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Common Foodsense: Applying the Best Buy Theory to Foodservice

I’ve been spending some time looking at corporate forensics lately (did you know that the failure of customer centricity will doom any omnichannel strategy?) and I’m beginning to think I need a hobby.

These things can make for some tough reading. It’s not the long, slow defeat of plain English that I find so depressing, though I still fly into a mild rage when I hear “criteria” used as a singular noun. What gets me is the lack of common sense that frequently heralds the ends of these empires, and the existence of a culture which snips that common sense off whenever it begins to sprout. Really, Sears? You’re going to go billions in debt to buy K-Mart?

I was talking to a friend recently who has spent a long time working for Best Buy, from the booming, heady early days, through the time when it was losing its edge. And then when it was flopping like a gaffed fish. Then as it was gradually learning to breathe again and blowing some of that oxygen back into its stock price. 

He had an interesting take on it. Because he’s a long-term consultant rather than an employee, he also has perhaps a bit more objectivity and less need to reflexively cheer every decision that comes down from the corner office. And I liked his theory, anyway: that the hospitality industry saved Best Buy.

The company was one of the first to adopt the infelicitous phrase “customer centricity” and to make it into a mantra. This was in the early 2000s, when the boogeyman-du-jour was Walmart, and the idea was to beat them on customer service and rule the world. At the time, of course, no one realized that Amazon had become an asteroid that was about to end retail’s Cretaceous period, and that all the dinosaurs were in a bit of a fix.

The approach they chose was an interesting one, with elements which persist in the retail world even into our own enlightened era. Partially as a result of having read “Angel Customers and Demon Customers”—a business book which told you how to identify customers who were good for you and those who were a waste of time, the lords of commerce decided to develop a series of “personas,” or theoretical customer profiles (or, if you insist, stereotypes), and develop a retail strategy for each.

This led to the emergence of Buzz, Barry, Ray and Jill—names for customer profiles which embodied certain expectations, predilections and income levels; and the certainty that these concepts had human avatars led them to design stores especially for them. Jill got red and pink balloons and a play area for her kids, since naturally she had kids. Barry was someone who was too prosperous to bother with the Sharper Image, and wanted a sound system designed by Osmo Vänskä on his weekend off. He got leather couches.

Hearing that in the context of our current business climate, one profile sounds incredibly condescending and the other incredibly suck-uppy. But I digress. This went on for a bit, and a story leaked out that there were now other profiles that hadn’t been released to the public: Maria, a Middle American  female; Carrie, a young urban female; and empty-nesters Helen and Charlie, who have apparently been together so long there is no differentiating them. I also have heard rumors that there was a George, who was basically just an ass. Can’t confirm that one, but I think I’ve met him at a bar, so it may be true.

You notice that we are starting to more finely tune our profiles. Three new females—who knew girls were so complicated? Two folks who seem ungendered by time and proximity, and one purported guy jerk. Hell, if we get any more specialized than this, we might start looking at people as individuals.

Then, ya know, things happened. They do. By 2012, business writers were preparing their Best Buy obituaries, and a common thread among them was that the company had become unable to look at its own business from its customers’ point of view. Avatars, apparently, don’t help as much as empathy. 

Enter the present CEO, who is credited with reviving the company from near-extinction. According to my friend, in addition to the usual routine of closing underperforming stores, reducing capital expenditures, and similar code-blue stuff, he brought an approach with him from his last job at Carlson Wagonlit (our homegrown hospitality megalith) that involved a focus on the customer ... as a person. An individual, with individual desires and needs. Like someone who might walk into your restaurant and ask for a quiet table and a gluten-free menu. Fancy that.

And that approach seems to be working, if the stock price is any measure, and there seems to be more encouragement to the front-line employees to engage with the customers without trying to ascertain whether they happen to be a Buzz or a Jill. There is more of a recognition that it’s the experience that the retailer is trying to offer.

And that’s straight from the hospitality industry—we don’t, ultimately, sell food or places to sleep. People do both of those things regularly. When the experience is extraordinary, it’s the memory that remains, and that’s what we sell, and what we try to make as wonderful as possible. So, from one industry to another: You’re welcome. Happy to help. 

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a longtime chef-instructor. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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