retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

I was reading a piece in Variety this week that, while it was talking about the movie business, actually taught a pretty good lesson about bricks-and-mortar retailing and what such businesses have to do to compete with their online brethren. The story focused on director/producer J.J. Abrams, who has shown a real talent for infusing new life into existing franchises, as he did with Star Trek and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and it essentially talked about the debate over whether firs

Here's how Variety framed the story:

J.J. Abrams loves movies, and he can make a passionate case for seeing them in the theater. But he does not love watching them at a particular theater in his wife’s hometown in Maine.

“There is a theater chain that I’m convinced hates movies,” he told a dinner audience at the Milken Institute Global Conference on Monday night. “You go there. They’re angry with you. It’s cold. There’s no music. The lights go out when the movie starts — there’s no ceremony. It’s the most uncomfortable seats… You’re convinced there’s something in front of the projector. Meanwhile, most people in that audience have better TVs at home than the image you’re seeing.”

His point was that theater chains should not be surprised if moviegoers would rather stay home. In making those remarks, he was wading into a thorny debate about collapsing theatrical windows and allowing moviegoers the chance to pay a premium for home viewing of first-run films.

“I understand the economic realities of it, and it’s tough,” he said. “At the same time, if they don’t make it worth people’s time, you better not call people to the theater and give them that kind of experience.”


Theater owners who fight tooth and nail against shortening the gap that separates theatrical release of a film and home viewing availability, or even simultaneous release of movies to theaters and homes, need to understand that some of them have done this to themselves. You can't offer expensive (and sometimes stale) snack food, broken armrests on seats, barely cursory customer service by staffers who don't seem to give a damn, and lousy, dirty bathrooms and wonder why people would rather stay home.

To be fair, there are theater owners who have tried to improve the experience. I have a feeling that the guy who owns the theater in Maine that he hates so much may also own the one in my town, which I've attended exactly once, because the seats are so uncomfortable that I ended up with both a headache and a stiff neck. I'll drive past this one a bunch of mediocre theaters to go to the AMC complex that is more than a half-dozen towns away and across the state line, just because they have digital projection, a couple of Imax screens, and stadium seating ... but even there, the bathrooms often are in some level of disrepair.

I'm okay spending $12 on a movie ticket. For a good movie, that is a cheap investment in a couple of hours of entertainment. But when the rest of the experience is barely mediocre, my resolve gets tested. (And they don't want to lose me. I may be older than the target movie demographic, but I see dozens of movies every year, which makes me a very good customer. On the other hand, I always sneak in my own Twizzlers, so they're probably not that thrilled with me.)

The movie theater serves as a good and Eye-Opening metaphor for bricks-and-mortar retail, I think. If the experience isn't a good one, if the service is lousy and the bathrooms aren't clean and it makes one wonder whether the company even likes being in the retail business or has any appreciation for the products they sell, then retailers shouldn't be surprised if customers decide to stay home and shop on their computers.
KC's View: