Sprinkling Insight on Holiday Meal Planning

I have gotten smarter in my old age when it comes to holiday cooking, and learned some valuable insights this past Thanksgiving that I'll carry forward to Christmas.

Rather than trying to fit in a Turkey Day road race, attending my nephew’s football game (they won!!!), and zipping home to cook up my part of the family meal -- most of the side dishes -- I simply ordered from a caterer.

I whipped this task out in early November -- but then came a snag. I learned a last-minute guest could only eat gluten-free food, or face certain hospitalization. I had no idea if what I had chosen qualified or not.

I called the neighborhood grocer, who was acting as a middleman for the local caterer, but the staff there couldn’t guarantee the gluten content of my order. I canceled it and switched to dishes from the large, chain grocery up the road.

The chain made special orders like mine so easy. On its website, not only did it list each side’s ingredients, but also used the familiar encircled “G” label that denotes gluten-free. To be doubly sure, I had the guest review the information with me online.

I later realized I could have taken to Twitter, as the large grocery store has an active stream and responds to queries in almost real-time. The company also hosted a #Turkey911 Twitter chat that surely would have resolved my issue.

The grocery chain clearly uses what it learns through social media, and feeds that insight back to stores, buyers, and chefs. In fact, one comment that chastised the company’s Maryland store for not having enough loose bulk tea sparked these follow-ups:

We've had challenges in the past w/Tea Vendor; we r now ordering Tea based on projected sales 2 eliminate running low...

We want 2 have freshest Tea avail yet don’t want to get 2 far ahead w/product; we will now monitor Tea bins daily; hope this helps

The store manager will now most likely closely analyze loose tea consumption and re-jigger purchasing accordingly. To me, this is a great example of where social media can blend with analytics to generate better, real-time decision making.

In fact, the company’s Twitter stream resembles more of a dialogue with customers than the mostly broadcast mode to which some retailers resort.

While I'm a proponent of buying local (I even went back and bought one of my favorite sides the local caterer/grocer carries), this event was an eye opener to the advantages larger retailers offer, including supplying easy-to-access, detailed product data, and improvements based on customer feedback analysis.

Now, about those Christmas yams...

Sandra Gittlen, IT Writer

Sandra is a free-lance business and technology writer in the Boston area. She is a frequent contributor to many high-tech print and online publications. Previously events editor and managing editor of online for IDG's Network World, Sandra has covered all aspects of business intelligence/analytics over the years, writing articles and in-depth issue papers. An industry educator, she moderates Webcasts and conference sessions on an array of technology topics. She can be reached at sandra@slgpublishing.net.

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Re: Increased disparity?
  • 12/28/2012 6:36:14 AM

It would seem to indicate a bit of training of employees would be required to make the fit 'just right.'

In theory it all sounds great, but if just a few mess up, the project might just snowball into a real disaster. Not a happy camp for employees or customers.

Re: Increased disparity?
  • 12/14/2012 7:37:35 AM

I do suspect that part of the issue is being overwhelmed but from what I understand this was a catering company.  I don't know if I'd trust a catering company of any size that can't tell me what is in the food they prepare.  Maybe the person answering the phone doesn't know but it shouldn't be difficult to find someone knowledgeable enough to answer a few simple questions.  I don't think they have to go as far as a bigger company and post their ingredients on a web site for the whole world to see but they really should have more information than the blog post implied.

Re: Increased disparity?
  • 12/13/2012 11:09:15 PM

I'm siding with you on this one. I suspect the smaller shop experiences a lot of what you suggest, mainly a lack of skilled workers to handle such things.

Re: Increased disparity?
  • 12/13/2012 6:06:02 PM

@SaneIT - While there is a possibility that the smaller shop might be too lazy, having worked in small and under-resourced companies, I lean more towards the smaller guys being overwhelmed. They are probably aware of what the big guys are doing but don't have the bodies, budgets, or time to get around to it. Hmm, reminds me of a book I read...Catch-22.

Re: Increased disparity?
  • 12/13/2012 8:40:07 AM

This is a bit of a sad  statement for the little guy.  You would think that the samller shop would have a more intimate knowledge of what was going out their doors and if they didn't know that it would be very easy to find out.  I'm not sure if this is an issue of the smaller shop being too lazy to figure out what is in the food they are selling or they were overwhelmed and didn't have the time to take on the task of verifying foods for you. In either case I can't believe that they were less knowledgeable than a larger chain who has more to keep track of.

Re: Increased disparity?
  • 12/12/2012 9:38:53 AM

In this case, if the local grocer had a website that listed out ingredients that would have gone a long way to keep you a holiday meal customer, no? It could mandate that the local caterer, too, provide information for uploading, too. I think small businesses, no matter how tiny, can better position themselves by having a website with at least basic information on it. 

Re: Increased disparity?
  • 12/12/2012 8:43:32 AM

I feel the same. Hope there is a great leveler that happens at some point for local store owners.

Increased disparity?
  • 12/12/2012 7:58:47 AM

Hi Sandra, I love that your local grocery chain is providing valuable information to shoppers and is listening in and responding to consumers via social media channels. But I have to say I'm a little sad on behalf of the little shop. This seems to be one more example of the ways in which more sophisticated use of data by large companies could lead to the demise of smaller businesses.