“Me”-llennials: Is It Their Turn?

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Snack Corner

The cinema industry has taken multiple steps in the name of innovation. Adult beverages and high-end food options with expanded offerings are playing a major role in the effort to modernize. Millennials, that demographic group that everyone is attempting to attract, are now the center of attention; they might even be called the “Me” generation of buyers. Millennials are generally defined as those between the ages of 19 and 35. Nielsen surveys show that the group between the ages of 25 and 30 comprises the second-highest spenders at the concession stand, based on their available discretionary income not being eaten away way by babies and mortgages. Therefore, this group gets a lot of attention from the retail strategist.

Chasing Millennials and attempting to understand their buying habits is a big concern. Researchers state that “Millennials spend so much time with their head in electronic devices” that their senses need extended exposure to elevate their comparative cravings. In simple terms, Millennials don’t use their sensory perceptions like “baby boomers” as often; therefore, when it comes to initiating purchasing decisions, the concessionaire must use considerable more effort in visual images, presentations, vibrant signage, aromas and sounds. Millennials want more distinguished flavors, stronger palettes of color and a certain uniqueness that represents them versus the status quo.

Hashid Hashemi, chief executive of iPic Theaters, stated in Vanity Fair that “people’s expectations have grown so much, and all operations are trying to reach those expectations and exceed them.”  Has this led to pricey foodservice, and a less distraction-free visit to the movie auditorium? Have theatre owners forgotten their core business? Could it be that the cinema industry is abandoning two core elements in the name of growth and innovation: patrons under the age of 21, and the practice of “snacking” while watching Hollywood’s finest? Hashemi goes on to note, accurately, that “some people like Holiday Inns, some want a Marriott and others a Ritz-Carlton.” But try to translate that to a ten-year old. What is the real attraction to the concession stand at the movie theatre? Speed of service? Convenience? Entertainment that fits the experience? Or is it getting something no one else has?

It has been written that “what you eat is an extension of your personality.” What many are finding is that “baby boomers” are quite different than the generations following them. Each generation wants to define themselves as distinctive, separate from the previous age group. It is the same with food choices. In the ’60s, it was the vogue to have Swanson TV dinners in the freeze;, today, Millennials order food online through Blue Apron and have fresh food delivered to the front door. Similarly in cinemas: Astro Pops and 100 Grand bars gave way to Reese’s Pieces and now fruit-and-cheese plates and wine bars.

We have reported on new innovations in candy, sodas and gourmet popcorn. Now the media reports on resident mixologists, executive chefs and dining room managers as the next generation of administrators in theatre lobbies. This new type of personnel is redefining what is expected of a concession/hospitality employee.

The largest percentage of theatre patrons are under 21 years old—non-Ritz-Carlton, non-alcoholic, non-fruit and-cheese. While the industry is focused on Millennials, those that have their focus (typically 14 plus hours per day) on tech toys and assets, do they represent the future of cinema concessions? How we “entertain” this set of buyers in the theatre is the ultimate question.

Circuits such as Alamo Drafthouse, Studio Movie Grill and Movie Tavern have led the way with a different approach to the “eating experience” at a theatre. These types of facilities have met the Millennials’ requirements with more choices. Millennials do not want to be boxed in by singular fixings, they do not care if there are multiple sizes, but they do want multiple choices. Example: Coffee is no longer a pleasant alternative to sodas; espressos and lattes are good, but iced coffees, chai tea and organic green tea are important to their selection process. For the concessionaire this presents a massive challenge: more equipment, more preparation space, higher utility cost and additional skilled personnel.

Next, these facilities represent a more relaxed (laid-back) type of experience. Millennials are much less formal than their parents: Jeans and t-shirts, recycled vessels, and flavored waters versus carbonated beverages meet their wants. It is important to offer the amenities that fit those criteria if you want their allegiance.

The third aspect these kinds of facilities offer is a sense of “their” own auditorium, meaning the demographics in the building are similar to their own style of living. Big-box cinemas offer a variety of film product and all types of age groups mingle and mix throughout the lobbies in addition to the food and beverage service areas. Millennials prefer to “hang out” with groups their age and with their tendencies.

All theatre owners may not be able to completely meet these needs in a singular fashion. It may be necessary to differentiate one theatre from another, hence creating various brands under the same company ownership. Independent cinema owners will be less likely to accomplish this feat. Larger circuits are discovering that these new challenges don’t produce the same profitability models. This is what the Millennials are bringing forward, forcing exhibitors to compete for their discretionary time and their discretionary income. Theatre owners now find they are competing within the parameters of their own culture based on the foodservice offerings and concession requests of Millennials.

The “It’s about me” Millennials understand the competitive nature of our business. They are better versed in ingredients, nutritional value, portion sizes and cost of production than any generation before them. Their capabilities to research resources allow them to discern their options. Ultimately, they are saying: If you want my business in the theatre, do it my way!

Larry Etter is senior VP at Malco Theatres and director of education at the National Association of Concessionaires.