news from the intersection of branding & technology

The Long Snail Trail

In brand-building, Shopper Marketing on July 30, 2010 at 6:58 pm

by Jeff Sandgren

There are those occasional days when you would want to be me.  Not often, perhaps, but definitely on the days when your faithful reporter visits food expos.  It’s simply unfair.  I get to taste the most wonderful foods and beverages, one after another, an epicurean Disneyworld … and all you get is this lousy t-shirt.

There is, of course, a good business reason for this: the ominous Pareto Principle, which suggests that a market with a high freedom of choice will create a certain degree of inequality by favoring the upper 20% of the items (“hits” or “head”) against the other 80% (“non-hits” or “long tail”).  Retailers who are pure-play online or offer online supplement to their in-store merchandising selection have been reaping the rewards of harvesting the “other half” of potential business without the sales floor merchandising costs.  But when it comes to food, an Amazonian “Look Inside” doesn’t work.  We want to taste it.

It would be great if there were an Amazon-like front for the specialty foods that, despite their Pareto and macro-economy disadvantages, managed to crank out a 2.7% growth in 2009 to top the $63 billion mark (according to National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, Inc.).  Not to say they didn’t take their medicine like the rest of us: new product introductions dropped by 37% last year.

The closest thing in retail is clearly Whole Foods – in fact, every time I asked a vendor about which store carried his product, the answer inevitably included Whole Foods.  And almost as inevitably … not the Whole Foods near me.  That’s because they take a ‘localized’ view to merchandise selection, clearly a good strategy for them.  Their website states that vendors must present their wares at the Regional Office level (of which there are 12).  But the reality, as vendor after vendor shared with me, is that you have to start by selling at the individual store level, and work your way up to regional after you can document some successes.  Many of these vendors are food artisans, and simply don’t have the manpower to take this on.  And I don’t mean to pick on Whole Foods.  Quite the contrary – at least there’s a way in there, as opposed to other national chains that are practically un-scalable walls.  They need volume, and already have to deal with a tsunami of new products.  Industry sources say that the average grocery store contains 35K to 40K items; yet a staggering 30K new items attempt to slink in every year.  Small wonder that only 2% make it.  It’s a too-steep climb, at a snail’s pace.  The blackbirds of market reality snatch most before they ever reach the silver escargot skillet.

At BrandTech News, your editors aspire to social compassion.  We are not content to savor the delights of the 2,400 vendors who filled our sample plates with sea salt & pepper chocolate from Salazon Chocolates, cool-smoked jalapeno’s from Texas Twisters, habanero bread & butter pickles from Miss Jenny’s (“taste the sweet, then feel the heat”), the “ultimate curry” from Mohini Indian Fusions, sweet potato caramel and malted bacon chocolates from Sweet Marguerites, Olivia’s cornbread croutons, hemp-infused Hippie Chips (odd, now I’m even hungrier), and Tortuga Rum Cakes … we could go on, but why be cruel?  No, not us!  Our folks taught us the ethics of sharing, and share we shall!

So here’s our Modest Proposal.  No, not Jonathan Swift’s “eat the poor”, nor the currently fashionable alternative (the rich are, after all, a bit gamey, and lack that familiar chicken-and-pork-like flavor so many prefer).  Rather, we propose that forward-thinking, epicurean-compassionate retailers carve out a spot for a miniature version of my day in gastronomic wonderland.  Allow the consumers to sample several new wonders a week, keep it changing, maximize the exposure of their most-valued shoppers to the most promising new items, and carve out permanent space for those that prove their mettle.  And none of this prohibitive slotting-fee hindrance.  We, the shoppers are speaking.  We want a voice in these tasty new goodies.  Vive la Specialty Sampling!  Imagine the magical ‘destination draw’ that such location would have … category managers regularly sell their souls for such magnetic magic.  Imagine the social network buzz, the uptick in shopper satisfaction, in category performance with the enhancement of these new splendors … not to mention the delightful arm-twisting your Buyers could give their current vendors for lagging behind in these innovations.  It’s a like a dream come true, and totally win-win-win.

No, don’t thank us.  We’re just happy to do our little part.  Now, where did I put those free samples of dark-milk super-fruit red-wine-extract Belgium chocolates from NewTree. Wish you were here!

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