March has been an invigorating month for the Penton Baking Group. It started in Anaheim at our Healthy Baking Seminar, and finished up in San Antonio for the American Bakers Association (ABA) 2011 convention. Both events afforded this frozen northern editor a little warm weather and a lot of fresh viewpoints.
With each event, a cautious sense of optimism resonated among bakers and the allieds alike. After three years of weathering storms, from industry-specific commodities tumults to general economic malaise, there is now a light at the end of the tunnel.
But according to Lee Scott, former Wal-Mart CEO and current chairman who spoke with David Orgel, Supermarket News and Baking Management’s content director at the ABA convention, this recovery is anything but a return to normalcy. “The stage has been set for the most volatile and complex times in world history,” he said. “Technology and social networks are driving equality–creating a customer that will know more about your store than you do.”
Scott oversaw Wal-Mart’s golden years of growth between 2000 and 2009, overcoming image and logistics problems to vault the company to the very top of the worldwide retail hill.
So people are buying again, and bakeries are rolling out new SKUs, but the landscape is drastically different than it was only five years ago. Consumers are infinitely connected, with smart phones and laptops providing portals to countless product reviews, opinions, dietary information and anything else one might be curious about.
No longer are purchasing decisions made in the bread aisle, between the consumer and the bread. There is a constant intermediary, in smart phone or netbook form, that serves to broker every modest transaction in which a supermarket patron procures a loaf of sandwich bread. Consumers are better informed than ever. And if they feel they are missing something, they are only a few clumsy-thumbed whacks at an iPhone from being better informed.
Somewhere online, be it a message board, chat room or review site, a conversation about your product is happening. And it is serving to inform consumers. Sometimes it seems that a vocal minority may express the loudest opinions, but digital natives–those who are roughly 35 and younger who haven’t known a life without the internet–know to give the shrill detractors’ opinions the appropriate weight.
This is where the consumers are. This is where the purchasing decisions are made. Like you, I roll my eyes when another marketing analyst talks about Facebook or Twitter, but as worn out as the discussion around them might be, their popularity is a bellwether of a greater consumer trend that relies on interaction and experience sharing via the internet.
According to Scott, Wal-Mart’s greatest successes have been in looking to where the customers will be rather than where they have been. Physically, that could mean new urban Wal-Mart stores or forays into burgeoning middle classes in developing countries. But in a larger sense, it shows that success relies on seeking out where the customers are and accurately predicting where they will be, as opposed to passively waiting for them to come to you. For bakers, that means making the purchasing decision easy for a consumer, long before he or she ever makes it to the bread aisle.