Today’s dining and grocery consumers have a different agenda than their predecessors—and it’s a reflection of how they shop in general. The goal: “satisfy me.” With wants and needs on the line, these consumers are part of the experience economy, where simply eating a meal or buying groceries isn’t enough. The food choices these consumers make are part of an experience, and if the experience you provide doesn’t satisfy them, they’ll find other restaurants and purveyors.
This means that the quality of your food and even the features of specialties will need to be paired with exceptional customer service that experience-economy consumers can identify with. Whereas customer service used to not be a differentiator (everyone should have great customer service), consumer interests and habits have brought it back into play. In fact, customer service is becoming as unique and specialized as the clientele; customer experience is also no longer reserved for “theme” restaurants and stores. To appeal to a particular type of consumer, restaurants and grocers need to become part of their culture.
When the economy dipped in the last decade, generic and private label commodities grew as consumers tried to save money on essentials. But the growing base of customers today isn’t as driven by final cost. They seek, for all intents and purposes, a relationship with the businesses they patronize—based on common values, status, and ultimately experience. And when those elements line up and they’re satisfied, they can be fiercely loyal. They’ll become brand advocates—recommending your establishment to all their contacts (in person and via social media). And they will make you a part of their “family.” This is great news for small local businesses. Word-of-mouth promotion is some of the most effective for brick-and-mortar establishments, and happy, loyal customers are an effective (and inexpensive) resource.
The experience economy does add another dimension to your business that can be time-consuming. The relationship expectations of these consumers means you have to engage with them outside the walls of your restaurant or store. Creating and maintaining an informative and engaging website, interacting on social media, participating in civic events, and building loyalty and/or advocacy programs require effort, but the rewards are significant. Happy and connected customers will reward you with ongoing loyalty and an ever-expanding clientele.
Your customer connections will also produce great gains for your business’s ability to adapt and more effectively meet the “satisfaction” needs of patrons. As you invest time into customer relationships, you’ll better understand what they’re looking for—and be poised to deliver it.
Care and Feeding
It can be a double-edged sword, however, if you attempt to engage without a plan, or with little effort. And it can royally backfire if the experience of your customers does not live up to the promises. Just as happy patrons can use their expanding networks to virally share how great your establishment is, the news can flow even faster if you disappoint. Trading in-store quality for a robust social newsfeed could be catastrophic. You still have to care for customers (and the food) when they come in to dine with or purchase from you. But you also have to feed more than their bellies. If you start engaging with them in their networks (both online and in person), you have to sustain that. It may mean a dedicated staff member or the services of a skilled and trusted agency, but once you start the conversation, be sure not to abandon your audience.
The keys to culinary success in the experience economy are combining great food, great in-store experience, and building great community with an audience that is hungry for more than just a meal. And that’s how you’ll stand out in a crowded food landscape.
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