Something unique, please… Offering treats the customer can’t get at home


The key to keeping the customer coming to the theatre is the experience we offer. This starts with the movie. We need product to bring in the audience and that is always abundantly clear. But even the product itself has healthy competition from the many delivery vehicles available to studios today. As exhibition and supply companies, we must compete with these other venues and offer an experience that is much greater than just the film.

This is the reason for the increasing numbers of cafés, bars, restaurants and lounges in cinema complexes. We need to offer a social environment that entices the customer out of the comfort of the home. At the concession stand we can also get in the battle by offering items that are not easily found nor easily reproduced at home. We need something unique.

We have our tried-and-true products, popcorn and soda. But if you look closely at these items, even these have their unique qualities. We cannot easily replicate fountain soda at home—no, the fountain machines all the rage at Christmas are not that great. We also cannot pop popcorn in fabulous kettles with coconut oil. So while these products seem old mainstays, and they are, they have unique features that have kept their customer base loyal.

Unique items must be ever-present at the concession stand, even if they are on a rotation schedule. Being able to buy the same products at the theatre that you can buy at any retail outlet does not set us apart. It does not give the customer a chance to experience something that they cannot replicate at home. It does not set us apart as a cutting-edge, trending environment that supports all the marketing programs that are placed at the theatre.

Promotional items as well as permanent ones must be offered to the customer as a surprise addition to the typical fare. To find these items, and try them, you must network, attend trade shows, and listen to your manufacturers when they have something new to present. We recently reviewed technology in the theatres as it relates to product and the uniqueness of some of those items; think frozen vodka ice cubes at the National Restaurant Association show. More recently, the National Association of Concessionaires held their annual convention and there were several unique items highlighted there.

Starting off this list would be fresh caramel and cheese popcorn. You can buy versions of these products off the shelf, but not hot and freshly made, which is almost impossible to do at home. The change-up of the popcorn item to include this kind of preparation is exactly what sets a theatre apart from home. A few other items were Brownie Brittle and the Waffle Cabin. Brownie Brittle is a hard-crusted brownie top that has the look and feel of brittle. The Waffle Cabin makes a fresh, hot Belgian waffle. It started at ski resorts and is now crossing over into other customer-centric venues. There were many other interesting items such as different jerky products and frozen treats that continue to push the envelope for what you might find at a theatre. This is a big reason why you attend trade shows: to witness new ideas and think about how they could have applications for your business.

It all comes back to value and what the customer gets for their money at the theatre. If the customer feels like a premium is being paid for a non-premium item, then the experience is lessened. Yes, customers like to know that brand-name companies are competing for their business, that brand-name companies are offering up their products to experience. But they are not expecting the products to be the exactly the same as what they buy in the grocery store and served in the same manner, with nothing more than a premium price because we have a captive audience. This is the current problem with candy sales and the availability of theatre box candy at retail outlets. It has been available for some time and we have reviewed this in the past. The problem has not been solved, and it truly highlights the need to deliver better value. We must do more.

We do have a captive audience, and policies that bar outside food or drinks. But an unhappy captive audience can and will deny a purchase or break the rules. If we deliver the value to them they expect and deserve, these issues go away. Offering an experience that delivers unique value that only a theatre can wrap together is what pushes this industry to succeed and grow when there are so many other media venues competing for customer attention. The cafés and bars that create an experience that make customers want to go to the theatre are all about uniqueness. The same uniqueness and value must be applied to the products themselves in order to keep that most important profit margin from food and beverage alive and well.

Send your comments to Anita Watts at