Movie-goers at the Marcus Theatre in Sturtevant, Wis., are met with an expansive lobby that overflows with elegance - a grand piano anchors the scene, dim mood lighting hangs from the ceiling in a multi-circle design and plush furniture dots the landscape.
But after they get their tickets to the show and pass through the old-fashioned lobby, they reach a concession stand notable for its slew of new concepts. Cotton candy hangs on a stand on the counter, the confections are displayed on impulse-like racks in front of the traditional glass candy case and White Castle hamburgers are on the menu.
Although popcorn and soda - which account for more than half of vending sales for Marcus Theatres - are the traditional money makers for theater chains, owners are starting to see how much potential profit there is in other items.
Movie goers have had a long love affair with holding a box of candy while watching the latest films.
“Everybody knows that movie theater candy is better than any other candy,” notes Jim Janssen, a district director for the chain.
Bob Menefee, Marcus Theaters Cooperation’s vice president of advertising, marketing, concession, says candy makes up about 10 to 15% of his chains’ vending sales - a figure that’s been modestly growing over the last few years.
Tastes have also evolved though. Former favorites such as Snow Caps and Good and Plenty don’t have the draw that they used too, having been edged out by candies such as Skittles and Sour Patch Kids, which, are among their top sellers. Some traditional movie treats such as Twizzlers still hold their own though and also are among the top 10 sellers as well.
Menefee explains that the famous movie theater boxes for treats are based partly on the fact that movie-goers usually want to share their candy, and bite-sized pieces make that easier. At the same time, traditional candy bars tend to be coated with something that melts very quickly. Also, many patrons like to mix their candy with their popcorn, and the smaller pieces are more conducive to that.
As for the package itself, Menefee says it’s intentional as well.
“The larger size, that was all about separation from the retail grocer,” he explains. “There was a way to separate ourselves [and] there was also a way to check carry-ins... and we were also able to increase the average sales transaction by selling a larger item.”
Even so, Janssen admits that candy haven’t always been in the spotlight.
“Our highest profit item is popcorn,” he explains. “As a theater manager, that’s where I put the focus, on popcorn and soda.”
But now, the chain’s most recent innovation is anchored in the idea of selling more candy.
“Grab and Go!”
The Milwaukee, Wis.-based theater chain - which operates nearly 700 screens at locations in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, North Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska - most recently started testing “Grab and Go” concepts at 16 sites.
They rolled it out in November after noticing the trend at other theater locations, Menefee says.
Some, like the one in Sturtevant, Wis., feature floor racks, which come out from the counter and have rows of candy ready for customers to grab before they get up to the attendant to make a purchase. Others have “Grab and Go” racks right on top of the counter.
Menefee said initial reports indicate that the concepts are working.
“It’s that impulse,” he explains. “See it. Touch it. Oops, I think I better buy it.”
And, the concept doesn’t end with candy. Other locations feature refrigerated display cases with water, juices and energy drinks, while still others have an ice cream dispenser installed in front of the vending stand.
Although the company doesn’t have all the data yet, Menefee did note that the counter candy racks haven’t been as successful as the stand-alone racks that pop out.
“When you get to the counter, having stood in line for a few minutes, you pretty well have decided what you’re going to get, and we have candy display cases right there that have the same items that are in the counter racks, so why do I reach to the counter rack when I can ask the attendant to get it for me?” Menefee explains.
He adds, “[With] the floor racks, people are encountering them before they get up to buy... so as they’re approaching, they’re taking a look and saying, ‘The Milk Duds. Ya I think we’re going to do that.’”
Janssen says the candy somehow looks more real when it’s out on the rack near the customers.
“There’s no question, at least in my mind, if I’m a patron, that’s there to sell,” he says of the candy racks. “Is that item in the candy case, is that there to sell? There’s that mental thing that they have to go through.”
Carolyn Cunningham, general manager for the Sturtevant location, said it’s also enticing for children.
“It comes out so far from the concession stand that kids are running up and they’re grabbing it,” she says. “The minute the kid grabs it, the parent says yes.”
So far, the only draw back to “Grab and Go” is that the current concession stands aren’t designed for it, Menefee says. For example, at the Sturtevant location, the racks block the glass cases of their top seller - popcorn.
“We think that’s kind of obtrusive,” he admits. “That’s not really pretty what we’re doing.”
He says it’s likely that if the concept takes off, the company would look to better incorporate it during remodels and new construction. One idea would be to take the space where the current glass candy display cases are and put an insert into that, which would come out 12 to 18 inches.
“[We’d] hope that that could be as effective as what we’re doing with the racks,” Menefee says.
When the concept first was introduced, he says owners and managers were concerned that it could lead to more theft.
“People just have pre-conceived notions... that we have to work through,” he says. “And in the case of shrink, we’re actually measuring that... and there’s no noticeable shrink.”
The foundational inspiration for the “Grab and Go” concepts seems to be the impulse lanes at grocers and C-Stores. Janssen says that they didn’t think to mimic impulse checkout sooner because they spend so much time thinking about popcorn.
“Everything is obvious after you do it,” he says. “It just never occurred to us for the longest time.”
Along those same lines, Menefee says movie theaters look at candy retailing different than a typical grocer or C-Store.
“I believe when people go to the grocery story, they go to buy groceries, and they pick up snacks,” he says. “When they come here, they’re looking for treats.”
One of those treats will always popcorn. Menefee says the company looks for kernels that expand a lot when they pop and taste great.
He adds that most of his chain’s locations don’t feature self-serve butter stations - a newer trend - because many movie-goers like customized popcorn with butter and salt in the middle. That’s only feasible when the concession stand workers do it.
Another salty snack that’s edging its way into the concession stand is the pretzel. At Marcus Theaters, Janssen said they tried to sell whole pretzels, but that didn’t take. So now, they sell pretzel bits, which like box candy, are easier to share and more fun to eat throughout a movie.
Other non-traditional items that have found their way on to the menu include White Castle hamburgers and Lavazza Coffee. At some Marcus Theatres, concessions stands even sell ice cream, which Cunningham says a lot of people order to-go after they watch the movie.
Cotton candy, which the chain introduced about six or seven years ago, also has been a big seller for the company, Menefee says. Now, it hangs on racks right on top of the counter, ready to sell.
“We let the customer speak to us,” he says. “They’re purchases are going to guide us, along with the supplier community.”
Although the list of the treats at the concession stand will never change as quickly as the list of current movies, the chain’s ability to keep up with new concepts will no doubt help Marcus Theatres stay just as relevant as the new releases.