SHOPPER REPORT FEBRUARY 2001

Farther Out Food and Drinks

Life-Stress Show Case

Poor Service Moves Upscale

Better Complaints By Email

FARTHER OUT FOOD AND DRINKS
Biff! Bang! Bursts! A new line of pop-out, clip-on, dip-in and suck-up beverages from Topps Corp. suggests a SuperBowl of Slurps that erase the lines between food, candy, and beverages and make as much traditional sense as cars falling from trees and men running with squirrels. The Push Pops from Topps are packaged in flame-glo eye grabbers that raise the visual impact to the level of an ambulance screech. The products are targeted at a youth market, but just as the senior market is spreading from 50 to 100, the youth market seems to be moving up toward fifty. Chunky Monkey is old hat by now, and the food IS fun market for consumers of all ages knows no bounds.

Just this week The New York Times Magazine reported on Coke's new Drink Think Tank in New York. Coke will use the think tank to search for more exciting new products that take it beyond new reasons to mix milk with Coke under banners like "Milkables" and "Mixables." And we dialoged with a cross section of our panelists about Ice Cream Blends, a line of alcohol-containing ice creams with names like Grasshopper and Pink Squirrel recently introduced by The Ice Cream Shop in the Chicago market. Many of our panelists responded with strong feelings for and against the concept, but the enthusiasm for appealing new flavors is widespread and intense enough to overcome concern about a new form of alcohol that could appeal to children.

  • I cannot wait until I taste this new ice cream.
  • I would love some crème de mint ice cream right now.
  • The liquor ice cream, yum, sounds scrumptious.

Consumer Network shoppers actually seemed to divide themselves into four distinct groups over the ice cream blends concept:
1-Taste and fun first
2-Avoid alcohol temptation at all costs
3-Adults must put kids first
4-Find a workable solution

Group 1 (taste first) thinks that concerns about tempting kids with adult flavors are overblown for many reasons, starting with the common mother-knowledge that little kids like the plainest flavors and bigger kids want "oooey gooies."

  • Someone gave us a jar of Fudge Body Paint with a brush for Christmas. It was great
  • To people who get upset over things like ice cream with liquor I say Get a life!
  • I think the flavored ice creams are OK.
  • The beer manufacturers are already selling Lemonade that has alcohol and there are other fruit drinks that are not wines that have alcohol so what's new about this..
  • Those who object to alcohol being part of the product shouldn't buy it or let their kids buy it.
  • I don't imagine that the amount of liquor would be significant or encourage kids to drink. People overact.
  • The chance of someone getting high on Pink Squirrel or Grasshopper ice cream is pretty remote.
  • People who get upset about this product should lighten up - there are much bigger issues regarding our youth than this.
  • I have no objection to foods targeted to adults. The responsibility for monitoring what foods children eat is largely that of parents.
  • I'm sure that Haagen Dax Rum Raisin has real rum in it - it's not for kids and kids don't like it.
  • It's simply amazing that some people would be upset about alcohol-flavored products. These people should immediately lock themselves in a dark, soundproof room so that they won't be effected by all these bad influences. Oh, and they should lock their children away too. Poor souls. You never know what might cause them or their children to "go bad."

Group 2 (avoid alcohol temptation at all costs) has the strongest feelings:

  • Showing kids that we have "mood modifiers" for dessert too is horrendous!
  • Liquor in ice cream isn't too far from cocaine in lollipops.
  • Really really bad idea to mix liquor into ice cream. Sends wrong message to kids.
  • Look what happened when kids started playing with realistic guns.
  • Making liquor ice creams available at grocery stores would be ludicrous. What's next? Kaluha Kit Bars? STOP the cycle of liquor to minors where we can.
  • Don't do this! We can all see the trouble it will cause coming down the road!

Group 3 (Put Kids First) focused on the need for adult restraint, kids' education, and how, when and where we should protect versus educate our kids. Some believe that judicious exposure to wine and alcohol flavored products should be part of kids education to keep them from going wild when they enter their teens.

