Stirlingretail

Whose Responsibility is it Anyway?

A few weeks ago I took part in a workshop organised by the Stirling Management School’s Behavioural Science group and supported by SIRE (Scottish Institute for Research in Economics). The topic was consumer preferences, perceptions and decision-making, mainly in the area of food. The aim was to see if there was some common ground amongst a variety of academics and national bodies. The full programme is here.
Now I am not an economist and the origins of this workshop lie in behavioural economics. A number of the presentations struck me as being on narrow topics and perhaps a little removed from the business/retail community. But, the ideas and focus on what consumers do and how they make choices is one that we should all be interested in. ‘Nudge’ and related approaches have become widely known, and the more we can understand what works the better. Starting in a restricted fashion may be the best place.

The fact that this is a vitally important issue was really reinforced by a series of presentations from the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland in the section of the day on public policy. The Scottish diet is well recognised for being unhealthy and health inequalities are a focus for the government. But how do we get beyond knowing we have a problem and getting the changes in behaviour that are so stubbornly refusing to occur?

Discussion focused inevitably on the hot topics of a sugar tax and on alcohol pricing, though there was an interesting digression into the consumer perceptions of different meat products in terms of risk to health and in the acceptance of ‘pink gourmet burgers’ and artisan products. A lack of information in all sorts of ways and levels was a recurring theme.

As with any good workshop there were more ideas than answers but the conversations started will hopefully turn into projects, testing, research and outcomes. The knee-jerk tax option is all too simplistic in my view and is often a substitute for tackling the underlying behaviours – a much harder problem.

And my contribution? I was asked to talk about the place of retailing in food choice and my overheads can be found here, but I tried to bridge the gap between ideas and commercial reality and point to the options and issues available.

It is clear food retailing and food choice have changed fundamentally in the UK. Our choice is now enormous and some of it is damaging, not only to health but also to food retailers, who are currently re-assessing their breadth and depth of assortment. Retail has changed from us as consumers having to adapt our lifestyles to the retail offer to a situation where retailers now have to fit their offer to our lifestyles. This is challenging to retailers, but also to consumers who may be unaware of the damaging effects of those lifestyle choices (in the broadest sense).

Perhaps we have not been radical enough in the levers we could use to affect this – and here we do join with our economists in seeking to understand these levers and building solutions for our modern technological age. Retailers who get this right and make life easier and simpler for consumers in this regard may be on to something.

An alternative (and rather more thorough and thoughtful) perspective on the workshop (by its organiser Seda Erdem) is available here.