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Less Could Be More

November 13th, 2008 by Devangshu Dutta

For all those who have admired the consistency and presentability of produce in western supermarkets, here’s proof that tough times really focus us on substance and force us to look beyond skin-deep beauty.

Even in fruits and vegetables.

British supermarket Sainsbury has challenged European Union guidelines that restrict the sales of fruits by certain physical standards. Sainsbury’s is questioning EU regulations that prevent selling “ugly” fruit and vegetables. Due to EU regulations such as size of cauliflower (minimum 11 cm diameter) and the shape of carrots (requirement that there should be a single root, not multiple), Sainsbury estimates that up to one-fifth of what is produced in British farms cannot be sold in the supermarket. According to Sainsbury’s estimate, not following these regulations can help to reduce prices by up to 40%, and reduce wastage by up to 20%. The retailer is also trying to drum up customer support by running an online poll (94% responses were in favour of Sainsbury’s move, at the time this column was being written).

So less beauty could mean more veggies in the supermarket, and more money in everyone’s pocket including, hopefully, the farmer.

And this may also vindicate anyone who has complained that the beautiful veggies and fruits in western supermarkets taste inferior to their “ugly” counterparts sold on Asian hand-carts. Give us more substance and less style, any day.

Let’s look at some other substantial issues that merchants should consider.

Remember “I can’t get no satisfaction”? That’s what Mick Jagger and his mates in the Rolling Stones hit the world in the face with in 1965, allegedly in response to the rampant commercialism they had seen in the US.

After 43 years – at least judging by the modern supermarket shelves – apparently we still ain’t getting no satisfaction. In fact, the array of choice tends towards “overload”.

A typical developed country supermarket is estimated to carry over 40,000 SKU’s. Can you think of 40,000 types of items (or even 10,000) that you would need from the supermarket for your home?

So here’s the result. During my travels, if I’m in a store that is unfamiliar I could spend over an hour wheeling a trolley around before reaching the checkout. The first 5-10 minutes are focussed on figuring out the aisles based on my list. The next 10 minutes are spent picking what is actually on my list. And the rest of the time before the checkout is usually spent browsing through the thousands of SKU’s and picking stuff that we never knew we needed when the family made the shopping list.

Now, the guys who run the supermarkets are generally a smart bunch – they’ve figured that the more options you put in front of consumers, the more they buy. My cash receipts are proof of that. But, as American professor and author Barry Schwartz (“The Paradox of Choice”) says, the point where the choice becomes counter-productive is already well-past in developed markets.

With such overwhelming choice, consumers get into analysis-paralysis. And even after they finally purchase something out of the enormous range, you get shades of post-purchase dissonance. Only, in this case the dissonance, the dissatisfaction is not related to a bad product, but: “What if there I had made another choice? What if there was a better product than this? What if there was something available for less?”

During these times, it is pertinent to also put this in the context of business costs. There is surely a cost of providing that humongous choice in supermarkets. Have we considered what the saving could be, if the variety was reduced, if the product range was consolidated?

Consider the time (and therefore cost) spent on product mix and pricing decisions – surely merchandising teams have to be larger if you have a larger product mix, since each person can only handle a finite workload. Consider the cost of logistics of handling a widely diversified range. Consider the efficiencies lost in diverse production mix. So, does the consumer really need, really even want all that choice?

Retailers like the German chain Aldi raise precisely those questions. Aldi sells about 1,100 SKUs compared to the usual 40,000. And it claims that the typical shopping basket in Aldi’s UK stores is 25% less than competing supermarkets.

Indian retailers, of course, are possibly yet to reach that pain threshold of choice. There are possibly some potentially useful choices that are still missing. But even here, it is well worth taking a hard look at the product offering. With availability levels that can dip as low as 50-60%, it is probably worth asking – what if we dropped XYZ product from our range? Would it really hurt our sales or even our image; or would it help us to focus better on the products that really matter?

If we took our attention away from building such false choices, could the business become more profitable and therefore more sustainable?

The US and European markets are often the source of many a management thought and business model related to consumer products and retail, and of “best practices”.

So, in closing, I should share this question someone asked me recently: “when do you think consumer spending will bounce back in the US?” My first response was, “If only I had a crystal ball”. But the next thought in my mind was what if US consumers actually came to a decision that they had “enough”? What if their excessive consumption was no longer the role model for consumers in emerging economies? What if, instead, the frugal consumers of India and China became the global role model?

What would your business model look like then? Would your corporate be more socially responsible? And would it have a better chance of lasting longer?

For those who are interested in taking this inquiry even further, I can recommend John Naish (“Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More”, 2008), John Lane, Satish Kumar, M. K. Gandhi, Alan Durning (“How Much is Enough?”), or any number of ancient Indian, Chinese, Greek or Roman schools of thought, many of them pigeonholed into “religious” or spiritual categories.

You might also like this video of a talk by Barry Schwartz on Ted.com (below).

Do please share the results of your inquiry with us, too.

(Click the video link above to play the video, or click here to go to Ted.com)

Posted in COLUMN-Progressive Grocer, Consumer, Corporate Social Responsibility, Food & Grocery, India, Marketing, Retail, Strategy, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

2 Responses

  1. Indranil Gupta Says:

    Here’s a prediction from more than two centuries ago that is playing out in real life…
    ‘I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.’
    Thomas Jefferson 1802
    Isn’t that OBAMINABLE!

  2. Aditya Pathak Says:

    Good, thought provoking article. These would probably work, if there was one monolithic producer, one monolithic super market and one monolithic set of customer preferences.

    But the reality is that the customer preferences are very fragmented. Assuming that my preference mean is SKU 1 (produced by Producer1), another SKU2 (produced by Producer2), which might be slightly off the so called preference mean for me, might just be the preference mean for the next person. If I have the option, I will go to the Super Market1 that stocks SKU1, while the next person will go to Super Market2, that stocks SKU2. So far so good. But as years go by, Super Market1′s management (as well as Super Market2′s management) will be pressed to show continuous growth. So, to expand their sales, they will expand to target both me and the next person, thus carrying both SKUs after a period of time.

    Similarly, Producer1 will also start making SKU2 and so on….

    Fragmentation is a by product of free market economy, and will continue until the marginal cost of fragmentation is higher than the marginal revenues/ profits gained from it. I presume that this is what happens, when old SKUs get dropped after a period of time, while new SKUs keep getting added, allowing for incremental steps in which the product remains in close alignment with evolving customer preferences.

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