Ask LH: Are Cinema Food Pricing Practices Illegal?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m a fan of seeing movies at the cinemas. I know the food is very expensive but what annoys me at one chain is that they have package deals and “add-ons” but no individual pricing for specific items. I know supermarkets are expected to display unit pricing, but at the cinema there is no way to work out if you’re being overcharged. Is this legal? Thanks, Budget Film Fan

Popcorn picture from Shutterstock

Dear BFF,

You don’t need unit pricing to work out if you’re being overcharged at the movies. It’s cinema food — of course you’re being overcharged! But to answer your question, a cinema chain has zero obligation to display specific pricing information to customers.

Back in 2009, the ACCC introduced compulsory unit pricing in a bid to make comparison shopping easier for consumers. However, the law only applies to large supermarkets and online food stores. Cinemas are not required to provide unit pricing or to price items individually. In other words, they’re free to push combo deals to maximise profits and can basically charge whatever they like.

That said, most cinemas will happily sell you individual food items outside of the advertised combos. If you just want a single popcorn or choc top, all you need to do is ask. Just be aware that you’re not going to save much money by avoiding the combo. Cinemas are notorious for overcharging on individual food items — it’s one of the reasons they keep this information off the price board. (If we charged upwards to $10 for a single popcorn, we’d be embarrassed about it too!)

In any event, unit pricing isn’t really necessary to work out the best food prices: the bigger option is nearly always more cost-effective. This is especially true at the cinema where a small popcorn is typically only slightly cheaper than the jumbo bucket-sized version. As with most fast food, the pricing model is geared towards gluttony: either your wallet or your health is going to take a hit.

Alternatively, you can always bring your own snacks with you. Most cinemas in Australia are surprisingly relaxed about this practice. While attempts have been made to prohibit outside food, the public outcry usually sees the ban lifted before too long. In my experience, nearly every cinema will turn a blind eye to it, regardless of their policy. As long as you’re not too blatant about it you can usually smuggle in anything you like.


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