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The Associated Press had an interesting story the other day about the burgeoning amount of information that chain restaurants have to provide to their patrons, and how it is shaping the consumption - or at least the ordering - experience.

“Welcome to the era of the menu as a spreadsheet,” the AP wrote. “More restaurants, either by mandate or by choice, are bombarding diners with calorie counts and other information. The disclosures on menus, menu boards and pamphlets are a victory for health advocates who believe informed consumers will make better food choices.” Not only are states and cities passing such laws, but a federal mandate was included as part of health care reform, with the FDA given a year to write the rules.

When I read this, I thought about something that John Rand, director of retail insights for Kantar Retail Americas, said recently at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Show in Las Vegas. In the very near future, he said, supermarket shelf tags will no longer be static entities with just dollar amounts - they will have to have a “page two,” in which they provide all sorts of other information to a consumer who expects it to be available.

I think that’s absolutely accurate. It is not hard to envision a time very, very soon when I will be able to walk down the aisle of my local food store and use my smart phone to drill down from the electronic shelf get ingredient and nutritional information, to read user reviews, to maybe even download recipes in text or even video form. I might even be able to instantly add my own comments to the database...or receive information that points me to other items in the store that are relevant to people who like this particular item. In other words, to a great degree import the online experience into the physical store.

This stuff is all very exciting.

Think about some of the stories that have run just this week on MorningNewsBeat. We had a piece about how some internet companies are responding to privacy concerns by bartering relevant bargains for data. Another one about how loyalty cards are beginning to find a home on cell phones. Yet another about how big box retailers such as Sam’s Club are offering their best customers highly customized deals. And now we have a discussion of how technology can make available all sorts of information via menu boards, shelf tags and even product labels. And then, combine this with all the opportunities available in online and mobile marketing.

What’s really important, it seems to me, is to not think of these kinds of initiatives - and the hundreds of others that exist out there - in any sort of a silo. We have to be thinking in a holistic way...considering the possibilities for combining these sorts of technologies in a way that knocks the consumer’s socks off and blows the doors off the competition.

In the end, this is not about the menu as spreadsheet, or customized deals, or permission marketing. Rather, it is about creating a robust and relevant shopping experience that works on a variety of levels, engaging with the customer and connecting to him and her in a proprietary and sustainable way.

Easy? No.

But probably necessary for long-term survival.

For MNB Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.
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