Last week I attended the first Portland Digital Experience conference and during a presentation on “Magically Customizing Your Users Experience”, Tom Byrnes from 4-Tell expanded on the fact:

We are not in a service economy, we are in a self-service economy

He supported the argument by highlighting a report from Accenture that found in a retail environment, 60% of customers know more about a product that the sales representative. Not difficult when, as Byrnes pointed out, the average length of service of employees for a major retailer is 6 weeks.

Given the high staff turnover and the relative inexperience that plagues many big box stores, it is no wonder that customers take it upon themselves to educate themselves. Fortunately they now have the tools available to perform research, even while in the actual retail establishment.

The same self-service skills transfer to a restaurant situation, it is relatively easy to use your mobile device to search for details on unfamiliar bottles on a wine list. However that can be a time consuming and socially unpopular activity table-side if you are considering more than a couple of wines. To enable an effective self-service experience, a restaurant needs to provide the tools for a more directed decision making process.

In a recent column, Matt Kramer observed many wine lists are unusable, nothing more than a price list. Kramer suggests that what wine lists need to be, and what a modern sommelier needs to do, is to better educate their customers. In effect, tell a better and more effective story about a wine so that a person can make a better choice. He offers a couple of proposals such as showcasing a select number of interesting wines or using symbols on the wine list to highlight unique items.

However I don’t think either of these really help. A deeper back story on wines might be nice, but who is going to read (or who’s dining partner is going to let them read) a 100 word biography on each potential selection. Highlighting interesting and unique wines is also nice, and wine programs should be encouraged to contain a diverse selection, but is a diner really going to take a chance on a wine if they are not sure that it will match their food?

A wine list cannot be considered in isolation; a selection needs to be made in concert with the food choices. But this is where the self-service economy falls down without additional details from the restaurant about the dominant elements within a dish. So the challenge for restaurants in the new self-service economy is to find ways to provide enough information to assist a diner in making informed decisions.

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