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In 2016 General Electric (GE) sold its domestic appliances division to Haier from China. The American company reached a dismal situation wherein it needs to repay a large debt and streamline its businesses. Selling the consumer-oriented business may have seemed to the management, led at the time by previous CEO Jeff Immelt, as a means to relieve the company from a business that is out-of-line with its other mostly industry-oriented business areas. However, that division was an asset whose value could not be measured just in financial terms — it was more than a capital asset. It provided a valuable support to the brand of General Electric, together with the lighting business. The incoming CEO John Flannery is planning even more drastic changes to the company’s composition, but removing the appliances division might turn out as an obstacle to his mission. The industry brand of GE could benefit from its long appraised consumer brand.

General Electric is engaged in a range of business areas. In some of them the company has obtained or enhanced its capabilities through acquisitions during the tenures of CEOs Jack Welch (1981-2001) and Jeff Immelt (2001-2017). The businesses of GE feature: (1)  Additive –advanced manufacturing technologies (e.g., 3D printing); (2) Aviation — engines, components and electric systems for jets, and avionics (e.g., innovative digital pilot dash-boards); (3) Power, including gas, steam and nuclear power; (4) Industrial Connections, including electrification, grid and control; (5) Healthcare — medical technologies such as ultrasound, MRI  & CT, digital integrated care (i.e., data sharing and management), patient monitoring, surgical imaging and more; (6) Renewable Energy, including wind, solar and hydro, and innovative hybrid solutions; (7) Transportation — digital automation and industrial Internet-of-Things (IoT) solutions for  locomotives, marine (drilling) and mining.  The businesses of GE today are directed largely to industrial, commercial, and public clients. The last business that targets consumers at least in part is Lighting, offering advanced LED bulbs (e.g., smart IoT-controlled, HD-quality), linear fluorescents, and other products.

Noteworthy, digital transformation is omnipresent through most of the businesses of the company, entailing advanced computer-based digital systems, interfaces, and mobile applications (e.g., IoT apps developed in co-operation with leading hi-tech companies). Much of the digital activity seems to be originated, planned and developed at the Digital division or unit of the company (e.g., industrial apps serving IoT products, Predix — the online platform applying IoT data and predictive analytics, manufacturing software, as well as cybersecurity). Internet-of-Things functionality applies also to lighting products for consumers; it was supposed to be implemented as well in their domestic appliances. In practice, the appliances may still be reliant on GE for IoT technology even after the transition.

For many years the Appliances of GE were commonly associated by consumers with quality and durability — having a refrigerator carrying the art-graphic logo sign of GE in the kitchen was taken as a symbol of social status. In 2015 the appliances division generated revenues of $6.34bn, 7.1% of GE’s total revenues. The combined revenues of GE from appliances and lighting, as reported by the company, stood at $8.8bn (an increase of 4.8% from the previous year). Combined profits were $700m, a margin of 7.7% as percentage of revenues (GE 2015 report on financial results, Segment Operations: Appliances and Lighting). GE overall reported a loss in 2015 (see Chart 2). The company first tried to sell its appliances to Electrolux but the deal was objected by the American Department of Justice. A new process for selling the division started with Qingdao Haier, and after six months of negotiations a deal was closed in June 2016 at a price of $5.6bn. The range of appliances in their new ‘home’ includes refrigeration, cleaning (dishwashers), cooking, laundry (washing machines), accessories such as water filters, and air-conditioning.

The division of appliances is now identified as ‘GE Appliances: A Haier Company’. This company is in an interim period of transition, alas outwards its status creates a bit of confusion about who is really in charge. The company’s website is resident at a domain titled ‘geappliances.com’ and the company retains the brand identity of GE. The association with Haier does not seem too committing. For example, whom consumers should expect to be responsible for their appliances? Or, how to distinguish between appliances that originate from GE or from Haier? The headquarters of GE Appliances remains for the time being in US territory in Louisville, Kentucky, under American executive leadership. Recently, the new company announced the creation of appliance connectivity — operation command by voice and through mobile apps (IoT). Yet the technology is reasonably a direct extension of GE’s development of capabilities of Artificial Intelligence and IoT in their businesses for industry.

Haier has thereof received a strategic foothold on US soil, in hope to strengthen its position in the country and establish a long sought market share in the American market; American consumers have refrained from buying appliances of Haier. The Chinese manufacturer rose from a failing refrigerator factory in Qingdao of thirty years ago by instilling over time quality standards that were much higher than those accustomed in China. Zhang Ruimin, leading the transformation, succeeded remarkably in turning the company into a major national appliances manufacturer in China with global extensions. However, the quality standards at Haier remain behind those of developed countries and therefore the company’s efforts to sell in the ‘West’ have been lingering (1). Haier still has a challenge of closing a gap in quality and credibility, which the acquisition from GE is expected to help overcome.  Many consumers in the US as well as in other Western countries will probably remain concerned by ambiguity about the source of their appliances, being of GE (United States) or Haier (China). Haier also gained important American technological know-how (e.g., in AI) from the American company. General Electric apparently gained a financial relief, but one that may be only for a short-term, and the company may have to pay for it in the future.

The new CEO of GE, John Flannery, revealed in an annual ‘Investor Day’ meeting last month (Nov. ’17) the company’s plan to focus on three business areas: power, aviation, and healthcare. It will exit completely some of its existing business operations (e.g., transportation, lighting, industrial solutions, electrification) while reducing its effort and involvement in others. For example, the company will retain its digital unit or division to develop and sell apps to customers for operating and monitoring equipment reliant on Predix platform, yet with a smaller budget. Flannery was less clear on the future of some areas such as renewable energy where the company is not completely willing to leave and some other arrangement may have to be found. Strategically, the plan is to reduce the span of businesses the company engages. In addition, the CEO informed analysts that the company will have to cut in half its dividends.

The share of GE climbed from a level of $25 to $30+ in late 2015 and held its price as high through 2016 with small fluctuations. Then, the price started to slip down continually through 2017. So much for the effect of selling GE Appliances on equity. By August 2017 the share price already came back to $25. Since Flannery entered the CEO office, and subsequently following the announcement of his plan and the harsh cut in dividends, the share price steeply fell to about $18, as low as the band of $15-20 in which the share fluctuated in 2009-2011.

Chart 1 GE Share Price

Analysts were left unsatisfied and critical about the turnaround plan at GE. They complain for instance that the company is too expansive, and that it must increase efficiency and reduce duplicate costs across the organization (Reuters, 13 Nov. ’17). Others express concern in particular about the debt at GE, and that the plan includes insufficient measures to fix problems with the company’s businesses (CNBC.com, 14 Nov. 2017 — also noted, GE share underperformed S&P 500). Part of the cure will have to include exit from some businesses (e.g., where GE entered by acquiring another company or where it did not build a substantial advantage). Nevertheless, increasing efficiency and reducing duplicate costs can be achieved also by merging some associated areas and consolidating them into a new division, though perhaps narrowing the scope of operation in each field. One example for doing so may be in the area of energy: sources, production or distribution (i.e., power, renewable energy, connections). Another area to consider is ‘digital’ — balancing between development of original technologies and solutions in a central unit, and their implementation for specific systems and equipment in the various business divisions. Letting go of the appliances business could be seen as a logical way to free resources for advancing industry-related areas of expertise that remain. But solving problems of over-expansion and inefficiency in the industry-oriented businesses did not have to come at the expense of the consumer-oriented business in which the company developed product and brand advantages over decades.

The company has to come to terms now with damages from excessive expansion-by-acquisition, a strategy led by Welch and followed by Immelt. The ‘elephant in the room’ for the company is GE Capital, the investment bank of General Electric, whose troubles particularly since 2009 inflict on the whole company. Now the company under Flannery plans to heal by letting go of some more of its genuine businesses such as transportation and lighting (Matt Egan, CNNMoney.com, 20 Nov. ’17), that is, in addition to the appliances already shed by Immelt. The company has built an expertise in transportation, especially locomotives, during the past hundred years. Lighting can be regarded as a founder’s asset of the company (i.e., attributed to Thomas Edison); as described by Egan, lighting “symbolizes the company’s history of innovation”. General Electric could find it very difficult to continue after removing parts of its heart and soul.

The intensive occupation of the company with allocation of capital was initiated and developed by Welch but it spiralled out of control under the leadership of Immelt. The latter quadrupled the amount of capital invested in the company (from $42bn in 2001 to $163bn in 2009) which involved a significant increase in borrowing. By 2011 it was recognised as a major problem with the management of Immelt. Geoff Colvin of Fortune described how Immelt as CEO remade the portfolio of GE, for instance by entering new “future industries”  (e.g., healthcare, green energy). However, his aggressive expansion came at a high cost. While the CEO already tried to unburden the company from some businesses (e.g., NBC and Universal Studios), it was seen by analysts as insufficient. The real issue at GE, as Colvin noted, was capital allocation, and it became more so critical at GE Capital (2). The decision to quit the involvement of GE in TV broadcasting and online media (NBC) as well as cinema productions (Universal) sounds very reasonable. Conversely, the claim supported also by Colvin that Immelt was waiting too long to unload appliances (executed only in 2016) and lighting (never completed to-date) from GE should be much less applauded because these business areas made-up a distinct branch at GE with deep roots, and were also carriers of its consumer brand, a valued non-tangible asset.

In a highly critical opinion column in the Financial Times, John Gapper argues that focusing management on capital allocation could kill GE as an industrial company. It would make GE operate more like an equity fund. The company needs to shift because it may no longer be sustainable to run a manufacturing conglomerate as in the 1980s. However, it does not require to treat the business units as equity holdings for capital optimization: “Once efficient allocation becomes the priority, it is hard avoid this cycle.” It cannot be surprising for Flannery to continue this path, following the leadership of Welch and Immelt, considering his long career at GE Capital, up to the latest post he held as head of that division. Culture and a style of management have kept the units of GE stick together like a glue for many years. Without them, Gapper wonders how longer GE can hold together (FT.com 15 Nov. ’17).

The financial figures of GE in 2015 and 2016, as published in the Fortune 500 ranking, show little so far in favour of the impact of exiting from some business activities such as Appliances, measures taken by Immelt to heal the company in his last years in office: The revenues have fallen, but moreover the return on revenues has also decreased from a level of 8%-10% in 2011-2014 to 7% in 2016, after recovering from a loss in 2015 (Chart 2 below). It should be noted nonetheless that the value of assets has already shrunk by 50% between 2011 ($717bn) and 2016 ($365bn).

Chart 2 GE Revenues and Profits

  • General Electric descended from former 6th-9th positions in the ranking of Fortune 500 (US) to 11th place in 2015 and 13th in 2016.

The products of GE for consumers, both appliances and lighting devices, were the ‘face’ of the company to the wide public and a closer form of connection with consumers. Their contribution is in providing stability and longevity to the GE brand, identified by name, logo, and other associated elements. Above all, the brand was represented in products, equipment and devices, in millions of homes, to be useful in the everyday lives of the consumers and make their lives more comfortable. The domestic products also were a channel to implement some of the technological progress and innovation of the company and demonstrate them to a wider public audience. Consequently, exposing consumers (who also happen to be small investors) to GE could help to increase public confidence in the company, especially in turbulent times.

General Electric did not depend on the appliances and may do well without that business. The same may be true for the lighting business. But removing them will not bring the cure either– the selling of GE Appliances apparently has gone wasted so far. Instead, keeping the consumer products would have enhanced the corporate brand. The management could perhaps have gained some peace of mind while reforming their industry-related businesses. In the medium term, making reforms could be a little harder for Flannery and his top-management team to push through. In the longer term, leaving consumer products out of the company — as already happened with the appliances and is expected to repeat with lighting — may remain as a wound, something amiss, in the reputation and brand image of General Electric.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) “Zhang Ruimin’s Haier Power”, Michael Schuman, Time (Europe), 14 April 2014 (183 (14)).

(2) “Grading Jeff Immelt”, Geoff Colvin, Fortune (Europe), 28 February 2011 (163 (3)).

 

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Fifteen years have passed since a Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to Daniel Kahneman to this time (Fall 2017) when another leading researcher in behavioural economics, Richard Thaler, wins this honourable prize. Thaler and Kahneman are no strangers — they have collaborated in research in this field from its early days in the late 1970s. Moreover, Kahneman together with the late Amos Tversky helped Thaler in his first steps in this field, or more generally in meeting economics with psychology. Key elements of Thaler’s theory of Mental Accounting are based on the value function in Kanheman and Tversky’s Prospect theory.

In recent years Thaler is better known for the approach he devised of choice architecture and the tools of nudging, as co-author of the book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness” with Cass Sunstein (2008-9). However, at the core of the contribution of Thaler is the theory of mental accounting where he helped to lay the foundations of behavioural economics. The applied tools of nudging are not appropriately appreciated without understanding the concepts of mental accounting and other phenomena he studied with colleagues which describe deviations in judgement and behaviour from the rational economic model.

Thaler, originally an economist, was unhappy with predictions of consumer choice arising from microeconomics — the principles of economic theory were not contested as a normative theory (e.g., regarding optimization) but claims by economists that the theory is able to describe actual consumer behaviour and predict it were put into question. Furthermore, Thaler and others early on argued that deviations from rational judgement and choice behaviour are predictable.  In his ‘maverick’ paper “Toward a Positive Theory of Consumer Choice” from 1980, Thaler described and explained deviations and anomalies in consumer choice that stand in disagreement with the economic theory. He referred to concepts such as framing of gains and losses, the endowment effect, sunk costs, search for information on prices, regret, and self-control (1).

The theory of mental accounting developed by Thaler thereafter is already an integrated framework that describes how consumers perform value judgements and make choice decisions of products and services to purchase while recognising psychological effects in making economic decisions (2).  The theory is built around three prominent concepts (described here only briefly):

Dividing a budget into categories of expenses: Consumers metaphorically (but sometimes physically) allocate the money of their budget into buckets or envelopes according to type or purpose of expenses. It means that they do not transfer money freely between categories (e.g., food, entertainment). This concept contradicts the economic principle of fungibility, thus suggesting that one dollar is not valued the same in every category. A further implication is that each category has a sub-budget allotted to it, and if expenses in the category during a period surpass its limit, a consumer will prefer to give up on the next purchase and refrain from adding money from another category. Hence, for instance,  Dan and Edna will not go out for dinner at a trendy restaurant if that requires taking money planned for buying shoes for their child. However, managing the budget according to the total limit of income in each month is more often unsatisfactory, and some purchases can still be made on credit without hurting other purchases in the same month. On the other hand, it can readily be seen how consumers get into trouble when they try to spread too many expenses across future periods with their credit cards, and lose track of the category limits for their different expenses.

Segregating gains and integrating losses: In the model of a value function by Kahneman and Tversky, value is defined upon gains and losses as one departs from a reference point (a “status quo” state). Thaler explicated in turn how properties of the gain-loss value function would be implemented in practical evaluations of outcomes. The two general “rules”, as demonstrated most clearly in “pure” cases, say: (a) if there are two or more gains, consumers prefer to segregate them (e.g., if Chris makes gains on two different shares on a given day, he will prefer to see them separately); (b) if there are two or more losses, consumers prefer to integrate them (e.g., Sarah is informed of a price for an inter-city train trip but then told there is a surcharge for travelling in the morning — she will prefer to consider the total cost for her requested journey). Thaler additionally proposed what consumers would prefer doing in more complicated cases of “mixed” gains and losses, whether to segregate between the gain and loss (e.g., if the loss is much greater than the gain) or integrate them (e.g., if the gain is larger than the loss so that one remains with a net gain).

