things that we can remind our customers of every now and then.

The other thing to consider in regard to stopping food smuggling is discounting and couponing, and that will be our topic for next month. Giving incentives in exchange for loyalty is a time-proven way to help rules be followed, especially the ones that are difficult to enforce. But to finish up on this month’s topic, food smuggling is not something that will go away for us; we operate movies in dark places which lend themselves to covert snacks. But we can encourage our customers to support what we do as an entire business and see the concessions as a large part of the operability of the theatre itself. This is where marketing comes into play and I think it’s something that we can do better. Explaining why we ask our patrons to respect our rules and purchase within our business can help them think twice about cheating us. And providing them with great food and beverage options at reasonable prices will reduce the desire to do so in the first place.

Send your comments to Anita Watts at