The Unsecret Shopper Goes Shopping: Des Moines Movie Theaters
Thomas Edison's brightest idea was the light bulb - it lights up stuff, and junk.
His worst, not very arguably, was the one that led to Valentine's Day, Bounty Hunter, The Tooth Fairy and When In Rome...and that's just this year! We've still got six frightening months to slog through Prince Of Persia, The A-Team, Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D, sappy fall releases, the standard blizzard of holiday flicks…
Yet in spite of Cop Out, Clash Of The Titans in 3-D, and the preceding century of cinematic miscues, Edison's Projectoscope, which was the forerunner of today’s movie theater projector, has allowed a truly American art form to persevere and prosper.
We see a lot of art.
So far in 2010, as of this moment that my head roars like the MGM lion, we've purchased 481,764,677 tickets to 147 studio releases totaling $3,830,029,164 (avg ticket price, $7.50), according to The Numbers film industry site, Wikipedia and me counting on my fingers.
That doesn't include thousands of underground, independent, performance art and backyard Flip to DVD to You tube uber-crap flicks that will thankfully fly under our movie radar.
Yet for those we do see, at the places we see them, movie going, like all other consumer transactions, is retail - we buy something from someone. That means it also requires some level of customer service.
That requires a cameo appearance - say hello to your little friend, The Unsecret Shopper.
The ticket window host takes our ticket money - do they smile at us? The concession worker takes our popcorn money - do they ask an open or closed ended question? The ticket-taker takes our ticket to get in - do they smile, greet, engage and thank? The biggest, burliest staff member takes our Italian Hoagie with onions and jalapenos we snuck in, that stopped being sneaky 37 seconds after we peeled the foil off - do they at least say, "gotta take it, dude - nice sandwich, though.”
We go to the movies to escape and have a good time. If we have a less than good time before we get to the good time, is our good time, less good? If we run a gauntlet of unsmiling, unfriendly, monosyllabic theater staff on our way to paying $179 for $1.79 worth of food, THEN suffer through the 93 minute banality of Furry Vengeance alongside a dozen sugar and salt-hyped up nine year-olds, should we, like Rhett Butler, not give a darn?
With the Summer Movie Blockbuster season heating up along with Central Iowa temps, it seems like the perfect time to head for the air-conditioned confines of theater lobbies around Des Moines and ask that question - in the form of this week's Secret Shopper review.
Nine Des Moines area movie theaters were visited on a single Tuesday (discount day, for an Unsecret Shopper on a budget) including Wynnsong, Cobblestone, Century, Fleur, Southridge, Copper Creek, Varsity, Merle Hay Mall and Nova Cinemas.
The process was simple - purchase a movie ticket, visit the concession stand, have ticket taken, go watch any movie in progress for 30 seconds, leave, go to next theater-plex.
Thus not only will you get a secret shopper review of how well theater employees engaged between the box office and the big screen, you'll also receive, at no additional blogging charge, a review of a half-minute of first-run celluloid - call it The Unsecret Shopper's Joined In Progress Movie Review.
I think I'm on to something.
On to our ratings system:
Each theater will be given one overall score, based upon greeting, level of interaction by employees and bathroom cleanliness.
How did your favorite theater do? Grab your Skittles and small soda, and let's go catch a flick.
2:48pm, Wynnsong 16, 5233 NW 84th Street, Johnston
I started at the theater closest to where I live (which likely dictates where you do a majority of your movie going).
Taylor, an employee who was coming out of the theater, gave me a quick smile as she passed on her way to her car. Nice job, way to start it out (W)right.
Jess, from behind the box office glass, said a very pleasant but smile-free "hello" as I perused the cinematic offerings.
I finally chose Iron Man 2, which turned out to be stupid since it cost two more dollars than the non-IM2 matinée I'd pay for at Cobblestone and because I'd just paid two dollars extra for a movie I was going to watch 1/1,000,000,000 of - and I don't want to end a sentence in a preposition, so here's some unnecessary additional extra words I'll type right now, for you to look at. Poop!
The greeting at the snack bar was a familiar "hello," uttered by a familiar face, Jess. I soon saw why, as Taylor entered a door to the left of the concession, carrying what looked like a Burger King "to go" bag. She'd gone out for lunch. Nothing wrong with that - a person's got to eat and after you've had popcorn for lunch for the 145th time, your stomach probably welcomes less roughage.
