A longtime industry professional recently reminded me that "Even when times are tough, people need entertainment." She was referencing the Shirley Temple effect. It isn't every movie star that has a business trend named after them, but Shirley Temple was not just any movie star. She was all the rage in the 1930s, more popular than William Powell, Carole Lombard and Joan Crawford. However, it wasn't Temple's box office popularity alone that made her significant.
It was during the Great Depression that audiences flocked by the millions to Temple's movies. One of the highest-grossing stars of the day, with films like "Curly Top," "Dimples" and "The Little Colonel," she is often credited with single-handedly keeping the newly formed 20th-Century Fox studio solvent through those bleak years. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "It is a splendid thing that for just 15¢ an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles."
What is interesting about Shirley Temple's unparalleled success is that the films were written specifically for the young star. Movies then, as now, were not recession (or Depression proof). The general public still wanted reasonably priced entertainment, but it wanted a very specific kind of entertainment. They very much wanted to see cuteness, a few tap dancing numbers and youthful optimism melt the heart of some curmudgeon. And somehow they dug down and came up with the 15¢ to see it.
Bulk vending and the movie business are two industries that have traditionally been locked into set price points. It doesn't matter whether a movie cost $20 million or $100 million to create, audiences generally pay the same price.
The lessons of the Shirley Temple effect are fairly straightforward, but nowhere near as broad as most businesspeople often assume. Highly profitable markets are still out there and the general public is willing to pay for inexpensive entertainment in the worst of economic times, but that's only half the equation. The second half is just as important and far more complex: Give the people what they want.
There lies the challenge for bulk vending. Consumers really don't know what they want until they see it. For those in the movie business, reading the public has always been an easy matter. During the Shirley Temple era, the studios owned and operated many of the theaters. Executives knew within a day or two if a film was a flop or a hit. Today, they know within a few hours.
On the other hand, it could take weeks before a bulk vendor knows if a product is selling or not. And with so few operators conducting product testing in select locations, it could be a month or more before suppliers receive credible and actionable feedback from the field.
Solving this problem isn't easy. Bulk operators need to be more responsive to consumer attitudes. It means increased testing, better communication with suppliers and improved tracking of sales. These are the types of efficiencies that can echo throughout the entire industry. For many operators, it may also mean a complete overhaul of the way they do business. But as Shirley Temple proved, the rewards are well worth it.