business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

In all the world of terrible commercials, there is nothing quite like those hawking mattresses. I don’t know what it is, but they make the whole notion of buying a mattress seem worse than it actually is, which is saying something since buying a bed can be such a terrible experience.

Yet I’m shocked to admit, there is one commercial that sends a message we should all consider.

The story line is stupid and the mere fact that I cannot recall the name of the retailer or the mattress demonstrates how badly the ad fails. Yet it tackles the value equation in a way food retailers rarely do.

The commercial begins with a restless wife trying to sleep while her giddy husband happily changes channels on his new flat screen television. Finally she sits up and asks how much he spent on the television. “$4,000” he proclaims. Then she asks, “How much did we spend on this mattress?” In other words, why is the television so much more valuable than the bed on which they are sleeping?

Linger on that for a second and the problem we all have in setting value becomes crystal clear. Why exactly are some things so much more valued than others?

This is a great question for the food retail industry to ponder as we move past yet another Thanksgiving holiday with its own interesting question on value. I don’t have to ask it because MNB reader Jeff Antil of Bozzuto’s put it so well in a recent e-mail.

Antil wrote, “Why is it the grocery industry lowers prices on items everyone is going to buy, like turkeys during Thanksgiving, hams during Easter, prime rib during Christmas? Other industries like restaurants have special menus for holidays increasing prices on food upwards to 50-75% higher?

“During peak holidays airlines increase prices 200-300%. Hotel and motels increase prices when rooms fill up. Imagine if grocery industry charged 50% more for food during a snowstorm or holiday just because other industries can? Sad part is we're the turkeys.”

Well, yes and no. It does seem counterintuitive somehow that food retail, among all industries finds a way to buck the basic laws and supply and demand and cuts prices for products that are most in demand. It’s not like the airline, restaurant or hotel businesses lack competition. But somehow their value calculus is very different than ours.

There are powerful historic reasons why supermarkets behave the way they do at holidays, and not all are wrong. Building relationships with shoppers requires thinking beyond just the price of a single product and looking into the total spending that shopper may do over the year and years to come.

But we should question the basic nature of value every now and again. After all, food is special. Food is the staff of life. And good food is something to be, well, valued.

Yet that’s rarely how it’s presented in most supermarkets. If mattress ads are poor, supermarkets would be hard pressed to insult them. Most circulars still hawk price, price and more price. Most frequent shopper programs have become another mechanism for delivering price specials. The value conversation begins and ends too often right there.

Perhaps, there are other ways to start this conversation by talking about taste and quality and delivering on shopper needs. Perhaps we can talk about the importance of making that most important holiday meal of the year something everyone will remember and not because of the price of the turkey. (How many of us sit around the Thanksgiving table discussing the price of turkey after all? If the meal is bad, does anyone actually say, “Well at least it was cheap.”)

It’s happening already in stores that have turned holidays into the time to serve customer needs like never before. Maybe it’s time for a whole new debate about values. Heck, we can learn from the mattress stores this once.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

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