Adding-up acquisition value with transaction value to evaluate product offers: A product or service offer generally exhibits in it benefits and costs to the consumer (e.g., the example of a train ticket above overlooked the benefit of the travel to Sarah). But value may arise from the offering or deal itself beyond the product per se. Thaler recognised that consumers may look at two sources of value, and composing or adding them together would yield the overall worth of a product purchase offer: (1) Acquisition utility is the value of a difference between the [monetary] value equivalent of a product to the consumer and its actual price; (2) Transaction utility is the value of a difference between the actual price and a reference price. In the calculus of value, hides the play of gains and losses. This value concept was quite quickly adopted by consumer and marketing researchers in academia and implemented in means-end models that depict chains of value underlying the purchase decision process of consumers (mostly in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s). Thaler’s approach to ‘analysing’ value is getting more widely acknowledged and applied also in practice, as expressions of value as such in consumer response to offerings can be found in so many domains of marketing and retailing.

A reference price may receive different representations, for instance: the price last paid; price recalled from a previous period; average or median price in the same product class; a ‘normal’ or list price; a ‘fair’ or ‘just’ price (which is not so easy to specify). The transaction value may vary quite a lot depending on the form of reference price a consumer uses, ceteris paribus, and hence affect how the transaction value is represented (i.e., as a gain or a loss and its magnitude). Yet, it also suggests that marketers may hint to consumers a price to be used as a reference price (e.g., an advertised price anchor) and thus influence consumers’ value judgements.

We often observe and think of discounts as a difference between an actual price (‘only this week’) and a higher normal price — in this case we may construe the acquisition value and transaction value as two ways to perceive gain on the actual price concurrently. But the model of Thaler is more general because it recognizes a range of prices that may be employed as a reference by consumers. In addition, a list price may be suspected to be set higher to invoke in purpose the perception of a gain vis-à-vis the actual discounted price which in practice is more regular than the list price. A list price or an advertised price may also serve primarily as a cue for the quality of the product (and perhaps also influence the equivalent value of the product for less knowledgeable consumers), while an actual selling price provides a transaction value or utility. In the era of e-commerce, consumers also appear to use the price quoted on a retailer’s online store as a reference; then they may visit one of its brick-and-mortar stores, where they hope to obtain their desired product faster, and complain if they discover that the price for the same product in-store is much higher. Where customers are increasingly grudging over delivery fees and speed, a viable solution to secure customers is to offer a scheme of ‘click-and-collect at a store near you’. Moreover, when more consumers shop with a smartphone in their hands, the use of competitors’ prices or even the same retailer’s online prices as references is likely to be even more frequent and ubiquitous.


  • The next example may help further to illustrate the potentially compound task of evaluating offerings: Jonathan arrives to the agency of a car dealer where he intends to buy his next new car of favour, but there he finds out that the price on offer for that model is $1,500 higher than a price he saw two months earlier in ads. The sales representative claims prices by the carmaker have risen lately. However, when proposing a digital display system (e.g., entertainment, navigation, technical car info) as an add-on to the car, the seller proposes also to give Jonathan a discount of $150 on its original price tag.
  • Jonathan appreciates this offer and is inclined to segregate this saving apart from the additional pay for the car itself (i.e., ‘silver-lining’). The transaction value may be expanded to include two components (separating the evaluations of the car offer and add-on offer completely is less sensible because the add-on system is still contingent on the car).

Richard Thaler contributed to the revelation, understanding and assessment of implications of additional cognitive and behavioural phenomena that do not stand in line with rationality in the economic sense. At least some of those phenomena have direct implications in the context of mental accounting.

One of the greater acknowledged phenomena by now is the endowment effect. It is the recognition that people value an object (product item) already in their possession more than when having the option of acquiring the same object. In other words, the monetary compensation David would be willing to accept to give up on a good he holds is higher than the amount he would agree to pay to acquire it —  people principally have a difficulty to give up on something they own or endowed with (no matter how they originally obtained it). This effect has been most famously demonstrated with mugs, but to generalise it was also tested with other items like pens. This effect may well squeeze into consumers’ considerations when trying to sell much more expensive properties like their car or apartment, beyond an aim to make a financial gain. In his latest book on behavioural economics, ‘Misbehaving’, Thaler provides a friendly explanation with graphic illustration as to why fewer transactions of exchange occur between individuals who obtain a mug and those who do not, due to the endowment effect vis-à-vis a prediction by economic theory (3).

Another important issue of interest to Thaler is fairness, such as when it is fair or acceptable to charge a higher price from consumers for an object in shortage or hard to obtain (e.g., shovels for clearing snow on the morning after a snow storm). Notably, the perception of “fairness” may be moderated depending on whether the rise in price is framed as a reduction in gain (e.g., a discount of $2o0 from list price being cancelled for a car in short supply) or an actual loss (e.g., an explicit increase of $200 above the list price) — the change in actual price is more likely to be perceived as acceptable in the former case than the latter (4). He further investigated fairness games (e.g., Dictator, Punishment and Ultimatum). Additional noteworthy topics he studied are susceptibility to sunk cost and self-control.

  • More topics studied by Thaler can be traced by browsing his long list of papers over the years since the 1970s, and perhaps more leisurely through his illuminating book: “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics” (2015-16).

The tactics of nudging, as part of choice architecture, are based on lessons from the anomalies and biases in consumers’ procedures of judgement and decision-making studied by Thaler himself and others in behavioural economics. Thaler and Sunstein looked for ways to guide or lead consumers to make better choices for their own good — health, wealth and happiness — without attempting to reform or alter their rooted modes of thinking and behaviour, which most probably would be doomed to failure. Their clever idea was to work within the boundaries of human behaviour to modify it just enough and in a predictable way to put consumers on a better track to a choice decision. Nudging could mean diverting a consumer from his or her routine way of making a decision to arrive to a different, expectedly better, choice outcome. It often likely involves taking a consumer out of his or her ‘comfort zone’. Critically important, however, Thaler and Sunstein conditioned in their book ‘Nudge’ that: “To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates“. Accordingly, nudging techniques should not impose on consumers the choice of any designated or recommended options (5).

Six categories of nudging techniques are proposed: (1) defaults; (2) expect errors; (3) give feedback; (4) understanding “mappings”; (5) structure complex choices; and (6) incentives. In any of these techniques, the intention is to allow policy makers to direct consumers to choices that improve the state of consumers. Yet, the approach they advocate of ‘libertarian paternalism’ is not received without contention —  while libertarian, that is without coercing a choice, a question remains what gives an agency or policy maker the wisdom and right to determine which options should be better off for consumers (e.g., health plans, saving and investment programmes). Thaler and Sunstein discuss the implementation of nudging mostly in the context of public policy (i.e., by government agencies) but these techniques are applicable just as well to plans and policies of private agencies or companies (e.g., banks, telecom service providers, retailers in their physical and online stores). Nevertheless, public agencies and even more so business companies should devise and apply any measures of nudging to help consumers to choose the better-off and fitting plans for them; it is not for manipulating the consumers or taking advantage of their human errors and biases in judgement and decision-making.

Richard Thaler reviews and explains in his book “Misbehaving” the phenomena and issues he has studied in behavioural economics through the story of his rich research career — it is an interesting, lucid and compelling story. He tells in a candid way about the stages he has gone through in his career. Most conspicuously, this story also reflects the obstacles and resistance that faced behavioural economists for at least 25-30 years.

Congratulations to Professor Richard Thaler, and to the field of behavioural economics to which he contributed wholesomely, in theory and in its application.    

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) Toward a Positive Theory of Consumer Choice; Richard H. Thaler, 1980/2000; in Choices, Values and Frames (eds. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky)[Ch. 15: pp. 269-287], Cambridge University Press. (Originally published in Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization.)

(2) Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice; Richard H. Thaler, 1985; Marketing Science, 4 (3), pp. 199-214.

(3) Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics; Richard H. Thaler, 2016; UK: Penguin Books (paperback).

(4) Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias; Daniel Kahneman, Jack L. Knetsch, & Richard H. Thaler, 1991/2000; in Choices, Values and Frames (eds. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky)[Ch. 8: pp. 159-170], Cambridge University Press. (Originally published in Journal of Economic Perspectives).

(5) Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness; Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, 2009; UK: Penguin Books (updated edition).

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The discipline of consumer behaviour is by now well versed in the distinction between System 1 and System 2 modes of thinking, relating in particular to consumer judgement and decision making, with implications for marketing and retail management. Much appreciative gratitude is owed to Nobel Prize Laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman for bringing forward the concept of these thinking systems to the knowledge of the wider public (i.e., beyond academics) in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2012). ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’, though not always using these labels, have been identified and elaborated by psychologists earlier than Kahneman’s book, as the author so notes. However, Kahneman succeeds in making more crystal clear the concepts of these different modes of thinking while linking them to phenomena studied in his own previous research, most notably in collaboration with the late Amos Tversky.

In a nutshell: System 1’s type of thinking is automatic, associative and intuitive; it tends to respond quickly, but consequently it is at higher risk of jumping to wrong conclusions. It is the ‘default’ type of thinking that guides human judgement, decisions and behaviour much of the time. On the other hand, System 2’s type of thinking is deliberative, logical, critical, and effortful; it involves deeper concentration and more complex computations and rules. System 2 has to be called to duty voluntarily, activating rational thinking and careful reasoning. Whereas thinking represented by System 1 is fast and reflexive, that of System 2 is slow and reflective.

Kahneman describes and explains the role, function and effect of System 1 and System 2 in various contexts, situations or problems. In broad terms: Thinking of the System 1 type comes first; System 2 either passively adopts impressions, intuitive judgements and recommendations by System 1 or actively kicks-in for more orderly examination and correction (alas, it tends to be lazy, not in a hurry to volunteer). Just to give a taste, below is a selection of situations and problems in which Kahneman demonstrates the important differences between these two modes of thinking, how they operate and the outcomes they effect:

  • # Illusions (e.g., visual, cognitive)  # Use of memory (e.g., computations, comparisons)  # Tasks requiring self-control  # Search for causal explanations  # Attending to information (“What You See Is All There Is”)  # Sets and prototypes (e.g., ‘average’ vs. ‘total’ assessments)  # Intensity matching  # ‘Answering the easier question’ (simplifying by substitution)  # Predictions (also see correlation and regression, intensity matching, representativeness)  # Choice in opt-in and opt-out framing situations (e.g., organ donation)
  • Note: In other contexts presented by Kahneman (e.g., validity illusion [stock-picking task], choice under Prospect Theory), the author does not connect them explicitly to  System 1 or System 2 so their significance may only be indirectly implied by the reader.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of System 1 and System 2 we should inspect the detailed aspects differentiating between these thinking systems. The concept of the two systems actually emerges from binding multiple dual-process theories of cognition together, thus appearing to be a larger cohesive theory of modes of thinking. Each dual process theory is usually focused on a particular dimension that distinguishes between two types of cognitive processes the human mind may utilise. However, those dimensions ‘correlate’ or ‘co-occur’, and a given theory often adopts aspects from other similar theories or adds supplementary properties; the dual-system conception hence is built on this conversion. The aspects or properties used to describe the process in each type of system are extracted from those dual-process theories. A table presented by Stanovich (2002) helps to see how System 1 and System 2 contrast in various dual-process theories. Some of those theories are: [For brevity, S1 and S2 are applied below to refer to each system.)

  • S1: Associative system / S2: Rule-based system (Sloman)
  • S1: Heuristic processing / S2: Analytic processing (Evans)
  • S1: Tacit thought process / S2: Explicit thought process (Evans and Over)
  • S1: Experiential system / S2: Rational system (Epstein)
  • S1: Implicit inference / S2: Explicit inference (Johnson-Laird)
  • S1: Automatic processing / S2: Controlled processing (Shiffrin and Schneider)

Note: Evans and Wason related to Type 1 vs. Type 2 processes already in 1976.

  • Closer to consumer behaviour: Central processing versus peripheral processing in the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty, Cacioppo & Schumann) posits a dual-process theory of routes to persuasion.

Each dual process theory provides a rich and comprehensive portrayal of two different thinking modes. The theories complement each other but they do not necessarily depend on each other. The boundaries between the two types of process are not very sharp, that is, features of the systems are not all exclusive in the sense that a particular property associated with a process of System 1 may occur in a System 2 process, and vice versa. Furthermore, the processes also interact with one another, particularly in a way where System 2 relies on products of thought from System 1, either approving them or using them as a starting-point for further analysis. Nevertheless, occasionally System 2 may generate reasons for us merely to justify a choice made by System 1 (e.g., a consumer likes a product for the visual appearance of its packaging or its design).

Stanovich follows the table of theories with a comparison of properties describing System 1 versus System 2 as derived from a variety of dual process theories, but without attributing them to any specific theory (e.g., holistic/analytic, relatively fast/slow, highly contextualized/decontextualized). Comparative lists of aspects or properties have been offered by other researchers as well. Evans (2008) formed a comparative list of more than twenty attributes which he divided into four clusters (describing System 1/System 2):

  • Cluster 1: Consciousness (e.g., unconscious/conscious, automatic/controlled, rapid/slow, implicit/explicit, high capacity/low capacity)
  • Cluster 2: Evolution (e.g., evolutionary old/recent, nonverbal/linked to language)
  • Cluster 3: Functional characteristics (e.g.,  associative/rule-based, contextualized/abstract, parallel/sequential)
  • Cluster 4: individual differences (universal/heritable, independent of/linked to general intelligence, independent of/limited by working memory capacity).

Listings of properties collated from different sources (models, theories), interpreted as integrative profiles of System 1 and System 2 modes of thinking, may yield a misconception of the distinction between the two systems as representing an over-arching theory. Evans questions whether it is really possible and acceptable to tie the various theories of different origins under a common roof, suggested as an over-arching cohesive theory of two systems (he identifies problems residing mainly with ‘System 1’). It could be more appropriate to approach the dual-system presentation as a paradigm or framework to help one grasp the breadth of aspects that may distinguish between two types of cognitive processes and obtain a more comprehensive picture of cognition. The properties are not truly required to co-occur altogether as constituents of a whole profile of one system or the other. In certain domains of judgement or decision problems, a set of properties may jointly describe the process entailed. Some dual process theories may take different perspectives on a similar domain, and hence the aspects derived from them are related and appear to co-occur.

  • Evans confronts a more widely accepted ‘sequential-interventionist’ view (as described above) with a ‘parallel-competitive’ view.

People use a variety of procedures and techniques to form judgements, make decisions or perform any other kind of cognitive task. Stanovich relates the structure, shape and level of sophistication of the mental procedures or algorithms of thought humans can apply, to their intelligence or cognitive capacity, positioned at the algorithmic level of analysis. Investing more effort in more complicated techniques or algorithms entailed in rational thinking is a matter of volition, positioned at the intentional level (borrowed from Dennett’s theorizing on consciousness).

However, humans do not engage a great part of the time in thought close to the full of their cognitive capacity (e.g., in terms of depth and efficiency). According to Stanovich, we should distinguish between cognitive ability and thinking dispositions (or styles). The styles of thinking a person applies do not necessarily reflect everything one is cognitively capable of. Put succinctly, the fact that a person is intelligent does not mean that he or she has to think and act rationally; one has to choose to do so and invest the required effort into it. When one does not, it opens the door for smart people to act stupidly. Furthermore, the way a person is disposed to think is most often selected and executed unconsciously, especially when the thinking disposition or style is relatively fast and simple. Cognitive styles that are entailed in System 1, characterised as intuitive, automatic, associative and fast, are made to ease the cognitive strain on the brain, and they are most likely to occur unconsciously or preconsciously. Still, being intuitive and using heuristics should not imply a person will end up acting stupidly — some would argue his or her intuitive decision could be more sensible than one made when trying to think rationally; it may depend on how thinking in the realm of System 1 happens — if one rushes while applying an inappropriate heuristic or relying on an unfitting association, he or she could become more likely to act stupidly (or plainly, ‘being stupid’).

Emotion and affect are more closely linked to System 1. Yet, emotion should not be viewed ultimately as a disruptor of rationality. As proposed by Stanovich, emotions may fulfill an important adaptive regulatory role — serving as interrupt signals necessary to achieve goals, avoiding entanglement in complex rational thinking that only keeps one away from a solution, and reducing a problem to manageable dimensions. In some cases emotion does not disrupt rationality but rather help to choose when it is appropriate and productive to apply a rational thinking style (e.g., use an optimization algorithm, initiate counterfactual thinking). By switching between two modes of thinking, described as System 1 and System 2, one has the flexibility to choose when and how to act in reason or be rational, and emotion may play the positive role of a guide.

The dual-system concept provides a way of looking broadly at cognitive processes that underlie human judgement and decision making. System 1’s mode of thinking is particularly adaptive by which it allows a consumer to quickly sort out large amounts of information and navigate through complex and changing environments. System 2’s mode of thinking is the ‘wise counselor’ that can be called to analyse the situation more deeply and critically, and provide a ‘second opinion’ like an expert. However, it intervenes ‘on request’ when it receives persuasive signals that its help is required. Consideration of aspects distinguishing between these two modes of thinking by marketing and retail managers can help them to better understand how consumers conduct themselves and cater to their needs, concerns, wishes and expectations. Undertaking this viewpoint can especially help, for instance, in the area of ‘customer journeys’ — studying how thinking styles direct or lead the customer or shopper through a journey (including emotional signals), anticipating reactions, and devising methods that can alleviate conflicts and reduce friction in interaction with customers.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

References:

(1)  Thinking, Fast and Slow; Daniel Kahneman, 2012; Penguin Books.

(2) Rationality, Intelligence, and Levels of Analysis in Cognitive Science (Is Dysrationalia Possible); Keith E. Stanovich, 2002; in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid (Robert J. Sternberg editor)(pp. 124-158), New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

(3) Dual-Processing Accounts of Reasoning, Judgment and Social Cognition; Jonathan St. B. T. Evans, 2008; Annual Review of Psychology, 59, pp. 255-278. (Available online at psych.annualreviews.org, doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093629).

 

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For Shufersal, the leading food retailer operating supermarkets in Israel, it looks like the sky is the limit. This is a message strongly received from the CEO of Shufersal, Itzhak Aberkohen, in a recent interview given to Globes business newspaper (for its annual publication of consumer-based equity-ranking of brands, July 2017). Shufersal is already a major national retailer, but since the collapse and sell-off of the main competing food chain Mega last year the road ahead is clear more than ever for Shufersal to ride on to stardom. The plans presented by the retailer’s CEO are definitely leading in that direction on different fronts.

  • Note: Shufersal has also been known as ‘Supersol’ but it appears that the retailer is moving to suppress that name in favour of enhancing its Shufersal brand name. The original name chosen for the retailer almost sixty years ago was composed by joining two words: ‘Shufra’ from Aramaic meaning excellent and ‘Sal’ which means basket in Hebrew. The retailer founded the first modern American-style supermarket in Israel in Tel-Aviv in 1958. Israelis frequently name the retailer ‘Supersal’ or ‘Shufersal’. The official choice of ‘Shufersal‘ by the company should make the consumers happy while remaining as true as possible to the legacy name.

The retailing company Shufersal operates over 270 stores. They are divided into multiple sub-chains of different store formats, designed to target different consumer segments or accommodate distinct shopping situations or goals. Three main sub-chains are: “My Shufersal” (the core sub-chain of ‘classic’ supermarkets in neighbourhoods); “Shufersal Deal” (large discount stores); and “Shufersal Express” (small convenience stores in neighbourhoods). Like most food chains, the stores offer in fact not only food and drink products but a larger variety of grocery and housekeeping products, and may sell as well toiletry or personal care products. Shufersal operates in addition a channel for online or digital shopping. It also has its own brand of products carrying the retailer’s name. The CEO seeks to enhance the company’s capacities in these domains, and then extend further. An important aspect in his plan is the digital transformation of the company’s retail operations and services.

  • Note that supermarkets in various countries may selectively add in different times and locations other product ranges (e.g., books and magazines, electric home equipment, housewares).

Shufersal is now on the verge of making a strategic entry into the field of ‘pharma’ retailing with the acquisition of New-Pharm, the second-sized pharma chain in the country. The food retailer already sells toiletry products in its stores, as indicated above, but it has no access to cosmetics (e.g., perfumed lotions, make-up) and non-subscription medications (via pharmacy departments). Taking over New-Pharm would provide it with this capability through the pharma-dedicated and licensed stores. The dominant leader in pharma in Israel is Super-Pharm, which gets the respect of Mr. Aberkohen as a successful and highly professional retail competitor in that field. Shufersal should be able to get better terms for purchasing toiletry products for its supermarkets and other stores, but the addition of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals seems less fitting its current line of business. It makes sense if the retailer had department stores where one of the departments would sell cosmetics, but that is not the case of Shufersal; it would probably have to operate the pharma stores separately. Undertaking the responsibility of operating pharmacies could create even greater complications that may outweigh the benefit of margins from selling OTC medications, nutrition supplements and other devices.

The deal is still awaiting approval of the antitrust supervisor by the end of August 2017. The main obstacle comprises 6-8 flagship stores that the supervisor may not allow the food retailer to have. Aberkohen has said in the interview that the acquisition of the pharma retailer would not be worth it without those stores. There could be additional restrictions due to vicinity of “Deal” stores and “My” supermarkets to some New-Pharm stores.  Aberkohen believes that the increased variety and assortment of toiletry products the company will be able to sell together with the new categories will make an important contribution to its sales potential but will also create a more balanced competitive challenge against Super-Pharm (i.e., as two equivalent retail powers) that will benefit consumers in personal care and grooming. The suppliers are concerned, however, that the bargaining power of Shufersal will become significantly, perhaps exceedingly, stronger in toiletry, and that the retailer will link the trading terms for their presence in New-Pharm stores with presence of their products in the Shufersal stores (Globes [Hebrew], 15 August 2017).

Shufersal’s CEO seems to have little regard for its follower Mega under a new ownership. Most of the chain, neighbourhood supermarkets (“Mega City”, 127 stores), was bought from a holding company (“Alon Blue Square”) in a rather bad state by a medium-sized food retailer of discount warehouse-like stores (“Bitan”) in May 2016. Other discount stores were sold and distributed among some smaller discount retail chains. Since then a few more supermarkets of Mega were apparently sold or closed. Bitan has roughly more than doubled the total number of stores in its ownership since acquiring Mega (on a scale from 70-80 to 180-190). Aberkohen argues that Bitan seems to be taking hold of the operation of Mega City but there is still much work ahead to re-organise its whole retail business. Occasional signs in the stores imply that the new owner is still grappling in effort to manage the additional supermarket chain. There will also come a time to deal with the effort and redundancy of keeping two unconnected brands of the two sub-chains of discount stores and supermarkets (“Bitan Wines” and “Mega City”, respectively).

Mr. Aberkohen has no greater regard for the other discount food retailers (the more familiar and popular of them is “Rami Levy” with 44 stores, increasing by 10 stores in the past year). In his view, Shufersal does not consider itself as opposed to Rami Levy or the other players; it is engaged in its own plans and mission with a focus on innovation. A key to success in the long-term, in his opinion, is an emphasis on managing existing (‘same’) stores and innovation, not adding more and more floor area. He thus maintains that while the competitors, particularly Bitan/Mega, are so busy handling the additional space in new stores, Shufersal will have the time it needs, as a window of opportunity, to create innovation (e.g., Internet, robotics) and gain an advantage of 3-5 years ahead.

  • So far consumers have not gained in terms of cost of shopping from the deal of selling Mega. According to Israeli business newspaper “Calcalist” there are worrying signs to the contrary. Mega under its new ownership has not been pressuring prices downwards (attributed to financial obligations of its owner Nahum Bitan), and Shufersal that had identified this weakness, took the opportunity to raise prices in its stores while gaining in bargaining power vis-à-vis its suppliers. A rise in prices (i.e., index of barcoded products) and an increase in sales revenue in the food retail sector (including non-barcoded outlets) point to a change in trend from 2014-2015.

The CEO of Shufersal is looking forward to digital transformation of retailing and shopping experiences, involving innovation both in online self-service customer-facing platforms and in the preparation and delivery of online orders. He expects great advances in the operation of logistic centres where robots and humans will take part in collating products from shelves for online orders and packing them for dispatch and delivery to customers. Three centres are in development. Enthusiastically, he proclaims that the online apparatus will involve a lot of automation, digital (features) and robotics.

Shufersal is clearly adopting the new language of data-driven marketing, Big Data, and digital automation of interactions with its customers-shoppers. The company is said to pull together to that aim its information systems, supply chain, and data pools from its customer loyalty club and club of credit card holders. This will enable it in the future to customise offers and services much better to its customers. Aberkohen talks of providing services to suppliers based on their platform of big data but he may have to think more in terms of collaboration, especially with the stronger manufacturing suppliers (i.e., sharing data on shopping patterns in exchange for support and aid in resources for analysing the data using advanced tools and methods of data science). Aberkohen believes that in the future we will see fewer stores, and smaller ones, due to transition of shoppers to online ordering and direct delivery to their homes or offices (currently online orders account for 12% of sales at Shufersal).

Moreover, the CEO is expecting a considerable expansion in ranges of products the retailer will make available to its customers via online shopping. This will include also orders from overseas (e.g., through partners in the US). He refrains from likening Shufersal to Amazon but is surely getting inspiration from the international online master. It could relate to: (a) A wide variety of products that a retailer can offer on the Internet (besides, Amazon could be getting more deeply engaged in food retailing with the recent pending acquisition of Whole Foods); (b) Employing robotics and humans in logistic centres; and (c) Advanced and dynamic analytics to customise offers to shoppers.

  • The measure of consumer-based brand equity of Globes/Nielsen is based on three key metrics: willingness to recommend, intention to buy tomorrow, and favourability. The top brand of food chain stores is Rami Levi (discount stores). This position may be credited to the personal character and initiative of Mr. Levi and his high media profile (e.g., proclaiming to fight and act for the good of consumers). Shufersal is in the second-best position in the eyes of consumers. The original brand of Bitan is ranked 7th whereas Mega City has fallen down to the ungracious 11th place (one before last).

Shufersal’s own brand currently captures about 20% of total sales. The CEO aims to increase this share to a level of 40%-50% to be in par with similar retail chains overseas. The retailer will have to walk on a thin rope when cutting down purchases of branded products from national manufacturers without ruining relations with them. Shufersal already offers milk, cheese and meat (beef) under its private label (a precedent in Israel), yet the CEO admits they still value and need their relationship with the leading national producer of these food products (Tnuva). In the past Shuferal has also had a bitter battle with another producer of dairy and other food products (Strauss). Other categories in which the retailer markets under its name include baby diapers and milk formulae; the CEO has the full intention to add more product types to this list and expand the shelf space and volume assigned to Shufersal’s own brand. The proposition according to Aberkohen is to bring quality products at value-for-money. Shufersal has taken additional strategic steps in recent years to tighten their control over the display of products in their stores: assigning their own workers to place most products on shelves in-store instead of allowing representatives of suppliers to do so, and bringing-in most products to stores independently from their logistic centres.

The CEO of Shufersal is cognizant that many consumers do not strive to shop in large discount stores that are usually located at the outskirts of cities or in industrial areas. Often enough consumers prefer convenience to lower cost. People who work long hours, including young adults early in their career, and even students, cannot afford the time or pass over the option of shopping in those stores. It may be added that for older consumers (e.g., pensioners), discount stores may simply be out of reach, especially if one does not drive. Supermarkets in shopping malls (so-called ‘anchors’) are also considered by Aberkohen as obsolete. These consumers-shoppers prefer visiting (at least during the week) a supermarket or even a convenience store in their neighbourhood — they are too pressed in time with duties or other engagements to bother about the somewhat higher cost (Mr. Aberkohen brings his own daughter as an example). Nevertheless, if the neighbourhood stores do not work out as a practical option, they will probably order online.

To top the list of the plans of Shufersal’s CEO, he sees the retailer engaged in a variety of peripheral services consumers may like to have at easy reach such as non-banking financial services (e.g., loans), insurance, travel (including holidays abroad), and optometric (eye-glasses). Some of the services are likely to be made available only online (e.g., insurance, travel), next to additional shopping options Shufersal expects to generate. Although Aberkohen does not refer specifically to the mobile channel, it is reasonable that much of what he describes in relation to an online channel is necessarily applicable these days in a mobile channel.

Shufersal’s CEO has high aspirations for the retail company he leads. Aberkohen’s plans may change not only the consumption culture in the country, as he maintains, but also the nature and character of the company itself. Hence, Shufersal’s management will have to watch carefully what areas it is about to enter and how qualified the company is to make those extensions. They will have to consider, for example, how to integrate the business areas of New-Pharm into the portfolio of Shufersal. They should not underestimate the trouble that discount retailers can cause them. Moreover, as Shufersal makes more moves to fortify its retail business, its management must act with sense and sensibility amid tensions that such moves cause, and are likely to continue to cause, with suppliers as well as consumers. The expansion and addition of products and services for the benefit of consumers is a positive venture, but Shfuersal still has to convince them as such, every day.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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‘Disruption’ has become a highly accepted concept in business and management, an event one can only expect to happen at some point in time, whether in production, marketing, distribution and retail, or in other functions of business. Disruptive innovation, mostly technological and digital, can be helpful in fixing market weaknesses due to lack of progress in methods and processes applied by ‘legacy’ companies; operational inefficiencies; and insufficient competition in a market. A disruptive innovator may also succeed by capturing consumer needs hidden or left ignored by existing complacent competitors. But disruptive innovation is not a magical cure; actually, it tends to be quite a radical form of cure. Innovations of this kind have the potential to destabilise a market, create disorder and confusion, and cause dysfunction if the transformation is spiralling out of control, a matter of real concern to all parties involved.

Disruptive innovations have been introduced in various industries or categories of products and services. It often occurs when a technological company imports a method or a tool developed in the hi-tech community into a specific product or service category, whose agents (e.g., providers, customers) are mostly unaccustomed and unready for. Yet the innovation can hit roots if it meets a large enough group of innovative or tech-orientated consumers who welcome the new solution (e.g., a way of acquiring or using a service). Thereafter, incumbent competitors find themselves obligated to adopt, if capable, similar or comparable methods or tools in their own operations. High-profile examples include: (a) Uber that expanded the concept of taxi-rides and ridesharing; (b) Airbnb that disrupted the field of hospitality and short-term lodging (‘home-sharing’ vs. hotels and guest houses); (c) Netflix that altered the habits of television viewing. Also, companies in a new sector of financial technology (‘fintech’) offer digital tools (mobile app-based) for consumers to manage their banking accounts, budgets and investments, challenging ‘legacy’ banks and financial service providers.

Certain technological innovations turn out, however, to be disruptive across-the-board. For instance, online social media networks and digital marketing methods (reliant on Big Data and analytic techniques) have been influencing dramatically how companies approach customers and interact with them in many product and service categories (beyond technological goods or information and communication technology services). Furthermore, developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics promise to introduce even more significant changes, from manufacturing to marketing and retail, and in the functioning of various products (e.g., smart home appliances and devices, the ‘upcoming’ driverless car).

Much damage may be caused if the innovative alternative solution is incomplete or the planning of its implementation is flawed. Overall, everyone should be prepared for a turbulent period of resistance, adjustment and adaptation that may extend until the ‘new-way-of-doing-things’ is assimilated in the market, or rejected. The story of an episode regarding taxi transportation at the international airport near Tel-Aviv exposes how wrongful introduction of a disruptive innovation in this service domain can lead to blunder and service failure. Mistakes made because of flawed planning in a highly sensitive process of market transformation may turn the disruption into a mess-up instead of improvement of the service.

The management of the Israel Airport Authority (IAA) launched earlier this year (2017) a new bid for taxi service operators to ride passengers into and from Tel-Aviv (Ben-Gurion) International Airport. In the end of May the 10-year permit of the primary taxi company licensed to provide service in terminals at the airport expired; the IAA wanted to open the service to competition in expectation that it will lead to fare reduction and perhaps other improvements (e.g., availability, time keeping of taxi journeys).

  • The competition is concentrated in fact on picking-up passengers from the airport; if prohibited, taxi cars will have to return empty after dropping off their former passengers at the flight departure terminal. A primary taxi company was given the advantage.
  • Note: Shuttle or minibus service providers are allowed in addition to take passengers  to more distant cities like Jerusalem and Haifa.

Only two companies responded and participated in the bid: the incumbent service provider (“Hadar-Lod”) and the mobile app company Gett that mediates taxi service. The veteran taxi company has been riding passengers to and from the airport for 40 years. It has definitely developed proficiency in riding air travellers over the years but there were also misgivings about its practices, linked to its status as mostly an exclusive taxi service for individual passengers (alone, family and friends). A few years ago the Ministry of Transport intervened by publishing and issuing a calculator of recommended fares to help passengers ensure they pay fair prices.

Gett (originally GetTaxi, founded in 2010) is managing a network connecting subscribed taxi drivers with passengers through its mobile app. The company is now operating in over 100 cities in four countries (Israel, United States, United Kingdom, Russia). The location-based app facilitates matching between a passenger and a driver, from service ordering, through journey planning and pricing, and concluding with payment via Gett. Unlike Uber, Gett is working only with professional licensed taxi drivers and is not involved in supporting informal ridesharing journeys by unauthorised drivers (e.g., UberPop). The app of Gett is focused on benefits of convenience of ordering (no street hailing, no phone call), efficiency of matching through the network, and of course promising a lower journey cost.

Still, the company hires its subscribed taxi drivers but is not their employer — they divide the fare income between them to the will of Gett. The company is commending itself on its website for higher pay to drivers, in-app tips and 24/7 live support, motivated by the idea that if Gett treats drivers better, they will reciprocate by treating their riders better. However, the arrangement has repeatedly emerged as a source of friction. Gett has changed its name, removing ‘Taxi’ from the title, to allow for extending its brand into a variety of delivery services (e.g., food, parcels) to domestic and business clients.

  • Taxi cars of member drivers in Gett’s network are marked by a label with its logo on the car’s side. Taxi drivers that belong also to a traditional local taxi company (‘station’) may carry its small flag on top of the taxi. However, in recent months taxi cars can been seen more frequently in Tel-Aviv area carrying only a flag of Gett.

The absence of more traditional taxi companies from the bid could be the first sign of a problem. Those companies may have found it not worthwhile for them to commit to provide regular service at the airport. But as a replacement, Gett is not truly a ‘physical’ taxi company and has unique characteristics. It leaves the operation of taxi service by Gett open to much ambiguity. Drivers subscribed with Gett can ‘double’ by riding passengers either via Gett’s app or with a standard taxi meter installed in the car. Are traditional taxi companies ‘hiding’ behind drivers also associated with Gett? But if Gett had the permit, would it allow drivers in its network to take passengers also without its app? (i.e., leave money on the table from such journeys.) Yet, Gett’s drivers have to choose in advance in what periods they act as standard taxi drivers or as taxi drivers riding passengers on call from Gett’s app. This situation could lead to confusion: under what ‘hat’ are the drivers allowed to get in and out of the airport and at what time are they allowed to choose what type of passenger-customer to ride.

Furthermore, the service could be binding and unfairly restrictive for passengers who are not subscribed customers of Gett, especially when arriving from abroad. There could be several reasons for passengers to find themselves in an inferior position: Passengers may not have a mobile phone that supports software applications; they may not feel comfortable and skilled in using mobile apps; or passengers may not be confident in paying through a mobile app (e.g., prefer to pay taxis in cash). It may be hard to believe but such people do exist in our societies in different walks of life. It is also known that smartphone users are selective in the number and sources of apps they are willing to upload to their devices. It could be futile to try to force consumers to upload a particular app, but it would be especially unfair to require users to upload an app of Gett so they can be driven away from the airport. The IAA should have not allowed from start an outcome in which a company of the type of Gett becomes a single provider of taxi service at the airport, primarily for riding returning residents or visiting tourists (the latter may not even be aware of Gett beforehand). The ‘disruption’ would have actually become a distortion of service, leaving customers either with no substitute or with confusion and frustration.

But something else, awkward enough, happened. The two companies reached an agreement to bid a joint offer in which they committed to lower fares by 31% on average from the current price level. It is unclear who initiated the move, yet it is reasonable that Gett was about to offer a much lower price for taxi rides affordable by its model and platform, and probably the management of the Hadar-Lod taxi company was alerted and in order to secure its stay in business felt compelled to match such an offer or simply join hands with Gett. The drivers belonging to Hadar-Lod thought otherwise and started at the end of May a spontaneous strike. The two bidders tried to reach a new agreement but eventually the veteran company had to retreat. One cannot be certain that drivers with Gett would have co-operated — the new price level may have been affordable for Gett but not necessarily worth the ride for the drivers. Apparently, the recommended official price was already or about to go down 7%, and with the further reduction committed in the bid offer, the taxi fare would drop on average by 38%. One would have to work many more hours to fill the gap. The cut was too deep — it may have worked well for the companies and their management but could never work for the drivers. (Note: An explanation from a taxi driver with Gett helped to describe the situation above.)

  • Having taxis from both companies in service would have provided some remedy with a transportation solution for every type of customer-passenger. But a certain mechanism and a person to supervise would be needed to keep order on the taxi platform. For instance, travellers subscribed with Gett may schedule their ride while in the luggage hall, and there would be Gett taxis waiting ready to pick them up. One would have to make sure there are enough taxi cars available for the other passengers.

That bid is now cancelled. The IAA declared that it would soon publish a new bid, and until its results are known, any licensed taxi driver can arrive and leave the airport with passengers as long as they register with the IAA. Are the official recommended prices still in place? Who will regulate the operation and watch that taxi drivers respect consumer rights of their passengers? Who will supervise in particular the allocation of passengers to authorised taxis at the arrival terminal (i.e., dispatching)? Answers will have to be found on ground. It is no surprise that the new situation has been received with apprehension by consumers-travellers and taxi drivers alike.

Consumers will have to learn from experience or relatives and friends what are acceptable price ranges for rides into and from the airport, and form anew their references for a fair price and the highest (reservation) price they are willing to pay. They may also set a low price level under which the reduced price may be suspected as “too good to be true”. A discounted price by a single driver to attract passengers, which deviates too much from a ‘normal’ price, should alarm the customer-passenger that something could be wrong with the service, or else there is a logical reason for the reduction. For example, the taxi driver may suggest ridesharing a few arriving passengers to a common destination area in Tel-Aviv — some passengers may be happy to accept, but the terms must be stated in advance. It is unclear how long the interim period will last, but the notions about pricing described above may remain valid even afterwards in a new service regime.

