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Choice Alone is Not Variety

Managing customer expectations for variety is a multi-faceted challenge.

Editors are often quizzed by foodservice manufacturers about the markets they cover. One of the most common questions is, “How can my company better approach your readers about the products we have to offer them?”

The short and simple (but, alas, not always as easy-to-implement) answer I give is that they should learn as much as they can about the way target market segments operate, and then study in even greater depth key individual operators within those segments. In that way, they can “micro-target” broader segments.

The product needs of a small community hospital are different than those of a large medical center with central production, for example. Successful suppliers will customize their sales and marketing messages to appeal, at different times, to the parts of a market where certain categories of product offer the most user benefits. The goal should be to better understand the specific challenges individual types of customers face and the business objectives they are trying to reach. With this homework done, new and existing products and lines can be pitched or customized with real-life uses and applications in mind.

That said, there are some challenges all FM readers face, and marketing activities can seldom go wrong if they position a food product to address these.

A prominent one is the need to offer menu variety at every meal. Unlike commercial restaurants with established menus and (sometimes) a few daily specials, our readers must appeal to the same diners over and over again, every day. Finding ways to offer this continuing menu variety is a never ending challenge.

How do customers or operators define variety? I posed that question to a sampling of them. Variety is not as simple as it seems, and their answers can also inform suppliers.

“A lot of what operators think is variety is really confusion,” says one B&I operator I know. “In real life situations, variety is not offering 25 menu items. It is offering eight items, four of which a customer actually wants to buy.

“Variety is not simply having choice-—it’s having the right choice—my choice—when I want it. If I want chicken wings every day, I will love your variety if you offer them every day.”

Another reader in the college segment agrees. “Just having a huge number of options tends to be perceived as just one option over time,” she says. “The same 60 items are seen as the same 60 items.”

Agrees a third operator: “Variety is as much about daily menu changes as it is about which items are on the menu. And it’s not as simple as rotating the menu mix. Most of us deal with the same customer base every day. You have to know them well and give them a sense that you’re bringing items to the menu that reflect food interests they and others in their community have.”

A big part of the challenge is managing customer perceptions. When students go to a restaurant on the weekend and see something new, and you do not have it, they will see your variety as lacking. And it sometimes goes beyond the menu itself. One reader I spoke to with a smaller operation decided to make pizza a daily option instead of offering it twice a week on a menu that always offers three entrees. In effect, the menu was expanded, since there were now four options every day. But customers didn’t perceive it that way.

“The perception was that they had lost choices, and that all we wanted to push was pizza,” she says. “We got beat up really badly over that, even though pizza remains popular and we didn’t take anything away. Part of it was its placement in our facility—it was first in the line every day.”

Back to my advice to manufacturers: If you have a product that can be used in different ways beyond its obvious application, make sure reps and customers know that. If secondary ingredients can customize an ordinary application, describe their use. Show how the product can mesh with the theme meals and promotions onsite operators also use to add variety to meal periods.

Whatever you do, remember that operators don’t look to add products to their menu—they look to add variety. Make sure your products are positioned to help them do so.

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