retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

MIAMI BEACH -- Let’s say you have a choice. You have a major bandage on your body and your doctor says he can pull it off really fast or really slowly. Which method do you prefer?

For the vast majority of us the answer is simple. In fact it’s even a cliché for decision-making.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral scientist and one of the first day speakers at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Midwinter Executive Conference here, knows first hand the bandage choice because of an accident he endured when younger. Like most of us he chose to rip it quickly and was wrong. As Ariely has learned from years of study, the problem with pain isn’t the duration of the event; it’s the intensity.

In other words, pulling slowly and carefully is actually a much less painful strategy.

Ariely offered that metaphor as he explained the issues that shoppers face daily and the wrong decisions they often make. He explained how marketers too often listen to reasoned comments from consumers (i.e. about eating healthier or doing more exercise) while they behave more emotionally, often out of habit. And he suggested that marketers need to seriously rethink their approach to influencing shopper decision-making in order to achieve better - and presumably more profitable - outcomes.

The notion of rethinking old methods was a common theme through most of the first morning of the Midwinter conference. It began with FMI President Leslie Sarasin discussing challenges facing both the industry and FMI itself. Sarasin said FMI needs to find new approaches to serving its members, the industry, including working with other associations when appropriate.

Danny Meyer, founder of the Union Square Hospitality Group (which is well known for a number of high-end restaurants and, most recently, for Shake Shack) addressed the notion of new perspectives in the world of food, reflecting on the many challenges facing the food service and retail industries.

Meyer said the food industry needs to understand the importance of experience in all parts of customer choices. Experiences include everything from getting customers better tasting food to making sure personal connections are always reinforced.

But Meyer added that technology challenges much of that and leaders need to be open to rethinking what customers do and don’t value. For example, Meyer said he originally shied away from letting the Open Table app handle reservations for his fancier restaurants, as he believed his company’s reservations people provided a superior experience. However, he quickly learned that the convenience of Open Table mattered far more to shoppers.

Meyer said the food experience comes though a variety of operations, even quick serve stops like his Shake Shack chain. Customers there are showing a willingness to pay more for good food - burgers and shakes - without wanting the extra cost of full-service.

Supermarkets can capitalize on similar needs, but only if shoppers come to feel the store where they shop is essential to their lives through the experience it delivers. If the store is simply another me-too choice, shoppers can easily drift away. Even simple transactions such as those at the front end or the deli counter can be made special with personal attention, eye contact and quick banter.

The Monday program also featured industry panels including one on the future of food. Panel members talked about the importance of food science including genetically modified organisms to feed a global population, while recognizing the need to educate and communicate to shoppers how scientific advances impact them.

As James McCann of Ahold USA said, “Our job is to provide (customers) the ability to make choices.”

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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