The pleasures of retro: "The good ones always come back around..."


I recently took my daughters to the new Footloose movie. While they were very excited to see it, so was I. This movie was a big hit when I was in high school, and the music is forever in my memory. But would they like it? Would it resonate with them? The answer was an astounding yes, and the remake stayed true to the original. I asked myself: Does this qualify as “retro”?

Retro means many different things to people, based more on generational perceptions than anything else. For example, Pop Rocks candy. I consider this a throwback to my childhood—retro for me, but absolutely meaningless to my parents. But mention the idea of kettle corn, and my parents get this look in their eyes of a lovely memory. So why do we constantly look back, in addition to forward, and does retro really work, specifically at the theatre concession stand?

Recently, I have noticed just as many candy and snack items from an older era as new ones. This is true in both theatres and retail stores. One big snack item that comes to mind is cotton candy. You may not consider this retro, but there was a time when cotton candy was about the sweetest item you could find, and it was very prolific at fairgrounds and carnivals, and sometimes appeared as a crossover item in the cinema industry. Today it is being sold very successfully all over the country in cinemas, primarily in pre-packaged form. It’s a very simple product, and fits the bill as a cross between snack and candy. It’s something that has been around for a long, long time that is experiencing a rebirth as an item that hasn’t lost its touch. With pre-packaging, it is more easily offered in cinemas and is introducing a new generation to a product that can be enjoyed simply and easily in a quiet environment, without a huge cone for presentation. I would say that makes it a successful crossover between generations.

Another snack that I would consider retro is kettle corn. This is a throwback to the lightly sugared popcorn that would be made on-site also at carnivals and fairs and sometimes in theatres. The recipe can be tweaked to go all out for a full caramel corn that is more chewy than crunchy, but they are both sweet popcorn flavors, very different from the U.S. preference for salty, buttery popcorn. Kettle corn carries a retro look and feel and is usually marketed as such to attract the older generations and entice the new to try it. Nostalgia plays into this equation, as people are often drawn to the things that they remember from their youth. It doesn’t mean the product is any different, it just comes back around. It seems like the really good stuff always does. Just when you think the hula hoop has been replaced by newer, cooler toys, you see a child enjoying its simplicity.

The candy category is also in this game, in a big way. The re-emergence of retro candies in retail stores has sparked some new items at the concession stand, particularly since they are being sold in “theatre boxes” in retail outlets. Yes, it is a strange, circular relationship. But the visibility of Clark Bars and Mary Jane stands out, as well as the old taffy products that used to be so popular and are making a comeback. It appears to be a trend of smaller suppliers who are buying up “lost” brands that were at some point in the past bought by larger, consolidated candy companies. They are in turn reviving the brands.

From a concession stand viewpoint, introducing more items always involves a mathematical equation for category management and market-to-strike ratios. But with the changing format of the theatre lobby, and more space to work with, having more items, including retro items, is an appealing way to make changes in the candy category that have a wider reason than just product rotation. Giving the consumer the ability to find products that appeal to the 35-50 and 50-65 age groups gives them that extra reason to spend the night out at the theatre.

I always relate back to the experience; it is a recurring theme in my column. Retro items at the concession stand help reinforce the idea that the theatre is a place to experience socialization with fellow neighbors, and strangers, not just watch a film. That is the underlying idea of the café, the restaurant, the bar. Selling retro items at the concession stand is just another great way to connect with consumers of all ages, and make the theatre experience a fun one. It works because consumers are always walking in the door looking and thinking: “What have you done for me lately?” Giving them a throwback to a feeling from their youth, or a connection to their parents’ youth, is a great way to connect with them.

E-mail your comments to Anita Watts at