Why pre-peeled oranges are not nuts

If your product has a fault in its packaging that made it less attractive to customers, frustrating them and leading them to seek out competitors, you’d do something about it, right?

Wholefoods, an upmarket supermarket chain in the US, has been in the news for the wrong reasons recently thanks to its decision to introduce pre-peeled oranges in plastic packaging to market.

Outrage has caused them to recant, pulling the product from the shelves within days of the first critical tweet.

The disquiet stemmed from two separate but related aspects of the product. First, the use of plastic packaging, and second, what it signaled about consumer laziness.

I’m going to leave the valid concerns about packaging aside, but let’s look at the laziness angle.

Consumers and the path of least resistance

Frankly, there’s a lot of sense in designing products for us humans that often opt for the path of least resistance, particularly when we are short on time or energy.

After all, nature designed us to walk but most of us use cars.

We also use microwaves, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, remote controlled TVs and garages, mobile phones and escalators. Why do we use these products? Convenience and efficiency. They allow us to divert energy we would have exerted on one task to another – even if sadly that’s sitting like lumps watching TV.

So are pre-peeled oranges a bad idea? No. They are removing a pain point for the consumer and increasing the ease with which the product can be consumed. In terms of my effort vs reward equation, Wholefoods was looking to reduce effort without having to increase the reward – a smart thing to do.

The problem seems to be the execution.

A shelf full of fruit that used be packaged by Mother Nature was replaced by a shelf full of plastic. The image tweeted by a perplexed shopper quickly captured attention (including more than 100,000 retweets) because it was both vivid – who would have thought pre-peeled oranges were a thing? – and easy to moralise, given Wholefoods positions itself as environmentally astute.

Added to which, while we are geared to look for the path of least resistance, we don’t like thinking of ourselves, or being perceived by others, as being lazy. Once the ‘lazy’ tag was affixed to the pre-peeled oranges through the media (as opposed to convenient and sensible), they were tarred with a negative social norm that would mark any purchaser as a self-indulgent sloth.

But buying pre-shelled nuts in a plastic container on the other hand …

How you frame your product matters

What could Wholefoods have done differently? Set up an orange-peeling bar where staff peeled the fruit to order so people felt they were getting a special service? Used bio-degradable packaging? Framed it as a healthy snack for busy people who want to eat on the go without getting messy?

What would have encouraged you to feel ok about a pre-peel orange?

For me the lessons from this experience are that while it is a good thing to seek ways of eliminating friction in your customer’s experience of your product, people don’t like the stigma of being perceived as lazy and will bristle at inconsistencies between how a business positions itself and how it acts.

How you frame the advantages of the product therefore can make the difference between a product with a-peel and one that gives people the pips.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.

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