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Trend: The return of the potato peeler!

Xavier Terlet (XTC world innovation), 02/2013

What effect, if any, does the economic crisis we’re experiencing have on the long-term trends that shape our societies, behaviours and consumption?

In the 1990s, French supermarket giant Carrefour dotted the landscape with its slogan Avec Carrefour, je positive—an intentionally ungrammatical expression that translates as “With Carrefour, I positive”—in an attempt to provide a little optimism in the face of a new economic crisis that was weighing on society following a happy, worry-free decade.

I should point out here that we are on the verge of a much bigger change akin to the one that followed the post-war boom. After successfully navigating the ups and downs of a period of general decline in which consumers left it to manufacturers and retailers to propose, through hard discounts and lower prices, an offering that matched their weaker purchasing power, we are now entering a new era in which smart shoppers are regaining the upper hand. We’re talking about consumers taking back power, consumers no longer content to wait for instructions.

So as consumers see their buying power decline, they know they’ve got a new arrow in their quiver: their non-buying power. They are refusing to buy products from manufacturers (or retailers) who seem to have forgotten that eating is, above all, a pleasure. That’s because, especially when times get tough, food is the simplest and most readily available of pleasures. At least, more available than entertainment, electronics and mobile phones… That, in a nutshell, spells the end for what Fischler coined “UFOs” or “unidentified food objects,” the no-name, no-design edibles found on the bottom shelf that have also sacrificed quality in the name of low prices. If hard discounting is already levelling off in France, despite the worsening downturn, it’s because it’s the wrong response to a real problem.

The recession has restored in consumers an ability once believed lost: discernment.

And make no mistake about it: the economic crisis will not lessen consumers’ other concerns, considered by some to be nothing but “problems of the rich and the bobos. ”[1] That’s right. Consumers, regardless of their social and professional category, as marketing people call it, are concerned about their pleasure, their health and their planet, and this concern will only grow. Say good-bye to the price-quality ratio still taught in our business schools, and hello to the benefit-price ratio. “I want the best price on everything,” is what consumers seem to be saying, along with “And I’ll figure out how to get it.”

Some people are still stunned by the resounding success of cooking shows and workshops, and the through-the-roof sales of culinary magazines. Consumers have returned to cooking, simply because they can derive pleasure from it (“I can do it!”), at the best price, while controlling what goes into their mouths. It’s pleasure, health and savings all rolled into one. If food producers want to be invited to the dinner party, they had better throw “convenience” into the mix. Potato peelers are back, so it’s time architects made food preparation surfaces bigger—this is one phenomenon that is not about to disappear.

Positivising discounts is simply about bringing value to products that had none left.

Consumers greatly value products they can prepare themselves. We’ve moved from "Make it for me!" to “Help me prepare it well!” But most food manufacturers haven’t caught on to that.

Small portions are also a driver that can potentially positivise and give value to a product. An 80 g (2.8 oz) hamburger patty, instead of the typical 100 g (3.5 oz) portion, could basically be described as mini, economical, or “the perfect size for small appetites.” The success of McDonald’s France’s Petit Best Of and Casse-croûte menus (the French equivalent of a McValue Meal), priced at under €4.5, are fine examples. These products have the added advantage of cutting down on waste.

And how’s that for another way to put a positive spin on consumption: the war against waste! In January 2013, an episode of consumer-issues program Capital M6 on the subject of waste hit an all-time viewer record. The logic is simple: any wasted product, regardless of price, is a product we paid too much for. So it’s time for manufacturers to add value to products by helping consumers stop being wasteful.

Knowing that, should food producers really still be selling those huge, outdated “Family Size” and “3 for the price of 2” packages boldly (and falsely) claiming to save consumers money, when the average consumer has only €25 to spend on groceries? Maybe the time has come for a delayed-savings promotion—you buy 3 for the price of 2, but you can pick up the third later when you really need it—or the (€1) “serving” concept popular in certain emerging countries.

It is possible to put a positive spin on the discount concept. By favouring short shopping trips and buying local, and by focusing on seasonality and reduced packaging, making food cost less and adding value to our products becomes possible. That’s the whole paradox of this ongoing recession we’ve slid into, this “changing world” as Michel Serres put it. New solutions will be needed. Manufacturers who don’t start looking for those solutions now are risking a lot. When all is said and done, will we really be able to blame it on the economy?


[1]Bobos” is a French portmanteau (or frankenword) for bourgeois bohèmes or Bohemian bourgeois, i.e. trendy, usually left-leaning, ultra-yuppie alternative consumers.

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