business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

According to a famous story, Albert Einstein explained the Theory of Relativity in the following way: If you put your hand on a hot stove for a second, it feels like an hour. If you talk to a beautiful woman (or man, your choice) for an hour, it feels like a second.

Last week I put Einstein to the test. In the midst of a lengthy drive home my car needed gas and I needed something light to consume. The gas purchase went fine, but then Einstein found me. I went into McDonald’s to get one of their new fruit smoothies. I’ve had one before and found it passable so I figured it was a fast, cheap and moderately healthy snack.

Only this McDonald’s was having a tough night. The man after me ordered a Big Mac, something McDonald’s makes millions of times a day, and it took five minutes to fill that order. He was lucky. He came and went in the time I waited for my smoothie.

Now, I understand McDonald’s and I know why I eat there sometimes. The food is inexpensive, consistent and fast. But on this night in Hagerstown, Maryland, I finally understood my real value equation. At McDonald’s, time trumps everything. Sure, I was ticked at the lackadaisical attitude of the staff and the lack of an apology. But really only one fact stood out:

It took 11 minutes from the time I placed my order until the time I held the wild berry smoothie in my hands. And that was way too long.

As I drove back on the highway, I noticed something else: the smoothie didn’t taste very good. I thought about that as I drove and realized it probably tasted exactly the same as my one previous McDonald’s smoothie, but after an 11-minute wait, it was simply unsatisfactory and almost undrinkable.

Let’s be honest here: I wait more than 11 minutes for most every meal I eat. I’ve waited more than 11 minutes for a glass of water in a fancy restaurant. I’ve waiting longer than 11 minutes at vastly superior fast food places like In-N-Out Burger or Five Guys. This summer I waited in the sun for 30 minutes to get an incredibly overpriced cupcake at Washington’s famous Georgetown Cupcake store. I wait far more than 11 minutes for the wonderful cookies my wife whips up in the kitchen. Eleven minutes is nothing, but in all those other cases I waited gladly because I appreciate the product. In McDonald’s, where my goal was a quick bite and a return to the road, 11 minutes were an eternity.

Einstein knew what he was talking about. But I think it goes further.

The Theory of Relativity clearly has a parallel in understanding consumer value. The same shopper who delights in the limited choice of products at Trader Joe’s or Costco, complains if a specific SKU is suddenly missing from their local supermarket. The same shopper who gripes when milk prices rise by five cents, willingly pays higher amounts for certain clothing items, grooming or even a movie ticket. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s just the way it is. We assign different values, needs and wants to different products, services and experiences.

It makes me think back on the report, “The World According to Shoppers,” done a few years back by the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council (Full disclosure: I am the research director of the council and worked on that report). The report challenges the reader to think about how his or her stores, products or services compare to what the consumer wants and what the competition offers. It requires a cold, hard look in the mirror to recognize strengths and weaknesses and to determine if either are properly emphasized and fulfilled.

It’s a tool for discussion that is probably more valuable in today’s economic climate then it was in the early 2000s when it was produced. (You can download a copy by clicking here. Look under the tab for North America.) As economic times have changed, values have shifted, which means a successful formula in 2008 could be woefully wrong today.

Success might very well lie in understanding what is expected of us and making certain that we deliver on the promise each and every time. It may seem awfully complex, but when you think about it within the context of an 11-minute wait at McDonald’s, you realize something else: it doesn’t take an Einstein to figure this out.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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