  • Too bad the alcohol might tempt kids. It sounds so good!!!
  • With kids getting fatter and fatter, we have to stop putting temptations out there.

Group 4s are the solution seekers.

  • Liquor ice creams okay if they are only sold in liquor stores.
  • Food products like this should be rated like movies are rated.
  • Develop more kid-appeal flavors like ROMrasberry, FAXafruit, or NETnut-vanilla - an updated version of butter almond that sounded pretty good to us.

We will remain editorially neutral on the yeas and nays of Grasshopper ice cream but suggest that the increasing time that today's kids are spending alone heightens the temptation problem and joins fast food in contributing to the increases in weight and diabetes as well. A new sociological study revealed that comparing the lives of today's kids with the lives of 70s kids shows that today's kids are spending two more hours alone daily than 70's kids - and I suspect an even greater difference from kids in the 50s when most moms were really home all day and kids could trust most grown ups who didn't offer them candy and were allowed out to keep busy with friends and neighbors. We suspect that kids who are alone eat more of everything that's there to be eaten - which suggests to us that socially responsible food processors should be looking for low fat, ooey-gooey popcorn and carrot toppings.

Shedding another light on the growing girth of American consumers, Warnaco CEO Linda Wachner told reporters that "Everything is big and loose and people want that. You have to adapt to that. You have to look and see what do people want. What are they asking for. Our best selling size in a bra was a 34 B 10 years ago. Today it is clearly a 36 C. In Chaps, where the best selling men's casual pant was 32, now it's 34 or 36."

All of this leads us back to Coke's Drink Think and their contribution to our national (and soon to be international) weight problem.

  • Adults need fun foods just as much or more than kids do
  • The best adult fun foods taste great without calories

The new Joy of Pepsi commercials are fully in tune with what many of our consumers hope for - a hope which may turn work its way through the new product system to become a solid or slurp formulation lovingly called Diet Coke II.

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LIFE-STRESS SHOWCASE
En route to a breakfast meeting at 7:40AM during the third week of the current January, this researcher saw a young mom carrying a toddler in her left arm and a 30 gallon trash bag filled with to-be-cleaned clothing in her right arm. Intrigued with her balancing act, I waited to see her emerge from the cleaners with what turned out to be a first armload of clean clothing on hangers draped over the toddler-free arm. She used a remote with a free finger to open the rear door of the SUV and laid in the first load of cleaned and pressed clothing, then returned to the cleaners, toddler still in her left arm, for a second load of filled hangers. Placing this load in the van required setting the toddler down for a few nervous seconds while arranging the hangers, then scooping him up and arranging him in the rear car seat for the trip to day care after which she headed to her own job. Expressing my awe at her multi-tasking efficiency, the young mother shrugged and said "you do what you have to do." She had already fixed a sort-of breakfast, dressed the toddler for daycare, and herself for work. She said that she works a full day after the drop-off and alternates with her husband picking up the toddler on the way home before doing something about dinner, baths and bedtimes. Remembering that many single as well as married and multi-child mothers are living their days at this activity level gives this writer a fresh appreciation of the markets for work-saving, one-handed, easier to use, and more portable products and packages and easier and quicker ways to shop.

Shortly after combining the young mom's "you do what you have to do" comment with what the young parents on our panel are telling us, I had the opportunity to swim and work out in a health club frequented mostly by twenty- and thirty-somethings. The contrast with the easy-going spa facility that I'm used to was dramatic - and not because the bodies were more beautiful (although many of them were) but because the young work-outs were so aggressive and intense. The effort that goes into looking like one has to look today is awesome. Akin to competitive sports training, the magnitude of the effort required helps to explain why so many give in and give up. If it takes agony to look really fit and tempting food is at every corner, it's no wonder that the divide between fit and overweight is growing even faster than the divide between rich versus poor.