Just a quick thought - employees may want to think about putting any food they bring in from the outside, inside a coat or something that conceals it, so patrons in line don't feel that tinge of envy that comes from knowing an employee is about to eat a double cheeseburger and fries while the patron eats Twizzlers.
This is a very good time to go back to the initial greeting of "hello," that was given by every ticket seller I encountered during the day.
There's nothing wrong with it. But there's nothing great about that greeting either, nothing inspiring - and inspire is what every other element of our movie-going experience is designed to do.
I'm not picking on Jess, or any other employee at any other theater I visited. I'm trying to get the attention of theater managers and owners in Des Moines, who spend a lot of money to get our business.
Think about it - we are welcomed as theater goers by huge, expensive marquis bathed in flashing lights, heralding that location's offerings, augmented by colorful (and very collectible) posters and the wonderfully odoriferous odor of freshly popped popcorn wafting through the air.
The theaters themselves are art galleries in a sense, designed to showcase the latest creation by Ridley Scott or John Favreau, assailing our senses with ginormous 1,000 watt speakers through which 130+ decibels of dialog, sound effects and music is pumped, in sync with images on floor to ceiling screens bathed in 100,000 lumens of light, blasted through 30 frames per second of larger than life action, creating a one-of-a-kind, shared experience that busts our funny bone, breaks our heart, challenges our beliefs and, most important, beckons us, lying back in our cushy reclining seats, to not simply view it, but to follow it, become lost inside it, be absorbed and transformed by it.
For that, we get "hello" and "would you like to try a combo meal?"
For two hours, we leave the inside of our own head - what other activity can you think of that allows you to do that, for that long, other than a trip to the circus, an NFL game, or something not discussed in a G rated blog?
You don't see the MC at a Ringling Brothers show, welcoming patrons with "Hello," and then putting down the mic. I'm just saying...
Instead, why don't theater managers and owners insist that the actual face-to-face human part of our theater-going experience, try to match the engagement of everything else built around it? Why not a "Welcome to ________, my name is __________, what show would you like to see today?" or "We've got the top ten movies in the country, all under one roof - which one would you like to be entertained by this afternoon?" Why not dress employees in mini-top hats, tails and white gloves (made of inexpensive materials) to welcome us to this movie gala, this premiere, this event? Why not put on a show, before the show ever starts?
Think all of that is over the top, audacious, grandiose? Exactly - that's what a movie is.
Back to Earth, and the review.
The men's bathroom was immaculate, academy award-winning - great job, staff!
As for the Joined In Progress movie review, I joined an in-progress trailer for the animated Mega Mind in 3D, which was just wrapping up but stayed up long enough to announce it was hitting theaters November 5th.
The irony of a movie called "Mega-Mind" being released three days after mid-term elections was likely lost on the young audience.
3:02PM Cobblestone 9, 8501 Hickman Road, Urbandale
Brandt greeted with a polite "hello" and, after I chose a movie, asked if I'd like to donate a dollar to the Children's Hospital. I love the charitable connection, although I thought I saw "University of Iowa Hospitals" on the marketing card and wondered if a local hospital could also benefit from a program like that.
The young man behind the concession counter said, without affect, "Hi. Would you like to try one of our combos today?" But when I asked him his name, Lam, the Hoover High graduate, came to life, with a smile that lit up the snack bar.
Share that smile with patrons, Lam. You won't run out - I promise. :)
The bathroom was clean enough but could have used a pass with a mop and a little picking up.
One word about the overall layout of Cobblestone - it blows. It's so confusing they have a map of where each movie is located throughout the crooked maze of hallways. It's nobody's fault, it just is - just give yourself a few extra minutes to find your flick.
I could have used an extra 60, because by then, Letters to Juliet would have been over. Instead I pretended that it was and went instead to Just Wright, a film that appeared to be about me, an old fat white dude who can't play the piano.
Instead it was about a young slim black dude, an actor named Common and, apparently, nothing else, who can play the piano, which is what Queen Latifah was listening to as she carried what looked like a ham on a platter down a hallway, trying to locate the source of the sweet jazz piano playing.
She did - he stopped.
"Ohhh...why'd you stop?"
"Because I suck," said Common the un-sucky pianist. "I just picked this thing back up a few months ago."
Considering his expert level of ivory-tickling, perhaps Common was thinking uncommonly in dog time, where "a few months" = "ten human years."
