Final Word: The Strategic Squeeze, ‘Creepy-Free’

Kevin Higar, Author, Foodservice Marketing Consultant

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The strategic squeeze. Based on those words, you’re probably wondering if this article has anything to do with foodservice, or if it’s even fit for reading before 10 p.m. Fear not! Feel free to tuck the kids into bed and recite this column to help them drift off to sleep—although I’m not sure its content can compete with princesses or dragons.

The strategic squeeze is a concept’s ability to take a strategy that consumers would historically associate with one foodservice segment and apply it, in a unique and operationally feasible manner, to their own. If successful, it isn’t long before restaurants and retail-foodservice organizations in other segments also take notice and create their own interpretations. Eventually, restaurants in the first segment find they are being “squeezed” strategically with hybrid products and services they initially developed and were given credit for by consumers. It’s the most flattering, if not frustrating, form of foodservice channel blurring.

Let me illustrate this process in action. One of the trends I see developing is what I call “creepy-free” consumer intimacy. This trend seemed to first find legs in the fast-casual arena, where concepts offered, as one of their fundamental tenets, an air of personalization. They were able to do this because many staff members, typically millennials, had been raised in a world where getting to know and accept folks from all sorts of backgrounds is just part of an average day.

Visit a fast-casual concept called Freebirds if you want to see this in action. Specializing in custom-made burritos, the chain encourages its staff members to carry on personalized conversations as customers direct them through the burrito-building process.

This sort of in-store experience was very appealing to fellow millennials, who quickly became loyal customers. Baby boomers also found this opportunity to let their guard down for a few seconds very inviting. Customers paid a few extra bucks not only for the higher-quality foods, but also because employees took the time to get to know them and have very intimate 30-second to 3-minute conversations. It was up close without being creepy.

Well, guess what? Concepts in other segments have taken notice. A little brand called McDonald’s recently commented it will not try to drive future bottom-line profitability solely through P&L expense-line initiatives. It will also look to turn its “reams of data regarding consumer insights” into drivers of top-line sales and traffic. Will it be successful? McD’s has a good shot, if it can execute this intimacy in a manner consumers don’t find invasive or creepy.

In the full-service arena, numerous casual and fine-dining concepts have listed as 2014 initiatives returning to genuine hospitality as a source of perceived value creation. Translated: They plan on treating each customer as an individual and showing sincere appreciation for their business. Butted up against an era in which many restaurants in these segments chose to woo customers primarily through low price points, this consumer intimacy could help create and eventually cement coveted loyalty. That is, if customers feel the effort is genuine and sincere and not too “up in their business.” A fine line indeed.

Put all this together and what you now have are concepts in traditional QSR, casual-dining and fi ne-dining segments all taking a strategic advantage introduced and enjoyed by fast casual and creating their own interpretations to use against it. A classic definition of a strategic squeeze.

So regardless of whether you operate within a retail or restaurant foodservice sector, consider identifying and then translating competitive best practices into unique differentiation elements for your own practice. I personally do this each year for a variety of clients and can safely say that no culinary, hospitality, marketing or operational tactic is off-limits. You might find the strategic squeeze very satisfying—uh-oh, maybe this column is moving toward a different kind of meaning.

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