What has caused the demographic shift of Chuck E. Cheese customers over the past 10 years?
November 26, 2007 8:17 AM   Subscribe

What has caused the demographic shift of Chuck E. Cheese customers over the past 10 years?

I worked at Chuck E. Cheese for 3 years in the mid 1990s (best job ever), and was a regular Chuck E. Cheese attendee for many years before that. Because of my fondness for the place, I have been a regular attendee in the years since, too - from well before the time I had my own kids.

Since the time I worked at Chuck E. Cheese, I have noticed a shift in the customer demographic, from primarily white to primarily African American and Hispanic. The shift has occurred in each of the stores I have visited repeatedly over the years - the store I worked at in a predominately white suburb in the city I grew up, my new "home" store in a diverse neighborhood in the city I now live, and the store nearest my niece and nephew in a (different) predominately white suburb in the city I grew up in.

I cannot figure out why such a shift would occur: it seems to me that Chuck E. Cheese would appeal broadly to all ethnic groups and classes, and it has not changed significantly in the time since I've worked there. As best I can tell, their marketing has been consistent too - a handful of commercials and coupons in the Sunday newspaper. Prices have been pretty consistent. Games and rides aren't that different, though there was a conscious shift to "all games cost one token" a few years ago. Surrounding area demographics of the two suburban restaurants have changed little, too.

So what happened? Was it a little "white flight" microcosm, where the white parents stopped bringing their children when they felt a shift? Was it a change in marketing or consumer perception? Is there some other kiddie place that's come into play (Gymboree or the like)? Is there any literature out there or any sociological theories that would explain it?

[Disclaimer: I recognize that this may be a controversial premise, and that my own observation is just that. Please assume that my observation is accurate and accept it as plain observation and not judgment. I still have the same fondness about Chuck E. Cheese that I always have, and look forward to going there as much as my kids do, so please do not read this question in any way other than how it is written.]
posted by Duluth?! I Hardly Know Her! to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe the shifting demographic is due to the presence of home video game systems -- if the children have a video game system at home, parents are less likely to spend the money for them to play games at Chuck E. Cheese?
posted by parilous at 8:20 AM on November 26, 2007

I never set foot in a Chuck E. Cheese until my son was invited to a birthday party there a few months ago... he liked it so much we had his own party there and we've been back a few times just to play. The demographic seemed to be fairly representative of the local population. From what I've observed here in Charlotte, NC (a fairly diverse city) plenty of white people go to Chuck E. Cheese. So maybe it's something about your region?
posted by Daily Alice at 8:30 AM on November 26, 2007

Just a guess here, but perhaps in the past era of kidness, some parents are so preoccupied with the educational value of children's activities, that Chuck E. Cheese has gotten less popular.

And, more likely, bouncy houses seem to have gotten cheaper. I see them all the time now.

As a side note, Chuck E. Cheese has beer. This is why I think that my dad was so fond of taking us there.
posted by k8t at 8:34 AM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well the Hispanic population in the U.S. is rising very sharply (double since the mid 1990s), PLUS the construction boom was one of the big events of the decade and that would be a windfall for a lot of Hispanics. I suspect with that ethnic group becoming more upwardly mobile that the pizza parlors make a smart choice for "entry-level" eating out and letting the kids run around.

But as far as whether the demographics have really changed, I don't know.
posted by chips ahoy at 8:49 AM on November 26, 2007

This could be explained by the random drift of social groups from one trend to another. You've just zoomed in too far, and you're seeing what looks like a pattern.

Look at the big picture, and you'll see that every other trend, in every other area, is going through random demographic changes like this too.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:24 AM on November 26, 2007

The CEC's in the Minneapolis area seem to jibe with the demographics of the area, FWIW.

God help me if I ever have to set foot in one again though.
posted by unixrat at 9:26 AM on November 26, 2007

I was a total Chuckie Rat in my day, and to add to the not educational/we already bought them a 360/those brown people are taking over the place reasons that may all be contributing to this phenomenon (which I can corroborate) I'll suggest the "It makes them rowdy little demons I can't effectively discipline and Dr Phil has my back on this. Overstimulating." reason. It does just suck more now, too. Could be that.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:41 AM on November 26, 2007

I have to say, I have also noticed this shift, and I'll admit Parilous had a very interesting idea, and I'm inclined to think there's something there.

