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Human Behavior And Perishable Foods

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 17, 2006

Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has filled my shelf with more than a few review copies of books over the years. He has a new one out. I haven’t seen it yet but it seems to be getting some press. The gist of the coverage goes like this, in which a newspaper poses a question and then gives Professor Wansink’s answer. For example:

Which would you rather have: Succulent Italian Seafood Filet or Seafood Filet?

“…most people, when given a choice, opt for foods that have catchy, appealing names. Thus most of us would pick the Succulent Italian Seafood Filet over the rather bland sounding Seafood Filet.”

“In study after study, people not only chose the fancier sounding food, they scored it higher in taste. But here’s the kicker: The only difference between the two dishes was the name. It ‘sounded’ better, so we believed it must taste better.”

“Would you pay more for a Belgian chocolate brownie served on fine china than you would for a chocolate brownie served on a paper napkin?”

“In the second question, people not only thought the brownie on the plate tasted better than the one on the napkin, they were willing to pay more for it.”

Now this reporter understands this, as follows:

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam, $25) takes a look at how we’ve managed to trick ourselves — and be tricked by others — into doing all the wrong things when it comes to food.

The book deals with a fascinating subject, which is human perception. There are many studies out there showing the peculiarities of human behavior. For example, if you give people top seats to a concert or sporting event, most will not sell the tickets for, say, $1,000, but if you give people $1,000 cash, most won’t buy the tickets when offered. Since these are economically identical transactions, it is a quandary.

In this case I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve read the book, but I’m not inclined to agree with the reporter that these examples are indications of anyone being “tricked” or “tricking themselves”.

It strikes me that a brownie served on a piece of china is a substantively different product that one served on a paper plate. And that the name something is called, as with the table cloth on the table or music in the background, changes the way people experience their food.

The lesson for the perishable food trade may be that we need to be more cognizant of the fact that we sell not only calories to people but a certain experience.

So often, retailers are focused on offering the least expensive product, yet, especially on foodservice offerings, the very fact of a low price, just as with the simple name, affects consumer perception of the product.

So in our desperate efforts to offer, say, pizza, cheaper than any pizzeria in town, we may just be succeeding in convincing consumers that we have the worst pizza in town.

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