retail news in context, analysis with attitude

A guest column by Chelsea Ware

Content Guy's Note: You may remember that I met Chelsea Ware at Portland State University's Center for Retail Leadership's annual executive conference last year. She's a student in the program, and when I found out she also was a blogger, I invited her to write a piece for MNB ... and she's written several, each generating a terrific reaction to her insights into how her generation thinks and acts ...

Here's her latest offering. Enjoy ... it is its own kind of Eye-Opener.

If you ever come to Portland Oregon, you can count on one thing being absolutely certain: there will be a line around the block for Salt and Straw Ice Cream and there will be a line around the block for Voodoo Doughnuts. It is a basic fact of Portland life.

Both retailers specialize in serving quirky foods. Salt and Straw has one of a kind ice cream flavors such as "Happy Birthday, Elvis!," which includes "homemade bacon-peanut butter Oreos are smashed up into delicious bite sized chunks, and swirled into a malted banana pudding ice cream," and "Sparkling Mimosa Sherbet," which is exactly what it sounds like. Voodoo offers a wide range of doughnuts, often with unconventional toppings such as Captain Crunch or Froot Loops, and some of them with names that we can't use here.

While these lines are equal in length, they are not equal in composition. Salt and Straw’s line has repeat customers while I've learned that research has shown that Voodoo’s lines are often made up of those who are at the establishment for the first time, with tourists often willing to spend hours to get doughnuts that they equate with the "Portlandia" experience.

This suggests to me that while both companies may have sustainable business models, only one of them has a truly growable model.

But why?

I believe it is because one shop innovates more than the other, and tells a better story about its innovations.

Salt and Straw uses the change of the seasons to introduce new flavors. The flavors are eccentric, fun and only there until the start of the next season. This creates a sense of excitement and urgency when purchasing their products. By doing so, they keep consumers interested in their brand and the experience they provide.

Voodoo, on the other hand, rarely updates its menu and going there is like checking something off of a sightseeing to-do list.

As millennials continue to gain purchasing power, it is imperative for businesses to innovate continually with new products, ideas, and concepts. The fact is, we have short attention spans. (I think people do in general, but millennials take it to the extreme.) We are constantly on the hunt for the newest, coolest thing to get our hands on and share with our followers on social media. We need continuous stimulation from the brands we purchase from.

A retailer’s products and the brand image around them need to be like an ever-evolving story that is being told to the consumer. We're always looking forward to the next chapter. If a retailers won’t provide us with a new chapter, then we will look for a competitor who will.

I was at Salt and Straw a few months ago and one of their clerks offered me a sample of guacamole ice cream. To be honest, I thought the flavor sounded a little questionable, but Salt and Straw is aggressive about offering samples ... and as I put the spoon in my mouth the clerk began telling me about how Salt and Straw conceived the bizarre flavor. They went to a local school and asked a bunch of 5th graders to brainstorm possible ideas for them. Not only was the smooth avocado ice cream with chunks of crunchy cinnamon sugar tortilla chips absolutely delicious, but I got emotionally involved because of the narrative around it.

And, as I was leaving, the same clerk shouted to me “come back in a month to try our flavors inspired by the wild flowers of the Pacific Northwest!” Not only did I buy a pint of guacamole ice cream, I shared it on Instagram, told my friends to go there and check it out too, and then came back the next month to try the new flavors the clerk recommended.

While Voodoo’s doughnuts are edgy and unique compared to conventional doughnut shops, there’s little reason for me to go back. There’s no new tastes, sights, smells, or experiences to be had and I know that any other trip there will be just like my first. There is no new chapter.

All businesses need to keep advancement and innovation at the forefront of their strategizing. Reality check: Every hot product or idea will eventually cool off.

The key to business sustainability and growth lies in always writing new chapters in the consumer experience and creating evolving emotional attachment with the brand.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to go get in line for my Oregon Black Truffle ice cream. I want to get there before the after-work rush hits.

Chelsea Ware is a senior at Portland State University in Oregon, pursuing a bachelor's degree in business marketing in addition to a food industry leadership certificate. She graduates in March. You can email her here.
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