Marketing Lessons from a Food Court

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Whenever I travel I enjoy looking for new and innovative examples of marketing. To be honest, sometimes I emerge from my cave so rarely (feels like anyways) that the main stream pop culture and the marketing that goes with it is often new (ish) to me.

Which often provides me with interesting observations.

Anyhow, I found myself last night in a mall near Seattle (on my way to Mexico.. oh yeah!), grabbing some food with some friends at the food court. It was about 5:30 Friday evening, and the food court was nearly empty.

We wandered around looking for food, past all kinds of restaurants with nobody in line.

Then out of the blue, there’s this little guy in a big red chef’s hat calling us over and offering us a free sample of Teriyaki chicken on a toothpick. “Only $5.69 for a meal!” he told me.

Now you find me one red-blooded male who’s in the process of looking for food who will turn down a nice juicy chunk of hot Teriyaki chicken that’s being waved in his face, and I’ll show you a race of jungle pygmies that walks around on their hands, using their feet only for basket weaving.

Of course I tasted the chicken, and it was marvelous.

Mustering up supreme amounts of willpower, I pulled myself away from the delicious chicken, forcing myself to make a rational evaluation of ALL my options. I was immediately aware of the power of this form of marketing, and though my marketer’s brain loved it, I still wanted to be sure I was making the best choice!

So we walked around, and around, and strangely, I noticed that the more distance I put between myself and the chicken, the easier it was to contemplate eating something else. All the same, the chicken was now the the gold standard, and everything else was being evaluated against the savory flavor still lingering in my mouth. And, it was being evaluated against the price – a rather tempting under 6 bucks for a meal. Most of the other meals were 8 to 10 dollars, thus seeming to be in a different class.

Despite my wanderings, in the end the known quantity won out over the wild cards, and I opted to go back for the chicken. Partly because of price, and partly because I already knew I would like it.

I hopped into line, grabbing an extra sample on the way in 😉

As I sat in line I contemplated their marketing a bit further. Their lineup was 2 rows deep… a total of 25 people in line at the moment I arrived. I had a quick look around. There was a pizza place on the right, with not a soul in line, but tons of pizza sitting there in the warmer. Every now and then someone wandered by and inquired about the price or something.

On the left, there was a Mexican place with about 4 people in line for burritos.

That was the same story all around the food court. In fact, if you added up everyone currently in line, in the entire food court, you’d probably have about 50 leads at any one time. The line I was in had a full 50% of those.

Alright, so I’m sitting there in line. The staff were all hopping… efficient and really giving it all they had. Yelling at each other, chopping stuff, and having a good time – generally looking like they were working hard for the their money. I looked again at the menu… yeah, the chicken looked good. Then I noticed you could substitute noodles for rice, for only 50 cents. Hmm.. I like noodles. Then I noticed just before the till a nice big glossy picture of Teriyaki chicken, and a sign that said “double meat for 99 cents”. Hmm… that sounds good! And then I noticed there were spring rolls as well….

Plus, the meals didn’t come with a drink… so most people in line were buying a drink as well. I skipped that one, but as I looked, nearly every single order (7 out of the 8 that I counted) got the little green toothpick in their carton that indicated double meat. I figure the average order came close to $10, with a drink.

Even though there were 25 people in my line, it moved through pretty quickly, due to the efficiency of their system. I didn’t have to wait to pay, to order, or anything – that was all done well before I ever got to the till. The girl managing the till was taking orders 4-5 people in advance, getting them ordered, prepped and paid before they ever got to the till.

So… What Can We Learn?

A few things stuck out to me from this experience, and I think they’re worth mentioning. First…

The FREE Offer
These guys were out there full time, giving away free food (extremely tasty too) to draw people into their line. They were the only place doing that… in fact most of the other shops looked like you might need to wake up somebody to take your order.