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POOR SERVICE MOVES UPSCALE
In our service-poorer and rich-get-richer society, it has long seemed that money buys better service as well as better quality products. Now we are hearing service complaints from our most upscale consumers as well as those with more modest incomes and lifestyles. One reason is that the affluent are growing in numbers. Another is that they are increasingly shopping in the same discount and drug stores as their dollar stretching cousins. Another is the shortage of personnel at all levels. And another is the "massification" of first class travel and carriage trade stores.

  • I am finding rudeness everywhere these days - from first class airline seats to drug stores and supermarkets. And chain restaurants like Bennigan's
  • The Kroger Supermarket where I usually shop has people in the Deli department that are so bad that I finally told the manager that I won't ever buy anything from the Deli again. He knows that I'm not a person to complain for no good reason but I suspect there's nothing he can do about it..
  • Frequent flier miles have a perverse way of assuring loyalty. Our loyalty once was based on superior service. Today, we fly primarily first class, whose quality American has lowered to just barely above coach class. Yes, the seats are more roomy, and the food and wine is still better than coach but we have experienced some execrable service from first class flight attendants. One of the problems with nearly full employment, of course, is finding and keeping competent staff. As American's Platinum Class fliers, we have an easier time getting our complaints heard. But it is a sad irony that, to get to Platinum status, we must put up with large numbers of pretty bad flights. American is not alone, of course. We have tried United and Delta first class, and have not been very impressed.'

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BETTER COMPLAINTS BY EMAIL
As the First Class flyer noted above, it's easier to be heard when you are a major customer. That's one of the reasons that consumers are increasingly comfortable with email as their complaint route. It's casual, fast, cost effective, and frequently productive. If it sometimes misses the mark and they get no response at all, some consumers will shrug off the failure with less anger than they feel about an unanswered letter or a phone call that never made it all the way through the electronic menu systems.

Why Email Is Better

  • Faster
  • Cheaper
  • Easier
  • Avoids phone tangle
  • Avoids interrogation
  • Approaches real-time feedback

Few companies are actively promoting email -- they are still more likely to provide an 800 phone number or a website than an email address. It is difficult to obtain the E-mail or www address of a company while often the address of the firm is on their product. So it's not surprising that some consumers actually feel one-up when they have found or gotten an email address that may produce the information or response they are looking for without the hassle of a trip through the mail maze.

  • I prefer email because it is easier, quicker and there's no postage.
  • I think that email is the best thing since "sliced bread" when it comes to communicating with a company. I can't stand the call director things on company phones and email is just an electronic letter! I like it because I can take my time, I can do it whenever I want, and I can re-write until it sounds good to me. I also don't have to deal with getting an "attitude" because my call happens to get to someone who's having a "bad hair day"! I think it's great and I use it all the time.
  • I prefer to email rather than to phone unless things are urgent. With email, you don't have to sit through voice mail and Muzak and general "on-hold" irritations.
  • I have had success with e-mailing companies. The response time has been reasonable. It sure beats hanging on to the phone waiting for an answer, or dialing over and over to get a ringing line instead of a busy signal.
  • Forget the phone. You can't find the right person, if you can even get through the *push this or that button* routine. The mail works, but it requires envelopes, stamps, etc. I will write in the mail if I can't find an email address.
  • Email has been wonderful--immediate response and even if person was unable to resolve I was able to get necessary info to solve problem
  • I've emailed several companies with problems. I usually received prompt replies, as well as coupons for my trouble. Once I emailed Drypers, complaining that their diapers gave my baby a rash. Within ten days I received a $5 check (refunding the purchase price), and a coupon for a free bag of Drypers. They also sent an apology, and asked me to try their product again, and included a questionnaire for me to send in after trying the diapers. I was impressed!
  • Prefer Email to telephone and the need for an interrogation before, if successful, getting to the right person. Also prefer Email to letter writing because of faster response.
  • Yes, I have contacted several companies and have found all of them responded in the next day's email. They were helpful and kind in their responses. I would rather use email because it is faster and more convenient for me
  • I have sent emails to companies and received good responses for the most part. I think it's easier and more convenient than phone calls or letters but think there will still be occasions where a phone call or letter is in order. I don't think email communication should, or will ever, take the place of other forms of communication but it has given us another means of communicating
  • I frequently e-mail companies with both compliments and complaints as well as inquiries if and when I can locate them on the internet or obtain an e-mail address elsewhere. Most of the time the responses have been both timely and positive. Sometimes they are personal sometimes an automated response but usually helpful anyway. Communicating via e-mail is much more convenient and quick.

