Christopher Campbell's The Moviegoer - In the Bag
by Christopher Campbell
April 2, 2009
A couple weeks ago, I declared in my last column that the most necessary improvement that needs to be made at movie theaters is customer service. So, occasionally with this column, when I'm not wavering in my feelings about digital 3D or sharing a positive experience with a specific cinema or movie, I'll be using this space to spotlight one of the many issues I have with the movie theater business as a customer service-based industry. This week's topic: pre-bagged popcorn. If this doesn't exactly seem like an important enough topic, let me elaborate, as there are a few reasons why this really is quite important.
During the week, if a theater has pre-popped enough corn to have surplus amounts in storage (likely in large clear garbage-size bags), they may choose not to pop fresh corn on a daily basis, but they may at least divvy up that old popcorn into small, medium and large bags (or buckets, etc.) and store those pre-bagged servings into a warm display case. This is an issue of laziness as much as it is an issue of efficiency, and therefore it primarily says to the customer, "your weekday patronage is not important enough to us to give you freshly made concessions, nor is it important enough that we're willing to put any effort whatsoever into working for you, whether that work be popping, cleaning or serving you the best that we can."
Additionally, it shows the moviegoer/customer that everyone employed at this theater is just there to serve their time, collect their paycheck and hopefully get off the clock as soon as they can. Often it is the concession worker who can't wait to punch out, but many times it is the management (and further up, the corporation), that wants to save money by relieving employees as quickly as possible (in some states, it's imperative to get the minors off the clock by a certain time). The best way to get them out early is by cutting out some of the clean-up time by keeping the poppers and warmers unused.
Of course, this means that the customers, upon whom movie theaters depend on to buy concessions (from which theaters get most of their profits), are given mediocre product at best and downright inedible product at worst. Stale, cold and relatively odorless, the popcorn given out in these pre-bagged servings is equivalent to selling a customer a pre-cupped soda that is flat, warm and watered-down from having its ice melted. Actually, pre-cupped sodas like this are also common these days, though more so on weekends, when theater chains have gotten into the practice of featuring pushcart concession sales within the auditorium.
As a former Manager of Concessions Operations at a major multiplex, I certainly understand the need to pre-bag popcorn in some circumstances. I've been there on a rainy weekend with a new animated film and have completely run out of popcorn. It's a terrible experience for an MCO, and it's definitely a terrible experience for the customers having to wait for more corn to be popped. In those times, it's necessary to have that surplus corn, but for quality and customer service sake, that pre-bagged corn should be mixed with new, fresh stuff whenever possible. Otherwise what is the point? For most popcorn lovers, no popcorn is better than stale popcorn, especially when you're craving that fresh-popped movie theater stuff. And at least if most of that corn is hot and fresh, we're not going to notice the mixed-in older kernels.
If too many customers get too much bad popcorn, chances are you'll eventually have moviegoers who settle for the "no popcorn" choice. Or, just as worse, they might bring in their own store-bought popcorn, which likely isn't any worse than the pre-bagged stuff you're peddling. Some theater owners may not mind, for this is why their concession stands continue to add more items, such as fried foods and Icees (which have coincidentally been added to my local Regal cinema since mentioning their appeal in my "cinema chain loyalty" column). But bad popcorn experiences aren't going to simply get your customers to choose different snack options. Rather, these displays of lazy and thoughtless service are going to get your customers to bypass the stand altogether (it's no wonder theater owners are worried about decreased concession sales despite recently celebrated box office boosts).
Not even the smell of burning popcorn shall permanently deter the concession customer like the practice of pre-bagging popcorn. With the former mistake, at least we can appreciate the theater's active employment of the popper, even if some individual worker has failed to properly attend to the machine. What we cannot stand for, however, is an entire theater or chain's disregard for customer satisfaction in apparent favor for its own collective negligence and stinginess.
Remember, theater owners, that you are in the popcorn business and the customer service business, and dependence on Hollywood for movies that will both bring us in and guarantee that we buy your concessions, is not very smart. So, while you're spending time kissing the studios' asses this week at ShoWest and gambling away all your earnings, consider the fact that you should at least try to appease us moviegoers more regularly, too. Because our patronage is not necessarily (ahem) in the bag.
Popcorn photo courtesy of estudiante on Flickr.