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The Early Bird Special Isn't Just for Retirees

Jason Notte

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) — Go ahead, make your tired little joke about retirees in socks and sandals lining up for early dinners. They'll be laughing for entirely different reasons.

The early bird special, early movie matinees and other off-peak discounts commonly associated with very specific, wizened U.S. demographics didn't get that way because activities directors in Florida and Arizona retirement homes made them so. They're embraced because after a few decades on this planet you start to realize something: You're not impressing anyone by queuing up, waiting for hours and spending more on the same product you could enjoy in the peace of a half-empty room a few hours earlier.

There are now entire segments of the food and entertainment industries built around this exact premise, even if it doesn't pry all that many customers off of their 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. dinner reservations. Those who weren't budged by the LivingSocial and Groupon flash deals of the mid-2000s that tried to make the most of lulls in restaurant demand are now the targets of apps designed specifically to fill seats at a discount during off hours. Groupon, for example, acquired the Savored app back in 2012 to offer restaurants a means of drawing customers with discounts during low-demand hours.

The subject of a lengthy New York Times profile, Savored gives users a discount of between 15% and 30% off their bill during off-peak hours and applies that savings directly to the check, sparing customers the need to whip out a smartphone or, worse, a printed coupon.

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Back in 2011, Savored launched a partnership with OpenTable that knocked $30 off the price of their meal for a $10 reservation fee. Though the two companies ended that relationship after the Groupon buyout -- and OpenTable was subsequently taken over by Priceline -- OpenTable kept offering incentives for early dinner reservations as part of its 1,000 Points Club. Groupon, meanwhile, held on to Savored, but integrated some of its elements into its Groupon Reserve dinner reservation service.

While competing such as like the Leloca and Froogal apps offer discounts on early dining and unfilled tables with as little as 45 minutes notice, even restaurants are starting to reward their frugal customers. The Wall Street Journal noted back in June that the owners of Chicago's Michelin-star restaurant Alinea and its sister restaurant Next offer discounted meals at off hours. A Wednesday dinner at Next at 5:30 p.m. goes for $130, for example, while that same meal on a Friday at 7:30 p.m. goes for $195. "It's no different than going to a matinee," a restaurant partner told the WSJ.

Which brings us to the movie matinee. Since the peak of the past recession in 2009, the number of movie tickets sold in the U.S. dropped from 1.41 billion to 1.34 billion last year. That's not only way down from the 1.57 billion tickets sold during the movie industry's best year in 2002, but it's roughly on par with the number of tickets sold in 1996. Since 2009, however, the average price of a movie ticket just kept rising, to $8.15 this year from $7.50. That's tough to swallow, especially when the 1.33 billion tickets sold in 1999 went for an average of $4.42 apiece.

In today's moviegoing U.S., however, $8.15 just might be the matinee price in a major city where tickets on a Friday or Saturday night go for $15 even without 3-D or IMAX. That's been a boon for big theater chains including AMC and Cinemark that still offer matinee pricing. In New York City, hitting an AMC theater before noon is just about your best chance of getting a movie ticket for less than $10 bucks without being a senior citizen. At some locations, that price dips as low as $8.

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As AMC and movie studios are finding out, however, there are big patches of their potential audience that are more than willing to wait for films to go into a second run or to leave theaters entirely. Entire chains including the McMenamins chain of theaters, brewpubs, restaurants and hotels in the Pacific Northwest are built on riding out Hollywood and packing theaters with fans who will sit back for three months until Godzilla or the latest X-Men film plays in their second-run facilities for $3.

For frugal consumers, it's just another step away from the cool kids. Airlines, hotels and wireless services have rewarded customers for their frugality and off-peak patronage for years, while unapologetically taking piles of cash for those who want to fly, stay and talk when everyone else does. Disney Parks in the U.S. go to great lengths to pull in customers during their off-peak months and offer huge discounts for a theme park chain that draws a fan base the size of a large nation. Even Uber riders avoid the car service app's dreaded “surge pricing” by scheduling around rush hours.

The early bird special may be embraced by seniors, but only because they had enough experience to acknowledge its value. Consumers who don't want to pay a premium to be popular should heed their example.

— Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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