When I was a kid (MANY moons ago) only the "rich kids" had Atari, and by the time our house (Thanks to a windfall) late-acquired a ColecoVision, the graphics and game play couldn't keep up with full-on arcade games, so going to the arcade was a real treat. (dude! Sitting INSIDE a Pole Position with a REAL steering wheel? The kickass TRON game?) These days, all the kids whose parents can afford one have video game systems and the graphics and gameplay are often better than what you'll find in the arcade.

And I'll admit: I totally used to dig the music-playing animatronics. It was REAL. It was THERE. I'll throw a question out there for the folks replying to this one: Chuck E. Cheese has always been awesome, but did anyone else go to Major Magic's? Or was that strictly regional?
posted by indiebass at 9:45 AM on November 26, 2007

FWIW Duluth I saw the exact same demographic transition at my local Shakey's in Calumet City, Illinois. This was where we went to birthday parties and all sorts of gatherings (although it wasn't as kid focussed as Chuck E's, it was still very popular for groups of kids). I'm white, and I don't recall seeing very many black people there when I was a kid, but when I went back for my Spuds nostalgia feed in grad school, I was, literally, the only white person in the joint. Now, this shift is easily explained: Calumet City and the south Chicago 'burbs are one of the most extreme recent (1990s and later) examples of white flight in the US; Dolton, Illinois went from 0% African American in 1980 to nearly 90% today, and Cal City is now about 60% African American (it was similarly completely white when I was a kid, in Hammond Ind next door).
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:50 AM on November 26, 2007

Interesting observation! My pet theory, which combines several theories, would be that:

• Home video game systems make Chuck E. Cheese less appealing in comparison. The novelty CEC can offer is limited if you can play many fun games at home.
• There are other playpen-type businesses (to say nothing of Dave & Busters) which target more staunchly white, middle-class audiences. CEC may seem like the cheaper alternative, fairly or unfairly. (I don't go to any of those businesses, so I'm pulling this out of my nose.)
• At the very least, each business winds up self-selecting a certain crowd, and de facto segregation is still a very big deal in America. While I don't think it's necessarily a conscious decision on their part, I think white families may notice the demographic shift at CEC and then decide that that must be where "they" hang out, so they'll go to their "own" place.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:53 AM on November 26, 2007

When I lived in the States (late 90s-early 00s), the ones I saw were almost all in the more depressing sort of "ethnic" neighbourhood. I (who did not grow up anywhere near a Chuck E. Cheese) assumed their target audience was a rather downmarket demographic, likely recent immigrants without enough space or entertainments in their own home.

If they weren't always so badly located -- these were usually cheaply plonked down in the parking lot of an ugly strip mall -- but recent E. Cheese policy has been to move into such areas, there's your answer, maybe? Even if I'd seen one in a 'nice' area, I'd still think it downmarket thanks to the associations I'd already made.
posted by kmennie at 9:56 AM on November 26, 2007

I've heard there's a growing trend towards incredibly big, splashy birthday parties in white, suburban America these days. Chuck E. Cheese's may seem too low rent and pre-packaged to meet the creativity/expense requirements to keep up with the Joneses on that front.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:03 AM on November 26, 2007

Also, germs. I think they have sanitizer dispensers all over now, and the message that sends is not appealing to neurotic security moms.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:07 AM on November 26, 2007

There are more upscale versions of CEC now, even ones that are geared towards kids (and their parents). I can't think of the name but one here advertises wood-fired pizzas and is in richer suburb than the locations CEC is in.
posted by drezdn at 10:10 AM on November 26, 2007

I've been to it only once, for a birthday party, last year. The demographic inside reflected the demographic outside in terms of race/ethnicity. This was in a suburban mall, located in a community that's about 70% White, median housing = $500,000, median income = $130,000. The birthday party probably cost the parents somewhere around $500.