It struck me that all those other shops were seemingly apathetic about their state of affairs. I don’t know if they just never put two and two together, but to me it was obvious. You get someone in with free food, they get that taste in their out, and typically they’re going to want more. Why rock the boat? Go with what you know. Plus, now you feel a slight indebtedness to these guys, as they’ve been so kind as to give you something, asking nothing in return. (Read Predictably Irrational sometime for more on this)

So did they think that THEIR food wasn’t suitable for a toothpick delivery system? I’m sure you could cut up a pizza and do that with toothpicks. I’m not sure how you’d do that with a burrito – though they sell meat too, so why not do the exact same thing? The fast food greasy burger place could offer chicken nuggets or something, or parts of a chicken cutlet. The fish and chips place… chunks of fish. If they really put their mind to it, there would be way. However, nobody did.

I guess this is a good example of ‘moving the free line’ and adapting that into a retail / service environment. Can we do this online? Of course. Offer a free report, or an ebook, or a something.

The LOW initial price & UPSELL
Another thing that stood out to me was the low price of the offer. $5.69. Walking around that food court, it was difficult to find anything else that low. Does that mean these guys were undercutting on price?

Not at all. As I mentioned, I would estimate the average order was much closer to $10 because of the ingenious little upsets. So they definitely weren’t giving up much revenue, even though they came across as the cheapest option out there.

Think we can do this online? You bet. If you’ve got a product, you better have an upsell. The more relevant the better – i.e. double your meat is a terrific upset. What can you do in your market that is similar?

SOCIAL PROOF
There’s something about crowds that draws people – subconsciously I guess we’re social beings, and expect that most of the time, most of the people are right. So… why buck the trend? I hopped in that line despite it being more than 4 times as long as any other lineup in the place, and it remained full the entire time I was in line.

How to take this online? The more comments on your blog, or on your site, or wherever, the more people see that as social proof. Testimonials, success stories… there are lots of ways to create social proof and the feeling of a crowd environment.

BOTTOM LINE
As marketers, it is our DUTY to watch & learn what people IN OTHER INDUSTRIES are doing to get ahead, and then adapt that for our own market.

There were probably 15 businesses in that food court, and only 1 took the initiative to do something interesting to drum up some business. I can pretty well guarantee you this wasn’t the first time they’ve done it either – so all those other businesses have had opportunity to watch & learn. Have they learned? Nope.

I think that will be true for nearly any market. You’ll always have tons of people in a market, but if you can be unique, exciting, innovative, or provide a different twist on something – chances are even if your competition notices, they won’t follow you.

And over time, they’ll be scratching their heads, still wondering why the heck you’re doing so much more business than they are.

Isn’t it a weird world that we live in?


3 Responses to Marketing Lessons from a Food Court
  1. Morris County Movers
    February 9, 2010 | 10:26 am

    Wow, you made some really good points here. The world of marketing is fairly universal – what works in a food court is also likely to work in online business. And it’s amazing how few people really take their marketing lessons and apply them in real life, like in your example, even if you have no formal experience in marketing it seems obvious that the free samples are drawing people in. Why wouldn’t the other businesses catch on? -Josh

  2. Jonathan
    February 9, 2010 | 11:29 am

    Hi Josh – that’s true & the weirdest thing. I just don’t get why the others don’t do it too.

  3. Praveen
    May 19, 2010 | 11:36 pm

    Nice article….well as marketing professionals we not only need to follow thick books full of jargon’s but look at the practical applications which can exist anywhere, like in your case it was in the food court.
    I have come across a few of them myself…one of the Pub in my city Bangalore(India), named ‘Zero G’ promotes sale of Tequila by catching attention of the customers by means of a whistle & clap whenever someone takes a shot….
    The cue from your article can be how to create differentiation in approaching customers by attracting their attention to your offering, but you should not forget your product has to met the hype you create about it…Imagine you trying the Teriyaki Chicken which is given free but does not taste great…all the effort of marketing the product or the business goes in vain…..

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