Work-life planning is a perennial stressor. Not only are we overbooked, but we’re also trying to eat healthier than in past decades, save the planet, buy local and exercise more vigorously, while at the same time indulging ourselves and traveling adventurously. We are looking for any and all ways for our needs to be met and our stress levels lowered, not in a mass way like a national day of no email, but in a very personal way that seems designed to help us exactly when and how we need it.
In all areas of life, traditional business models are being upended as consumers no longer see them meeting their very specific wants. Think Amazon, Uber, Netflix, and Fresh Direct. Consumers tailor their smartphones and tablets to edit what they can see and do, program their own soundtracks using Pandora and Spotify, carry around all their books on a Kindle, and select dining options by referring to Yelp reviews posted by people they don’t know. To a business owner, the customer has become not just a moving target, but almost no target at all.
I have seen that developing dining options for people who are either traveling (airline passengers) or at work (airport employees) is a critical advancement. Since the purpose of their visit is not to dine, but rather to work or fly, they have traditionally been offered generic fare—and they have perceived it to be low quality and high priced—convenient and not much else.
There are several reasons for this. To cite three:
- Rents and other operating costs are higher in airports than in many other venues, and therefore operators must be as efficient as possible in both their buying and selling (pricing).
- Logistical challenges in getting product into the airport and to the actual locations are many. Trucks cannot pull up, park and wheel in your product as they would at a street side location. In many cases, trucks have to be met, drivers’ backgrounds checked, product inspected and other possible security measures enforced. This complexity leads operators to consolidate purchases with as few vendors as possible. By doing this, they inherently limit what they can offer to what those vendors have available.
- Airport concessions move high volumes of product. Manufacturers of these products often offer rebate programs on particular products. These rebates help to offset the higher operating costs and can be substantial, especially for companies with a national or global reach. But the end result is that selection suffers.
Back to our consumers, who are looking for just the thing they want and need at that moment. Chances are that the supply chain impediments are keeping this from happening. But what if this model could be upended?
These days, most of my time is spent working with my clients in the airports. After listening to our customers express disappointment about what they were being offered (and not offered), I have set out to see what changes would be possible. By keeping open lines of communication between employees and customers and constantly probing to discover what they were looking for, we heard about organic, vegetarian, Vegan, Kosher, gluten-free, nut-free, sugar-free, Paleo and raw. We heard about locally produced, fresh without preservatives, healthy yet indulgent. We heard that current options were not good for babies, kids and older people. But what we heard above all was that people were looking for variety.
During a process of adding such variety, it became evident that the existing supply chain could not accommodate us, so we supplemented with some wholesale club and grocery store purchasing as well as a dose of Amazon Prime here and there. As our selections grew and we saw customers responding positively, we knew we were onto something. But we were also getting tired, and had lost some of the efficiency we had previously enjoyed.
It was at this point that we started receiving emails and business cards from customers who wanted us to buy their products and sell them in our stores. They were primarily smaller companies – many of them local – but also some from afar who were traveling through the airports. What could they do to get us to give them a chance?
One light bulb moment turned the whole situation around. They could send us a small amount of product to sample, and we could get immediate feedback from our customers (our stores had become a sort of ongoing focus group by this time). If the samples were well received, these suppliers could then figure out how to get more of their product to us.
We shared our list of current vendors, and some of these suppliers were able to attain placement with them. Others used UPS, and some even hand delivered. Once this process started to gain momentum, we became more aggressive in our search for ways to enhance our offerings, knowing that the lure of airport volumes and exposure was very attractive to many small or growing companies.
This innovative, “smaller is better” supply chain solution became a win for all involved, namely:
- Great exposure
- Opportunities for social media
- Blueprint to go after other similar businesses
- Less cost and effort than trying to gain placement in traditional distribution
- Ability to offer interesting, high quality, often locally sourced products
- Ability to effectively address many ‘micro-niches’
- Replicate rebate programs by eliminating distributor markups, and/or receiving free shipping
- Reduction in delivery logistics, as UPS can deliver right to the location
- Surprised and delighted by breadth of new options
- Much closer to getting what they want or need at that very moment
- Appreciative of seeing local and higher quality offerings in this setting
- Alleviated by healthy and hypoallergenic alternatives
When you are traveling through Boston Logan or New York’s LaGuardia, take a look and see if you like the transitions that my research and guidance are sparking. I think you’ll agree that airport foodservice is moving in the right direction!
About the author
Stacy Moore is president of SMA Food Market Intelligence, an ACDBE that consults within the international foodservice industry and operates several innovative airport retail locations on the East Coast and in the Midwest of the United States. She is also a partner in Cayuga Hospitality Consultants, a global network of hospitality professionals. Stacy can be contacted at [email protected].