Enjoy sitting in the> movie theater with a snack and soda brought from home? Too bad because theaters feeling the pinch of the recession are trying to lock you into pricey concession-stand fare, from egg rolls to hot dogs made with Black Angus sirloin.
Last week, AMC Entertainment banned outside food and drinks. Previously, the chain had permitted guests to openly enter its theaters with such snacks. (AMC did not respond to a request for comment on how it plans to enforce the new policy, or what punishment offenders face, though a spokesman says the company is looking to add new items to theater menus.) Regal Entertainment Group and Cinemark also prohibit snacks purchased elsewhere.
Owners have good reason to push customers to the concession stand. Of each dollar spent there, roughly 85 cents is profit, says Warren Miller, a senior equity analyst for Morningstar who tracks the theater chains. Any time someone brings in outside food, that hurts their bottom line, he says. The more they enforce a no-outside-food policy, the better they ll be from a financial perspective. And unlike raising ticket prices, it s a change that s unlikely to keep consumers from coming into theaters.
For moviegoers, saving on snacks doesn t require going without -- or buying a bigger bag in which to sneak them in. (The latter isn t without risk. The major chains have policies reserving the right to inspect the contents of your bag before allowing you entry.) Here s how to pay less for your popcorn:
Join the loyalty club
On weekdays, when traffic is slower, theater chains seek to bring you in with loyalty programs. They re free to join and offer gratis and reduced-price snacks. Regal Crown Club members get $1 candy on Mondays and $1 popcorn on Tuesdays, while AMC sends MovieWatchers members coupons for free small popcorn with any fountain-drink purchase during a midweek visit. Both clubs also award points with every theater visit, earning you coupons for free drinks, popcorn and movie tickets. (Those you can use on a weekend visit.)
Pick your movies carefully
Theaters are well aware that for many people, a bucket of popcorn completes the movie-watching experience, says Wesley Hartmann, associate professor of marketing at Stanford University, who has studied factors that influence concession sales. People are more apt to buy when they re particularly excited about a film, are attending with a large group or watching a family-friendly feature. Keep that in mind when you re deciding which, and how many, flicks to see in theaters, vs. waiting for the DVD.
Buy a secondhand gift card
Movie theater gift cards can also be used at the concession stand, and you don t have to pay full price. At PlasticJungle.com, a $25 Regal Entertainment card goes for $22.50, a 10% discount. There s also a big market on eBay (EBAY),
Consider bulk vouchers
AMC sells 50-packs of Show Snacks vouchers at $3 per voucher, each good for a small drink or small popcorn (regularly $3.75 and $4.75, respectively). Cinemark offers similar 50-packs of Concession Savers vouchers at $6 apiece, good for both a small drink and small popcorn. The good news: The vouchers don t expire. The bad news: You might lose them or forget about them.
Many chains, including AMC and Regal, offer a free refill on the biggest sizes. So if you go with a bunch of friends, order the largest sizes and keep refilling. Also, the combination of a large soda and popcorn often can be cheaper than buying those items individually, Miller says.
Cut your ticket price
You might still have to swallow $5 for a bucket of popcorn, but you can at least save on the price of your movie ticket. Matinee pricing typically cuts ticket prices in half, while warehouse clubs like Costco sell a five-pack of Cinemark tickets (worth $57.50) for $45, a 22% discount. (For more strategies, click here