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CONSUMER BEAT

E-mail is just the ticket

Print-at-home is fast, convenient but also can carry extra costs

At movie theaters, sporting events, airports, and concerts, consumers increasingly are gaining admission by flashing 8 1/2-by-11 sheets of paper instead of tickets.

More and more consumers are buying their tickets online or by phone and having them e-mailed to them at work or home, where the ticket bar codes can be printed out on computer paper. It's fast, it's easy, and it's incredibly convenient.

Print-at-home tickets let you bypass lines at the movies. They let you avoid hefty overnight delivery charges or waits at will-call windows for tickets purchased shortly before an event. They also make it easy to parcel out tickets to friends. Instead of meeting ahead of time or having tickets delivered, you simply e-mail them.

Most companies offer e-mail delivery of tickets for free, in part because they think widespread usage will save them money in the long run. The chief exception is Ticketmaster, the giant ticket agency, which charges $2.50 to send a ticket order to a customer by e-mail.

Larry Barocas of Norwood, an avid concertgoer, thinks the $2.50 charge is another example of Ticketmaster's voracious appetite for fee income. A seat at the Dave Matthews Band concert next month at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield already costs $56, to which Ticketmaster adds an $8.65-per-ticket convenience charge, a $3.90-per-order processing charge, and a $2.50-per-order e-mail delivery charge.

"You would think that since they no longer have to print and mail you the tickets, they would reduce a portion of their handling charges," Barocas said. "But not only did that not happen, they added on a $2.50 charge for the privilege of using your own paper and ink to print your tickets."

Michael Norton, general manager for Ticketmaster New England, said the company charges the $2.50 fee to recoup its significant investment in developing and installing its TicketFast technology, which is available at the Tweeter Center, Gillette Stadium, the FleetCenter, and a handful of other venues in the area. "There are a lot of costs associated with delivering a ticket to an e-mail address," he said.

The $2.50 charge for TicketFast is the second-cheapest way of having a ticket delivered by Ticketmaster. Regular mail is free, while all the other options involve United Parcel Service at charges ranging from $14 to $25.

National Amusements Showcase Cinemas has four theaters in Massachusetts (Lowell, Randolph, Revere, and Woburn) and one in Rhode Island (Warwick) offering the print-at-home service at no extra cost beyond the standard $1 service charge. A spokeswoman said nearly 60 percent of the customers purchasing tickets online for those theaters use the print-at-home option.

Major League Baseball has 12 teams offering the service; half of them partner with Ticketmaster and charge $2.50 per order and half partner with Tickets.com and charge nothing beyond standard handling fees. (The Red Sox have partnered with Tickets.com, but aren't offering the print-at-home service yet.)

Noah Garden, senior vice president of e-commerce for Major League Baseball Advanced Media, said a quarter of the tickets being purchased online are printed at home. He said the service requires an upfront investment in servers and scanners, but ultimately should save money.

"I think in the long run it is more cost effective," he said.

Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Center for eBusiness at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School, said print-at-home technology definitely reduces costs for ticket sellers. "The level of competition is what determines how much of that benefit goes to the consumer and how much of it goes to the seller," he said. "In the case of Ticketmaster, they have a virtual monopoly and that allows them to capture a lot of the benefits."

Raymond Syufy, chief executive at Century Theaters in San Rafael, Calif., a pioneer in print-at-home ticketing, said there was no significant incremental cost for his movie theater chain in adding the service. He said he suspected Ticketmaster was able to charge an extra fee for the service because it has a captive audience for most of its events, whereas movie theaters face strong competition for their customers.

Matthew Whelan, the box office director at the FleetCenter, said the number of customers printing tickets at home tends to be higher for Boston Bruins games or youth-oriented events like the recent Christina Aguilera-Justin Timberlake concert. He said the numbers tend to drop for Celtics games and concerts targeted at more mature audiences.

Jim Nolan, vice president of operations at Gillette Stadium, said 90 percent of individual game tickets sold through Ticketmaster are printed at home. "Over time, I see the whole market going to a similar type of concept," he said.

"It's growing exponentially every single month," said Ticketmaster's Norton, who noted his firm will add six more New England venues this fall. He said the company is also exploring priority access to events for TicketFast customers.

Northwest Airlines, which offers 1,000 frequent flier miles to entice customers to try printing boarding passes at home, said 325,000 travelers used the service in July. "It gives them more control over their travel process," said Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhock.

Just like tickets, e-mailed bar codes have to be safeguarded. If someone copies your e-mailed ticket and gets to the event before you, they will get in and you will be denied access.

For those who treasure ticket stubs as keepsakes, the 8 1/2-by-11 bar-code tickets are also a bit of a letdown. For that reason, Major League Baseball offers commemorative regular tickets to anyone printing tickets at home.

Reel MomsThe Tuesday morning movie screenings for moms or dads and their babies at the Loews Boston Common theater, described in a column July 20, seem to be gaining a loyal following.

With some movies attracting as many as 100 parents and an even greater number of babies, Loews has moved its Reel Moms screening into its biggest auditorium. It also plans to expand the program to the Loews theater in Methuen Sept. 9.

When the program started in early July, it attracted only 10 to 20 moms. But 80 showed up to see "Seabiscuit" and 100 for "Freaky Friday." Even "Gigli" attracted 44. This Tuesday's attraction is "My Boss's Daughter" at 11 a.m.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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