When and How Email Is Worse

  • Unanswered emails are frequent
  • Slow responses are commonplace.
  • Response-time expectations are hard to meet (may be unrealistic as volume grows)
  • Some companies take email communications less seriously than calls or letters
  • Grass roots outpourings are losing impact

Given the increasing costs of staffing and training customer relations personnel, few companies are giving a bright green light to customer email, or using it to actually enhance their customer relationships.

  • I would say that email is good for quick, initial contact with companies but for anything that is very detailed or that has to be documented for strict legal reasons, letters are better. Email is getting better in that regard with the use of digital signatures, but for now, letters are more...binding?
  • We've emailed companies with questions, requests, and complaints dozens of times. We find that a letter, particularly to the CEO, is the most effective consumer tool and almost always gets attention. Phone calls come in second in our experience. Emails, although the easiest and quickest form of communication, rank last as they are sometimes not acknowledged or acted upon.
  • I've emailed complaints and questions to companies about both products and services. I did get replies but many were untimely, taking as long as if I had written a letter and mailed it and waited for a response. Responses with 3-4 days are rare - they are usually much longer, as much as two weeks. I think I get better results by calling and as far a faxing a letter to companies, I have received no responses to those inquiries.
  • I have tried to Email companies so many times. One out of twenty gives an answer. When they answer, it is very good, but most of the time, it is a waste of time.
  • I have had good results and bad. I emailed Nordstrom about a pair of shoes, got an initial response that they would forward my request to a personal shopper and then never heard back again. I think less of Nordstrom as a result.

The Email Explosion Ahead
Many consumers find phoning too time consuming and consider letters old fashioned and outdated. Many who have not yet emailed a complaint or inquiry expect to do so soon. Some of those we asked were surprised at themselves because they hadn't thought of it. And many had emailed inquiries or complaints only to companies like Amazon that they think are in the email business.

  • I have not filed a complaint by E-mail to any firm, but at this point in time I think my next complaint will by via E-mail.
  • Since we don't purchase by e-mail, we have never sent a complaint by email. Until you asked, I never though of emailing a business about a product I bought in a store.

The Danger of Dismissal
Companies that respond well enhance their customers' bonding. Those that fail to respond or refuse to hear groundswells of emails seriously endanger their reputations as well as their customer bases. Consumers who feel dissed take their business elsewhere - whether the culprit is Nordstrom or Nestle. are playing pay attention

The Dialog Opportunity
To manage their customer relationships efficiently, most corporate managers discourage actual dialog with their emailing customers - many of whom enjoy the email communication process and would be more than willing to keep it going. Here at The Consumer Network, we have found email to be an invaluable tool for enhanced dialog with consumers. It has helped us to learn more about their lives, to more fully understand consumer experiences, to better understand the problems they face, and to speed up the search for solutions. Similar opportunities are available to almost any company that's willing to learn how to dialog.

  • It's easier to type out your thoughts, especially when extremely negative, than to voice them orally and risk alienating the phone answerer!
  • Taco Bell.....called their 1-800 number to complain about horrible service at their fast food place near my town. They assured me that they would "check" it out. Results.....new manager......better service.....and I'm a return customer. A Win/win SITUATION......for all concerned. No free anything.....better service was the reward!
  • I e-mailed my response to a service evaluation request at 11:30 at night. I found that I was able to express more to them in an e-mail letter than in the two small spaces allotted on their form.

Even as providers of mystery shopping services, we recognize the potential value of customer emails as more valid feedback than any mystery shopping service can provide if the company on the receiving end has the means, the foresight and the knowhow to listen..

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