I think we really are living in the era of the consumer – and it’s a very aspirational era too! Whatever they want, we’re told, they should be given, but where does aspiration meet reality and how does that impact on us?
January is one of those times of the year where consumers tell us what they want in reaction to the festive period they have just enjoyed. Dietary overindulgence, financial over commitment, and a desire to simplify their diets all shine through strong, and so we offer a plethora of choices that enable them to eat more healthily, eat less, save a bit of money, and so on.
The big question is always: how many consumers really want to do this, and how many feel they should want this but, in reality, do the opposite? Planning for production and service is always a challenge when you have such differences between what they think they want and what they will actually do!
I guess it’s a bit like gym membership. That always peaks in January, post-festivities, but it slips a lot by February and March before seeing another rise in early summer as the masses get ‘beach-ready’.
There are many areas where aspiration and reality come into conflict. Take the environment. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact of various foods and packaging, but how committed are they really to making a change? They expect caterers to do the right thing and source locally, reduce plastics, use biodegradable packaging, and so on, but if we gave them the choice to do all of these things, but at a 20% price premium, how many would still commit to being more sustainable? My guess is far fewer people would choose the sustainable options unless the caterer was going to pick up the tab for the extra costs involved. Alas, we often do and then our margins are squeezed even further.
How about healthy eating or salad bars? Every customer survey I’ve ever done has shown a high level of interest in salad bars and healthier food. However, when it comes to the crunch, most like to look at it but will stick with the less healthy options. People love to think that they would choose a healthy option or have salad most days, but when they are hungry and see the alternative of a burger, hot roast lunch or piles of chips, they often take the less healthy option because they persuade themselves that they can always be good tomorrow! It is changing, of course, and increasing numbers of consumers are diet-conscious (younger men especially in our experience), but I would argue that there is still a big difference between consumer aspiration and reality.
Convenience is another aspiration, but this time with a difference as people will usually pay more for it. Most of us are time-poor these days and if something can make our lives easier, we’ll do it if we can afford to. That can and should be a good earner for us if we think through the mechanics properly. This calls for faster service options, service locations closer to people’s work zone, rapid cashless payment options, help yourself, self-sufficient street food stalls, and so on.
2019 is going to be an interesting year… whatever happens! As I write this, we still don’t have a clue how the year will unfold, but if there is a hard Brexit or shock to the economy, it will be interesting to see how another element of aspiration is affected by reality. I’m referring to indulgence. In 2008/9 when we had the last big crash, we saw that people would not give up on what previously would have been considered luxuries – the multiple barista coffees every day and the indulgent desserts, for example. People still bought them but perhaps went for smaller sizes. I think the big question is what will happen if we do experience another crash in 2019. Will consumers treat the purchases they make with us as essentials, or will it really test people’s finances like no other time in recent memory?
Overall, the one challenge we will continue to have is coming up with the right options to appeal to an aspirational population who have an increasingly powerful voice to demand what they want. Our challenge, as ever, will be interpreting those aspirations from their true reality, but I think our industry does a good job of that on the whole, so I’m sure we’ll all succeed. Here’s to a great 2019 and long may we rise to the challenges!