In early May, "The Avengers" broke the $1 billion mark at the box office. That's a lot of money generated by what is essentially a long length of plastic with pictures of guys wearing funny outfits on it. For economists, the success of the comic book-based movie was not surprising; the billion-dollar hit could very well have been predicted with reasonable accuracy.
Movies did great business during the Great Depression. So much so that economists who studied the industry in the following years took to calling it the Shirley Temple effect (which I wrote about in August 2010). The child actress was one of the biggest stars of the Depression Era. Inevitably playing the little girl with lots of pluck and unflagging optimism, Temple struck a chord with Americans and raised the spirits of those who were tempted to believe the difficult financial times just might be permanent.
What this proves, more or less, is that people will find money to spend on entertainment even during the toughest economic times. They need and crave that temporary respite from their day-to-day problems, and movies serve that purpose. Granted, the action of "The Avengers" is a long ways from Shirley Temple's tap dance numbers, but the principle is the same.
This is good news for bulk vending operators. For an industry that is largely supported by the low-cost impulse purchase, it should come as some comfort to know that people will almost always make small, spirit-lifting purchases. Small luxuries become even more important once the larger ones move out of economic reach. The trick is finding a product that strikes a chord, but unfortunately there is no formula that can precisely gauge consumer appeal and commercial success.
One aspect of the Depression-era movie business that bulk vending operators can emulate is the delivery system. Part of the allure of those movies was the gargantuan palaces constructed to show them. I would guess that those enormous theaters with their over-the-top architecture and gaudy furnishings were part of the attraction. For a nickel, you could step into a world approximating luxury and modernity, at least for a little while.
One good thing you can say about the movie industry is that it always knew how to package its products. The same cannot be said of bulk vending. When times get tough, many vending operators tend to cut back on what they consider the "little things." Over the past few years, there has been a trend toward keeping display cards in machines long past their primes. Display cards that are warped due to age or bleached from overexposure to sunlight (inside machines themselves that look weathered) do nothing to tempt consumers looking to have their spirits lifted.
There is no hard data that definitively prove that clean, well-kept machines with new crisp display cards sell more products. However, strong anecdotal evidence would suggest that very well might be the case. No doubt, this is tough stuff in a tough economy. For operators who may have seen their sales drop over the past few years, pushing more money at a problem instinctively seemed futile. The smart thing, according to some pundits, is to hunker down, cut corners and wait for the good times to arrive. The only question that remains: Will these same operators be around once the good times start to roll once again?