3:34PM Century 20, Jordan Creek Parkway, West Des Moines
Annie, alone behind the large ticket counter, said "Hi" while I was still a bit far away to hear it, and wore an almost imperceptible grin as I approached, pleasantly taking my money and handing me a ticket, with a “Thank you” and “Enjoy the show.” Very nice – now do that smile thing a lot bigger next time I'm in and you’ll be a rock star, plus it’ll be worth $25, as part of The Smile Project.
MacGruber cost $6.50, which was confusing because I thought matinee prices at Century ended after 1:30, which I've given them a lot of grief about, in print and on the air. It was a nice surprise.
The nicer surprise, and the best greeting of the day came next, from Eddie, who was stationed to the right and just past the ticket counter, as you walk into the Century's expansive entryway.
"Welcome to Century Theaters! (Takes ticket) This will be down on your right side...have a great day!"
Bingo! A greeting worthy of MaGruber!
Michael, at the snack bar, also didn't disappoint - "What can I get for you?"
Big greeting, open-ended question - Michael, Eddie, you two rock!
This was a real change from the last time I visited The Century, four months ago.
Back in February, on a weekend matinée visit, there'd been no engagement, no greeting, no acknowledgement at all from employees - it was so bad that I'd complained to the manager.
I'm no Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, but I think I can see customer service training for this staff in my mind, in the subsequent 120 days since that poor outing. That's my best guess, as to what's created such a dramatic turnaround in staff attitude and attentiveness since earlier in the year - from the pleasant Annie, the wonderful Michael and especially the fantastic Eddie with his big smile and warm greeting. At one point I thought he was going to reach out and shake my hand, he was so nice.
Awesome job, all the way around!
The bathroom was clean.
MacGruber was Joined In Progress yet didn’t disappoint, as SNL cast member Kristen Wiig could be heard playing the piano poorly (Can you hear that, Common? That's "sucking.") and singing worse, until MacGruber (played by SNL’er Will Forte) entered the room.
Wiig: "McGruber! I thought you were dead!"
Forte: "So did I. But I'm not."
Note to self: need to see the other 10,238, 14-second snippets, back to back.
4:17PM, Fleur Cinema And Cafe, 4545 Fleur Drive, Des Moines
This is where I see most movies - it's the most unique theater in Des Moines, offering the most original cinema in town. Admittedly, I kind of expected a higher level, "one of the regulars" treatment from their employees, who have the same hip, edgy vibe as the artsy fartsy movie house.
“Hello” said Arthur, unsmilingly.
There was my regular greeting.
What followed was a computer glitch that didn’t allow Arthur, or Jennifer and Robert, who joined in the troubleshooting, to ring me up and spit out a ticket.
While they were collectively trying to figure it out, all their attentions focused on the problem, reasonably enough, I finally put down $4, not knowing what it would cost.
Arthur glanced down at the cash, looked down at it like I’d just put a dead rat on the counter, and said, "It's six." Sort of like, duh, stupid, don't you know our prices?
A quick note - when an employee(s) has a technical problem, they should never take it out on a patron, and should also be attentive to that patron, even while they're attending to the problem. A computer is a problem. A customer is a pleasure.
Jennifer, now at the snack bar, pleasantly repeated Arthur's greeting at the ticket counter, but also without a smile - "hello." Again, this is a higher caliber of theater and deserves a higher caliber of greeting and engagement for its customers, from its employees. "Hello" isn't wrong, it's just not as right as it could be.
The bathroom was spotless.
No movies were showing at that point. I walked into a theater, stared at the dark screen and recalled the dark images of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which would soon be illuminating the screen and which I’d already seen in its entirety. It's a disturbing, engrossing Swedish film with English subtitles, that you won't notice after the first thirty seconds, it's that good - highly recommended.
4:40PM, Carmike Southridge 12, 6720 S.E. 14th Street, Des Moines
Even though I was hoping Ryan might deviate from the by now familiar ticket counter greeting standard "Hello" with, "How-doo!" it wasn't to be.
Stormi, at the concession counter, skipped the salutation altogether and blew right into, "Wouldyouliketotryacombotodayrtpwgqrzxgbnmy...” I recognized the opening eight words of her song lyrics because I'd heard it sung everywhere (except inside Target) but missed the remaining auctioneer-paced uttering.
Stormi - who finally slowed down enough to tell me she went to Lincoln High, needs to bring down her cadence to half-speed, and increase by 100% the number of times she uses that incredibly radiant smile of hers, which she flashed at me, once I engaged her.
