Mind Your Ps & Qs: Points to ponder for prime performance

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Snack Corner

We have all heard the phrase “Mind your Ps and Qs.” Most people interpret the Ps and Qs as minding your manners. Some English reference texts define this as “Don’t forget your Please and Thank Qs (you).” My favorite comes from the pubs; bartenders would tell patrons drinking too much ale to “mind their pints and quarts,” in reference to managing their consumption. In this era of exploitation of adult beverages in cinemas, this might be the best reference in today’s environment.

The military advertises the 5 Ps—Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance—and many businesses have adopted the same alliteration when training managers. For theatre owners and concession managers adjusting to the new age of patrons, there could be the 4 P management option—Product, Pricing, Promotions and Placement. These four Ps are now more significant than ever before. As the landscape of theatre foodservice offerings evolve, these four Ps (along with matching Qs) will define the experience in cinemas.

Product: Does the product that is presented for consumption, food and beverage alike, meet the needs of the guest? Does the product fit the experience? The theatre industry for years has described the film on the screen as “product.” In today’s theatre practice, guests will be asking: What products do you serve? To clarify, what is the menu? You must understand the demographics that visit your theatre. As the recliner revolution continues, there is an expectation to also digest unique products and varied tastes when attending the film presentation. As much as popcorn, candy and carbonated beverages may still be the preferred product of the masses, the new influx of patrons will be looking for new products to sample, engage and test.

Quality products and ingredients will become the defining point in the competitive nature of cinemas. Theatre circuits that have entered the food and beverage concentration and veered away from concessions are now competing with local eateries. The quality of food and beverage in the theatre must outshine all other outlets. The irony of this process is that for 100 years theatres have owned the market of popcorn and sodas, with confections as a side item. Theatre operators are leaving a market they ruled—concessions—to compete with every restaurant in the neighborhood. The product they serve had better be the best that the theatre patron consumes in any other dining experience.

Pricing: Will pricing strategies change in the relative future? Will fast-casual style foodservice in theatres compete with local restaurants? Will snack items such as popcorn, candy and sodas be reduced in portion sizes to shrink the pricing schedule in this category so not to appear over-the-top versus a cheeseburger? If a cheeseburger is $8 on the menu, can a theatre owner charge $8 for a tub of popcorn and still get the same sales mix?

Questions: What are the dilemmas the next generation of theatre owners face in price structure? A restaurant typically offers one size beverage; will the arrival of in-theatre dining create a “one size fits all” concept for theatre menus? With the onslaught of healthier options, will there be a movement to reduce the salt content in items like popcorn, or will calorie description result in less sugary items on the menu?

Promotions have always driven the concession operations. Theatre owners have consistently offered the latest in confections, a variety of sizes, and promoted the value proposition of combos, jumbo tubs or free refills. Can the theatre manager promote the same with beer, free refills? With the arrival of full-service menus, can there be a place for prix fixe concepts such as an appetizer, an entree and dessert all for one price?

Quantity: Will the number of promotions decline? Since manufacturers have often used the cinema channel as a sampling device for the retail markets they enjoy, it is possible there will be a decline in promotional activities, reducing the numbers of marketing tests and samplings which have been dominant in theatres over competitive channels in the past.

Placement of the workstations and points of sale have become an integral part of management plans. The launch of fresh menu items will also cause a change in lobby spaces, restrooms and corridor access. Where does the kitchen space function best? Will the kitchen now become the center of the construction priority? Will dining areas replace lobbies? What is the right place for egress and ingress for servers? Will loading docks and receiving zones be confined or expanded? All of these questions need addressing as the transition rolls forward. Placement of the preparation areas should be fluent and allow for easy access by both the guest and the employees.

Quickly: One of the longtime challenges of movie theatres has been transaction times and speed of service. It seems that the current cinema guest no longer worries about transaction times if the food is delivered to the seat. As reserved seating becomes more a part of the movie ritual, guests are allowed more time for staples and snacks. Can the latest trend of foodservice change the pattern of service times and allow for a more leisurely dining experience?

These complicated Ps and Qs give the cinema foodservice manager a lot to consider. It will be important to determine the merits and strengths of this new set of Ps. Will the Qs weaken the profitability of the once-productive concession stand? Can the opportunities the Ps bring outweigh the challenges the Qs present? Will the balancing of Ps and Qs reduce the danger of moviegoers staying at home? These all advance the theory that maintaining marginal growth in theatre ticket sales involves penetrating prospective properties that previously were ignored. Will Pizzas, Pretzels and Pickles be replaced with Quesadillas, Quiche, Quail Eggs and Queso Dip?

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