Since the birthday party, the munchkins have received subsequent invitations for playdates at Chuck E. Cheese, all of which had been issued by White parents with professional jobs, with undergraduate and beyond education.
posted by peachy at 10:23 AM on November 26, 2007

Honestly, I think it just jibes with the different population growth rates. Yeah, it may have something to do with what people can afford as far as home entertainment, but I couldn't say for sure.

Interestingly, I think you'll find that this trend in lots of similarly-themed places. There's a spot in Houston called Incredible Pizza that tracks the same.

When I went to such places back in the late-70s and early-80s, it was strictly because the kids (me) could run around, play video games, and do most of relatively unsupervised. Yes, we had Atari, but it was nothing like the arcade machines, which were quite big back then. Plus these style places were relatively new -- Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz, as I recall.

Honestly, the only thing that disappoints me today is that CEC doesn't have nearly as many arcade games as it once had. Well, arcades just aren't as they once were either. Ah well.

posted by tcv at 10:27 AM on November 26, 2007

CeC targets the low- to middle-income demographic with children from 2-12 years old. Depending on the evolving composition of your community, that may include many more recent immigrants of hispanic descent than it did ten years ago. I don't think it's a function of race, but of income and perhaps of culture. The availability of home game consoles probably plays a role. Also, communities with larger and more closely-knit families (larger households and extended family groups) are more likely to gather for meals / recreation / celebration in facilities like CeC. In short, I believe that CeC has always targeted the same demographic, but perhaps the racial composition of that demographic has shifted in the past decade. We're actually including a CeC in a school project we're doing right now (a retail development proposal) because our trade area matches their demographic so well.
posted by Chris4d at 10:44 AM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

IHOP and Denny's seem to have totally shifted demographics too. I figure either more black/hispanic people can now afford to eat at sit down restaurants (where they hadn't before at all), or more white people have moved to more upscale restaurants.
posted by desjardins at 10:47 AM on November 26, 2007

Also, CeC is targeting its advertising toward hispanic consumers. Probably as a result of the changing market.
posted by Chris4d at 10:53 AM on November 26, 2007

Not sure if this has any bearing on your question, but there was another change I realized. I went to one of these places and all of the games were horrible. It took me a while to pin it down, but I realized that all the games were rated E for everyone. Instead of a a shooting game there was a fireman game. I'm not quite sure how that would translate directly to a shift in patrons but I thought it worth mentioning the observation.
posted by JakeLL at 11:01 AM on November 26, 2007

I've noticed less racial differences and more economic ones. Overall, its a heck of a lot cheaper to take your kids to CeC for a pizza and an hour of video games than to go out to dinner and a movie, or any other activity for that matter.
posted by shinynewnick at 11:04 AM on November 26, 2007

How many new Chuck E. Cheese restaurants are opening? The one in our area is on a stretch of road that's in the same part of town as what used to be the most upscale mall, strip mall development, and close to the newest upper-middle class housing. Since then, the center of economic development has shifted further out as the suburbs have grown but the restaurant is still in the same neighborhood.

I'm not sure if the chain has grown, but I would imagine the infrastructure is such that relocating would be a pain.
posted by mikeh at 11:35 AM on November 26, 2007

I went to a ton of Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties when I was in pre-school - in fact, I don't think I've ever been there other than for a birthday party. I grew up next door to kids in a similar demographic group to those with whom I attended pre-school but who were about ten years younger, and they always hired costumed characters to come to their house instead.

So, the upper-middle-class kids that used to have their parties over at Chuck E. Cheese's are inviting Batman to the house instead. Chuck E. Cheese gets a ton of exposure to kids during these parties, which leads to return visits. However, if the upper middle class white kids never go there in the first place, there's no chance of return visits.

And, yes, those places are filthy and loud and I don't know why any parent would want to go there.
posted by crinklebat at 12:02 PM on November 26, 2007

While no one I know would ever come right out and say so, it's definitely the perception that CEC is low-class. "No one" would willingly take their kids there.

I agree with the cleanliness issues raised above; also, the food stinks and the staff I have seen in my time (5-6 years ago) acted like they'd rather be anywhere else. Half the games were broken, losing tokens was the norm in the games that DID work, and good God, the NOISE.

I felt this way back then, so I can imagine that if nothing much has changed at the average CEC, it's even worse now.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 1:19 PM on November 26, 2007

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