Bathroom was okay – just a bit of debris on the floor.
Deciding I had to bite una de bulletio, I ventured into Letters To Juliet, where Amanda Seyfried was being told that "Juliet" was really a dozen Italian women, by an Italian woman whose rapid-fire broken English was 1000 times more incomprehensible than what had been said at the snack bar, and who needed to hire whoever supplied the English subtitles for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
5:30PM, The Copper Creek Cinema, 1325 Copper Creek Drive, Pleasant Hill
Nick greeted with a bored "hello," exchanged a ticket for money, then walked over to the snack bar to wait on me, while two people sat in a side room, at a card table, one on a phone and another flipping through a magazine, immediately seen as you came into the building.
I guessed they were employees, and it felt sort of weird - why did they have the door wide open, so any patron who came by could easily see them, sitting back and kicking it? It wasn't like they were getting rushed by customers, so hey, don't get up; it's just me, an Unscret Shopper, secret shopping the place.
No problems in the bathroom – it was clean.
Ironically, I stumbled upon what is probably the funniest, and most memorable, 27 seconds of Date Night, where Tina Fey is taking Steve Carrell to an apartment where an ex of hers resides, in hopes that he can help get them out of whatever hilarious madcap comic hi-jinx they've gotten themselves into...on this night.
The ex is the ripped and shirtless Mark Wahlberg.
Steve: "It's amazing that of the hundreds of clients you have, that you remember where this one client lives."
Tina: "Well you know me - I never forget a name or a face..."
(Door opens, on cue - to reveal the shirtless, hunk-ful former lead "singer" of Marky Mark And The Funky Bunch - "Come on, Come on! Feel it, Feel it!")
Mark: “Claire Foster!”
Tina: “I'm flashing back to all those empty houses we used to visit...”
I needed to visit what appeared to be the employee break room, to see if Nick had joined the others.
Yep, there he was, hangin with his homies.
It's a bad idea to do nothing at work when you don't have anything to do. The better idea is to do something, even if it's something you'd rather not be doing - because, let's face it, there's probably not many tasks at a movie theater that can pass the litmus test of "I want to do this."
So if you have to do things anyway in order to get paid, go find other things you'll either have to do eventually, that you've already done but could be done better, or use your imagination and make stuff up. Either way of any of those ways, that will help ensure you keep getting paid and don't get replaced by people who know how the game is played, and play it, or by robots, who could care less.
7:23PM, Varsity Theater, University Avenue, Des Moines
More Italian, more subtitles, but this time, combined into one snippet, a trailer for Mid-August Lunch.
The real story came 10 minutes before, as I entered to the smiles and warm greetings of Greg and Denise Mahon, the brother-sister team who, along with other family members, own and run The Varsity Theater.
As they greeted me so warmly, I decided to come clean, telling them I was secret shopping all the theaters in Des Moines for a piece in the New York Times. Then I really came clean and said it was for some dumb blog. Greg immediately warmed to the subject and we began talking about the importance of customer service and how it seems to be a lost art in all categories of retail.
I then broached what felt like a sensitive topic.
"I have to admit that I had some trepidation about coming in here," I told Greg. "In the past, the man at the ticket counter and the woman at the snack bar weren't terribly pleasant, or engaging."
I said this with some knowledge of the history of The Varsity, and some recollection that someone associated with it had recently died and that the two people standing in front of me were likely related.
They were - Greg and Denise Mahon are the children of Bev Mahon, who passed away in 2009 after having owned and run the theater with his family for over 30 years.
Instead of tossing me out on my head onto 25th Street street, Greg smiled.
"It was probably my dad," said Greg. "I used to watch my father wait on patrons, and he'd only say "who's next?' I pointed this out to him." Greg also thought I could have been referencing another employee.
We continued talking, the three of us, having the most wonderful conversation, until Greg asked if I had been on the radio - it turns out that he's heard The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show on Saturday mornings, on KRNT.
I can die happy. I have met my listener.
Greg is soon to be a guest on the show, to talk about how his family's business has managed to persevere and prosper, in the shadows of the corporate-owned theaters that surround The Varsity.
I'm guessing he'll tell me that their survival, in large part, has been due to creating a loyal customer base, by offering an eclectic lineup of movies, a very inexpensive and expansive concession selection and most important, by being kind, friendly and courteous to patrons - exactly how they treated me that night.
