This week I spent two days conducting observational research in a convenience store. Interestingly, while we had set questions and data capture methods, our greatest insights came from what was NOT said by consumers.
First a little background…
This project was the result of joint effort between seemingly disconnected groups: an association, a non-profit advocacy group, a SaaS consumer business and a chain of convenience stores. At a conference earlier this year, Jeff Lenard from the National Association of Convenience Stores NACS, Julie Garel from The Project on Nutrition and Wellness (PNW), (a program of the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution), Aviva Goldfarb, CEO of the Six O’Clock Scramble online meal planning business and Lisa Dell Alba owner of Square One Markets realized they shared the same goal - to help the average family eat more healthy food. Besides a common mission each group also saw the benefits from a PR, policy or sales perspective.
After months of development, the team created The Six O’Clock Scramble Fresh & Fast Family Dinner Kits™. The all-in-one kits provide all the ingredients and recipes time-stressed families need to prepare a fast, fresh meal. The kits sell for under $20 and are designed to feed a family of four. At $5 per person, the dinner kits are an affordable dinner option and less expensive than eating fast food or dining out, and less than half the price of meal-delivery services like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and Plated.
Square One Markets agreed to offer the dinner meal solutions for 10 weeks as part of the pilot test. One to two new meals would be offered each week to customers to test different recipes and combinations (such as Tortellini with Crisp Turkey Bacon and Peas, Tortilla Pepperoni Pizzas, Shredded Chicken Chili and Black Bean and Corn Soup).
This launch was innovative, and therefore risky, in many ways
- The existing convenience store suppliers could not provide the kit ingredients. Regular Square One suppliers delivered either packaged food with a long shelf life, or a single perishable category (like milk). Lisa Dell Alba therefore needed to find and then specially arrange to work with a restaurant supplier in order to get the healthy ingredients. She also needed to schedule the labor to create smaller portions and assemble the kits for the pilot.
- The average time spent in a convenience store is 3-4 minutes. Getting attention, much less trial would be a challenge.
- The regular Square One customer was an individual male stopping in to get a drink, a quick breakfast or lunch or snack for himself. Based on prior research we knew that the decision regarding family dinner tends to be on the mom’s “worry list”.
- Convenience store customers typically did not cook at home. When asked “what else would you do for dinner tonight?” most answered “Fast Food” or “other casual Dining takeout”.
- The convenience store channel was not associated with healthy or family dinner.
The pilot was kicked off on September 29th at Square One Market’s convenience store in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. From a research perspective the team decided to gain insights by observational learning or the uncovering of private information by observing consumers’ actual choices.
The team worked to engage consumers in a variety of ways. The dinner kit bags were prominently displayed when walking in. Signs and Square One’s concierge service at the pumps announced the new product to customers. Inside the store Aviva Goldfarb prepared the meals and offered samples. Customers were asked to fill out a brief raffle form to win a new dinner kit.
Some customers stopped in and tried the samples, commenting on the flavor and good idea of the project. But after several hours, we realized the importance of what was not being said - there was little examination of the actual kit or questions regarding price. The silence meant there was not a purchase preference even if the feedback on the product was positive.
Research on silence shows that consumers can remain quiet for a number of reasons (Zhang).
- Correlated preferences: The silence could simply represent a common distaste or a reluctance to adopt new products. In probing it was found that those who did not try the samples did not like one ingredient (like peas, or black beans). These no’s were considered fixed and unchangeable and were a barrier to trial.
- Correlated contexts: Often silence reflected a very deep skepticism about the idea - that it would really work for the family. It needed to compete with the current behavior of grab and go fast food or take-out where each person got what he or she wanted. Dinner decisions were made in the moment. Luckily the kits could also fit into the last minute decision flow, but were a new idea that needed to be tried and accepted.
- Correlated payoffs: Particularly for moms, dinner “success” does not depend on her tastes or preferences. Success is dependent on whether the entire family eats the meal. Samples were most important for the kids - if they liked it, then the mom was interested. And learning it was healthy was an added bonus.
The pilot is still in motion with much more to observe and test. But included in our plan is observing inaction and silence as important information.