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Consumer Trends

Conference finds experience trumps food for attention

Assessments of consumer preferences repeatedly turned during a conference this week for limited-service operators to observations that experience is outshining food as a customer draw.

In particular, speakers cautioned the audience of retail foodservice specialists to question long-held assumptions about how to woo and please patrons. For instance, speed of service may not be as much of a delight as it once was. Indeed, one speaker at the FARE event noted, it’s a bad business strategy.

“The longer people stay, the more they buy,” noted Kevin Kelley of Shook Kelley, a consultancy that helps restaurants and other retail businesses understand how environment affects behavior.

“Convenience is not romantic any more. Where is the love?” asked Michelle Barry, a service consultant to the convenience store market. “Speed and price don’t have to be the transaction. There are experiential cues that come into play.”

Ideally, she suggested, those cues make consumers feel like they’re getting something unique and handcrafted, not a uniform, mass-produced factory product. “Every consumer, across the spectrum, is starting to think more and more about quality distinctions,” said Barry.

She termed the shift in preferences a revolution, not an evolution, and attributed it to a backlash against the long-running trend in the nation’s food production.

In the last five years, “people started noticing that their food was no longer coming out of gardens or out of trees,” she said. “How do you choose between a can and a can?

“We got tired,” triggering a change in food culture.

Now consumers are looking, perhaps unconsciously, for “things that are a little surprising, a little less uniform,” Barry said.

That desire for a less-routinized experience manifests itself in food options like a fast-casual burger. Barry showed a picture of a burger that could’ve come from Five Guys or its competitors, mounded so high with condiments that the toppings were starting to slide off.”

“This is food today,” she said. “It’s differentiated, it’s messy, it’s personal. It’s also exaggerated… Food that looks too uniform means it’s standard issue.”

Similarly, she said, people want to see what’s going into their meal. “Can you bring the ingredients upfront [where customers can see them]?” she asked. But they have to be “real ingredients.”

Yet at the same time, she added, consumers are yearning for “things that are a little more minimalized. We used to want more choices. Now we have too many.” Editing the options is perceived by patrons as a convenience for them, Barry explained.

She also noted that there’s been a backlash against the excessive packaging that characterized quick-service food in the past. “Now it’s almost no packaging,” she said. “The less packaging you can do, the better.”

FARE, which stands for Foodservice at Retail Exchange, is presented by CSP Business Media, the parent company of Monkeydish.com and Monkeydish Outbound.

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