Thank you, Greg and Denise, very much. Your father must be so proud of you.
7:55PM, Nova 10 Cinemas, 4353 Merle Hay Road, Des Moines
I pushed on the right side front door - it was locked. I moved to the left, and pushed on that door - same thing, locked. I insanely moved back over to the right, apparently expecting the door to suddenly slip open, a golden light appearing from inside the theater which, like a tractor beam, would pick me up and gently carry me through the theater door into a soft chair in the darkened Cineplex...where metal cuffs would clamp down on my wrists and wires would pry open my eyelids, forcing me to watch Letters To Juliet in its entirety - played at half-speed.
Thankfully, it, instead, remained locked.
I stepped back and looked at the theater times.
There were several films that started at 7:30 - with the 15-20 minutes of trailers that normally accompany movies, that means I still wouldn't have missed much, if any, of those flicks.
Why in the world were the doors locked?
I glanced in through the glass - into a barren lobby. There was nobody, anywhere.
Were they closed closed?
It wouldn't be the first time. Haymarket Theaters, as I recall, used to be there, before they shut down. It seemed to be a tough location, which explained Nova's lower than average ticket and concession prices
I stepped back again. Sure enough, there were two "Closed" signs on each of the doors.
This had to mean that the place was literally shut down, as in, out of business...right? Because no reasonable theater owner would shut and lock their doors 25 minutes after the start of the last movie, then hang uber-rude "CLOSED" signs...would they?
Yet as I turned towards the parking lot, the scene seemed to suggest they would. I counted a dozen cars parked in nearby spaces.
I left, dazed, confused and miffed.
The Scooby Doo mystery, "The Case Of The Haunted Closed Theaters," remains that; a mystery - and it would have remained a mystery, if it weren't for you meddling kids.
I'll dig deeper and get back to you, in Friday's post. Meantime, all I can say is that if Nova isn't closed for real, then that's terrible customer service all the way around and they need to address it immediately, or else those "Closed" signs will become permanent.
8:15, Merle Hay Mall Cinema, 3800 Merle Hay Road, Des Moines
Because I mis-timed my visits to the two theaters on Merle Hay Road, I was nearly an hour late to the one evening showing, at 7:15, of Shrek Forever After, and so, reasonably enough, there were no employees as I entered the MHM Cinema, save for one, who was likely a manager, sitting back in a side room. I didn't want to bother him or have him make a fuss, so I quietly walked back out. My bad - I will secret shop this theater, which I have not been to in a long time but that others have told me is one of the nicest in Des Moines, at another time.
0-2 on the last two - I went out with a whimper.
Nearly five hours after I'd started, it was over. Nine theaters, seven "hello" ticket counter greetings, three "would you like to try a combo" snack bar interactions. two closed signs, and two smiles that came from the Century and The Varsity, the theaters I thought would be least likely to give smiles going in, and two that could not be more different - one mega corporate owned, one family owned.
Yet both demonstrate the power of good training, and good people.
I also think this "Day In Cinema" shows us a few other things.
First, local theaters in general have a lot of opportunity to improve their customer service - if "hello" is the best you can do, then there's room to grow.
Second, if that's all the better employees can do, then do not complain when the entire system becomes automated and you're out of work - something that's already happening in select theaters in major cities.
Third, all of us - employees, managers, owners and especially theatergoers, should expect more, and ask for it. I love it when I see a customer - typically someone older than me - turn to a monosyllabic, unresponsive employee and say, "ya know, you could be friendlier." Of course, we can all be - patron and employee alike. But it has to start at the point of purchase, and in the case of the theaters, with the person giving the ticket. You have the power to set the tone for the moviegoer, so use it. Smile, greet, engage and thank - the four pillars of customer service are as true in the movie biz as in the car biz, or grocery biz, or any other biz.
Last, while box office movie receipts took a dramatic upturn in 2009, and 2010 has been robust (Avatar’s made a few bucks) the movie-going industry as a whole, continues to slide, as the DVD rental and Video On Demand industry, experiences record growth.
In the end, there's nothing like going to see a movie - it's one of the most compelling, most thought-provoking, most thrilling experiences we can have.
So to our young, local theater employees, remember this - while we usually arrive a bit early to purchase our ticket, buy our favorite snacks and find a good seat, please don't make us wait for the movie, to start the show. You're part of it, too - and it's showtime.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am on 1350 KRNT. Email Jonnie at firstname.lastname@example.org.