A Teaching Moment

Every public policy professional, every educator, indeed, every parent comes to recognize that people, be they the general public, a classroom of students or one’s son or daughter, are not equally amenable to learning at all times.

Instead, events and circumstances open the eyes to seeing, the ears to hearing and the mind to learning. The key to bringing about change is to use these opportunities when the mind is receptive to new ideas—commonly called “teaching moments”—to impart new knowledge, to light the way toward new pathways.

Teaching moments are no less important in business. Most of the time in business, we spend enormous sums of money and engage in efforts of Herculean proportions to achieve only the most minute change.

Think of the billions spent by, say, Pepsi—not to make people thirsty or even to get them to switch to Pepsi from milk or beer—just countless billions and a massive application of creative genius to get consumers to drink a little more Pepsi and a little less Coke.

Yet every once in a while circumstances conspire to create a moment that causes a paradigm shift. Few alive are old enough to remember, but as America entered World War I and a formerly parochial population was sent to fight in Europe, many realized that there would be no returning to the status quo. In the words of a famous song of the time referring to the young American soldiers, How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree):

How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm
After they’ve seen Paree’
How ya gonna keep ‘em away from harm,
that’s a mystery
They’ll never want to see a rake or plow
And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow?

Now a unique confluence of circumstances is creating a “teaching moment” in which consumers will be open to listening to the deli industry, and if our message is profound, it can lead to a paradigm shift in the way consumers think about food and where they choose to purchase their food.

Part of the issue is an opportunity: With gas prices soaring, extra trips to restaurants are less appealing. With the economy slowing, value for the dollar is a renewed value, and in a post 9/11 world, the cocooning comfort of finding meals that fit the needs of all the family members and eating them together, at home, holds strong appeal.

Of course, the opportunity is meaningless unless it meets preparation. Fortunately, for over a decade now, the industry—both retailers and suppliers—have gone through what we might call the home meal replacement shake-up.

HMR has been a decidedly mixed bag, indeed a failure, in many aspects. The successes of tomorrow, though, often build on the failures of yesterday. And say what you will about HMR, it led to a revolution in quality and variety of prepared foods and broader service offerings of the deli. It has led to a far more sophisticated management system capable of handling far more than sliced meats and cheeses, and it has led to a more consumer-centric attitude.

So opportunity meets preparation. Well, as Mary Poppins sings on Broadway: Anything can happen if you let it.

There are many positive signs. Walk into the deli/foodservice area at Safeway’s new small store concept, “The Market by Vons” in Manhattan Beach, CA, and you will find a Sheetz-like computerized ordering-and-payment system to speed up service, with a high-service and quality commitment to, for example, slice your bread to the thickness you specify. You’ll find some outdoor seating to allow friends and family to eat together right on the premises. And they still tell you how much you saved as you check out.

Yet all too many retailers are still resisting consumer demand. Some retailers still see deli as a draw to get people into a store and then sell them other stuff. That is why deli drive-throughs and curbside pickup spots are still few and far between at supermarkets. That is a mistake.

When gas prices are high and budgets stressed, people are open to listening. This is our chance to not fight one another for incremental gains in market share, but to lead a paradigm shift that gets consumers to increase the percentage of their food dollar being spent with retailers by 10 percentage points.

If we are willing to meet the opportunity.

One thing is certain…just as they could not keep those doughboys down on the farm and so America changed forever as a result of World War I, eating habits will change in this crucible of change we find ourselves in. The question is: Will the deli industry seize this as a teaching moment to reeducate consumers or will we leave it to others to define a future less favorable to ourselves and our industry?