Retailers   //   August 18, 2021

Concession stands are going digital

To speed up lines and aid in social distancing efforts, theaters and sports teams are increasingly investing in digital ordering technology.

Last year, the coronavirus accelerated growth in restaurant mobile app ordering. Sports stadiums and movie theaters didn’t have the same experience, as many of them were shut down or operating at partial capacity throughout the pandemic. But, they got to work developing food ordering apps, whether in-house or through a technology partner, and are starting to test out these apps for the first time this year. The space, however, is nascent, and app providers are still trying to figure out how to get sports fans and movie attendees accustomed to mobile ordering.

Last month, the Major League Baseball team the Miami Marlins partnered with app ordering and delivery platform Cheq to provide order ahead services to fans this season, and order to seat capability the following season.

“I think professional sports teams have all recognized that this is an issue, that [fans] don’t like to go to the ballpark and wait around for a long time to get their food,” said Cheq CEO Thomas Lapham.

Cheq is centered in Florida and has clients in both events and restaurants and offers on-premise ordering and ordering in advance. Rather than pitching every sports stadium across America, explained Lapham, the team is focused on growing region-by-region, across a wide variety of formats.

“We think the solution is to let fans come into the stadium and order with an app that they’re already used to using, that they already know the purpose of,” said Lapham.

While on-premise event concession ordering isn’t a new idea — apps tailored to sports games, for example, have been bubbling up since 2010 — 2020 provided a unique use case for social distancing. Last year, teams started to take “mobile ordering a lot more seriously,” explained Carson Goodale, chief strategy officer at mobile ordering app FanFood, which works primarily with minor league, college-level and high school sports teams like University North Carolina or the minor leage baseball team The Tennessee Smokies.

“The value proposition changed from providing [solely] enhancing this guest experience to a focus around like health, complying with CDC, how are we supporting social distancing [and] contactless payments,” said Goodale. “It’s [no longer] just nice to have.”

Movie theaters, too, have invested in digital ordering services, while integrating them into their own pre-existing apps.

At the end of 2019, Cinemark dipped its toes into digital ordering for the first time with a mobile ordering test run at ten theaters, said Phillip Couch, Cinemark evp of food and beverage.

However, pandemic social distancing regulations led to temporary closures of the majority of the chains’ locations and put a new pressure on developing Covid-safe digital solutions. Subsequently, the Cinemark team launched Snacks In a Tap, the company’s mobile pickup and delivery to seat functionality in late 2020 in anticipation of movie goers returning to theaters in 2021.

While event providers are getting on board, consumers are still more likely to order in person. At Marlins’ concessions stands, 20% of orders are mobile Cheq orders, while at Cinemark, only “a small percentage” of concessions orders are app based. Couch decline to share exact percentages.

One issue with concessions and mobile ordering, explained Couch, is that a lot of it is impulse-driven. For example, a moviegoer might not decide to order popcorn until they are hit with smells of buttery popcorn when they walk by the concession stand.

Still, Couch is excited by potential growth in the space. Data from ordering ahead could ultimately cut down on supply costs and, thus far, consumers ordering to their theater seats are spending more than customers buying their concessions in line, at point-of-service.

Lapham claims that at the Marlins’ stadium, Cheq orders are three times faster to fulfill than traditional orders. FanFood’s Goodale added that, as stadiums move from beer and brats to more premium goods, the model will continue to grow and consumers will start planning their in-stadium snacks ahead of time.

“The next wave, over three to five years is when people [will] start planning a little bit better… getting all their items ahead of time,” said Goodale. “That [will] allow single venue operators to be a little bit more predictive with inventory that they plan for and the staffing levels that they will actually need to operate these events.”