Lessons on Customer Perception from the Produce Department

Science has done it again… another mystery solved!

Anyone who has eaten a homegrown tomato (particularly a specialty variety) straight off the vine has asked “why can’t grocery store tomatoes taste like this?” For most of us, it ends there with a disappointed groan. But for one team of scientists, it was apparently a compelling enough question to spur a quest for truth.

The answer: it’s our own fault. We consumers demand pretty foods, so agricultural companies bred a “perfect” tomato. Perfect on the outside, anyway. But it turns out that the same gene that contributes to that flawless uniformly red skin also leads to a reduction in sugar production inside the tomato, resulting in that tasteless fruit that disappoints us so.

This came to mind a couple weeks ago while I was visiting a grocery store in Hungary. As I walked through the produce section, these little fellas caught my eye.

customer-perception

They stood out for all the wrong reasons. They weren’t washed or trimmed or neatly stacked, the way I’m used to seeing carrots in a grocery store. But what does that really mean? It means they came straight from the farm to the store, without a detour to a facility for a haircut, a bath, and a bag. It means they were fresh. Isn’t that the whole point of produce anyway?

It was a wake-up call to me, much like the tomato study was, that the things we’ve been trained to react to as consumers (like appearance) can lead us away from the attributes we truly value (like taste and freshness).

And for businesses, there’s another lesson. Having a good product, or even a superior one, isn’t enough. Ask yourself this… how well would that basket of dirty carrots sell in a typical US supermarket next to a display of cleaned and bagged carrots?

And now… how well would it sell if you hung a sign on the basket saying “Straight from the farm”?

Don’t expect your customers to overcome their own biases or challenge their own assumptions. There’s nothing wrong with bucking the status quo, with trying something new, with being genuine and authentic. But if you’re selling dirty carrots or ugly tomatoes, don’t forget to tell people why.

2 Comments

  1. Mike from LTDOnlineStores

    I really love this post, not just because it points out a serious business and branding issue with an easy-to-understand analogy, but because it highlights some other implications that seem pretty important to me: Say you have an “ugly carrot” product. Of course, you want to explain to people why it’s ugly. You’ll say “it’s functional” or “it’s cheap” or “it comes with free shipping and an unrivaled warranty” or whatever its main selling point is. But why can’t you also put a little makeup on it? You can make something look more appealing without necessarily having to sacrifice quality. Those dirty carrots, for example, could have benefit from a quick run under a hose.

    I’m not saying be disingenuous. Lying to customers won’t get you anywhere in the long run. But for example, we have furniture. Sometimes the pictures of that furniture, provided by the manufacturer, makes the furniture look just mediocre, and in the worst cases, downright awful! So, we like to unpack one of each of our products, set it out on our showroom floor, clean it up a bit, then take photos of our own. We take those photos into photoshop and clean the product a bit. This does not take much time, it stays true to the main selling point and quality of our product, but it ALSO puts forward a good-looking front.

    When we do all these things, people are more willing to buy from us.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Thanks for the comment! You’re absolutely right, it’s important to understand what your customers respond to and market your products accordingly. My wife sees the same thing when she posts things for sale on Craigslist — the more carefully she stages the photo the greater her success rate. It’s nothing misleading, just taking the picture with the pool in the background rather than an old picket fence makes a difference in how people respond to the ad.
      I think where people run into trouble is when they think they can get away with rough-around-the-edges marketing because it’s genuine or quirky. That only works when you have the credibility/reputation to pull it off or when there’s a demonstrated benefit to taking shortcuts.

      Reply

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