Making changes like adding competition, and especially by involving a disruptive innovation in the service domain, can improve matters. However, the process must be handled with care and watched over to avoid the system from derailing during the transformation. In this case, the IAA could and should have planned and managed the bid and implementation of its plausible outcomes more wisely. At this time, there must be at least one traditional taxi service operator allowed in addition to an innovative service mediated by a company like Gett at the airport, and rules have to be set and respected. Rushing into any drastic and innovative transformation of service will not do good for its chances of success, just invoke confusion and resentment — sufficient time and support must be given for the customers-passengers and taxi drivers to accommodate and adapt to the new service settings at the international airport.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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Tremors continue to shake ground in the field of television viewing since the start of this decade,  especially with respect to how televised content is consumed. It is possible to say that the concept of television is being transformed. The move of Netflix away from rental of DVDs, delivered by mail, towards online streaming, seems to have signaled the start of this transformation which is affecting the consumers and the media industry together. Netflix is of course not doing it alone, changing how televised video content is made available to consumers — other digital services include Hulu, Amazon Prime, and YouTube, as better known examples. Many consumers, most of all Millennials, are attracted to having better control and discretion of what, how and when they watch video programming content of the kind we are used to associate with TV.

Two primary shifts in TV viewing need to be considered: (1) watching less TV programmes in real-time; but more important and characteristic of the changes in the past decade: (2) watching less TV on the screen of a TV set in favour of screens of personal computers, tablets and smartphones. The first shift is not so new — watching a programme not at the time of its scheduled broadcast can be traced to at least thirty-five years ago thanks to the VCR (Video Cassette Recorder); later on came the DVD, but most DVD sets used by households were non-recorders.

The popularity of watching TV content in shifted-time has increased somewhat more with the introduction of new devices and services, namely Digital Video Recorder (DVR) and Video-on-Demand (VOD). The VOD service has actually created new options for viewers to access a special video library and watch programmes or films that are not available on broadcast channels (not available at all or not at that period).

The second shift noted is more closely associated with the Internet availability of video content, including TV programmes, that is not dependent on traditional broadcasters (networks, but also cable and satellite TV services). Whether the application for watching the content is web-based or a mobile app is less crucial to our matter. Streaming potentially breaks the tie between the televised content and the physical TV set (but that is an option, not a necessity). It is not surprising that new-age digital media companies that offer video content by streaming have been followed by the TV networks worldwide that now allow consumers to view their programmes online (viewing may be free or by paid subscription).

As we look into greater details of various possibilities of viewing televised content, we may find that defining TV viewing is not clear-cut. For instance, if one is streaming the content of a programme (e.g., a comedy episode) ordered from Netflix to a laptop that is connected to a TV set (or streaming directly to a Smart TV), is he or she watching TV? Apparently, 79% of US streamers primarily stream the video content to their TV sets! (CSG International, Insights Blog, 8 Sept. 2016). Vice versa, if one is watching a programme (e.g., evening news) at the time of its broadcast but on a laptop by live streaming, is he or she not watching TV? It can be confusing. Consumers stream TV content of the type of TV series episodes (e.g., comedy, drama, crime), documentaries, news editions, as well as cinema films. The key to achieve greater coherence and consistency may be to define ‘TV’ by the kind of its programming content, not by the technology of devices or distribution platforms (BARB’s Annual Viewing Report: UK’s Viewing Habits, April 2016, pp. 6-7, also see pp. 8-9).

Many consumers, mostly the younger ones (under 35), are turning away from fixed timetable TV programming. They are more selective in regard to the programmes they wish to watch at the time convenient to them. The choice of more savvy TV viewers is getting more in a form of cherry-picking. They may receive recommendations what programmes to watch from friends who have similar tastes or from the online content provider based on their stated preferences and past viewing behaviour (possibly adding what similar-in-kind programmes others are viewing). Consumers may choose to watch, for example, legacy TV series or programmes of a particular genre, as well as new selections of TV-type programmes produced independently by video content providers such as Netflix, exclusive to their subscribers.

For consumers who have less leisure time it may also become a matter of efficiency in allocating their limited TV viewing time to the programmes they really want to watch, thus not being constrained by the programmes scheduled for those hours. People watch only a small portion of the channels available to them in their TV cable or satellite packages, and are less comfortable with their inflexible programming plans. TV viewers wander to other channels such as a VOD service of their regular provider or by streaming from online video content providers.

When looking at ‘traditional TV viewing’, which includes live TV (aka real-time or linear) and adjunct time-shifted services like DVR and VOD(†), the number of weekly hours US young persons ages 18-24 spend watching TV has decreased across all quarters from a level of 23-26 hours in 2011 to a level of 15-18 hours in 2015, and further to 14-16 hours in 2016 (excluding Q4). In addition, when comparing between age groups, it can be seen that the 12-17 years (teenagers) and 18-24 years age groups are most similar to each other in the number of their TV watching hour(decreasing between Q1/2011 and  Q3/2016) and are now even closer to each other than five years ago. There is a decline in number of weekly TV watching hours also in the 25-34 age group, and though more modest a decline, also among those ages 35-49, but there is no discernible trend in age group 35-64 and even a small increase among seniors 65 years old and above (based on data from Nielsen, visualised by MarketingCharts.com). Note that the band of weekly hours mounts as the age rises. Another chart summarises those differences more sharply: the number of hours spent watching TV per week decreased in the younger age groups (12-17 & 18-24) by 37%-40% in five years, 28% still in age group 25-34, and only ~11% among ages 35-49 (weekly hours increased 7% among 65+).

  • Note: The original figures by Nielsen indicate that most traditional TV viewing time is still ‘live’ or linear, accounting for 85%-90% of time, and the rest goes to viewing programmes by DVR or VOD (figures of BARB for the UK indicate a similar ratio).
  • † Clarification: ‘Live’ TV includes of course live programmes or events that are taking place and filmed as they are broadcast or transmitted, but ‘live’ refers here more generally to programmes that are viewed at the time scheduled by a TV company for broadcasting, to be distinguised from programmes watched at a time chosen by a viewer. One possible development is that the concept of VOD will be expanded dramatically.
  • Statistics about streaming usage are still difficult to obtain. Figures brought by MarketingCharts from a less familiar source (‘SSRS’ online and mobile survey company) suggest that the number of hours Millennials spend weekly watching streamed content through various modes increased gradually and almost continuously in 2013-2015, though the overall level is still modest (~1.5 hours in 2013, rising up from 3.3 to  4.5 hours during 2014 until standing on a plateau of 5.5-5.7 hours in 2015).

Research of the British Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) notably shows that, other than the TV screen, personal computers (desktop/laptop) and tablets are the  more frequently used for watching TV content on their screens, usually in the evening, while smartphones remain much less popular — smartphones are probably less accepted for TV viewing because their screens are too small to enjoy the images and are not convenient to watch for an extended time. Furthermore, with no evidence showing otherwise, it seems a greater part of time spent viewing not on a TV screen in the UK is still done at home (BARB’s Annual Viewing Report, April 2016, pp. 10-11).

The more traditional TV networks and service providers (cable and satellite) have to acknowledge that the rules of the game in the TV domain have changed: “As both traditional service providers and streaming services alike are looking to engage viewing audiences and hold on to subscribers, catering to the individual needs of each viewer is increasingly paramount” (CSG International: Insights Blog, see their infographic of global content viewing trends). Indeed we can see that TV networks and service providers try to adapt at different levels of extent and pace to changes in the competitive environment and shifts thereof in viewing patterns of consumers. Networks are getting more deeply into the Internet space, availing at least some of their content to viewers by streaming on their websites or through mobile apps, and even greater programming content may be offered to customers by subscription (e.g., BBC iPlayer). Especially in the area of news, we see news websites inserting more video content into their reports, including live coverage. The cable and satellite service providers are working to enhance their channels and VOD libraries to bring content that viewers may be seeking by streaming (e.g., HBO) and thus dissuade customers from churning to other services.

The media industry, most broadly speaking, sees a lot of movement in recent years. It seems that media companies, mainly the larger corporations, are trying to get into each other’s territory — TV (broadcast, streaming), digital media content (Internet & mobile), telecom infrastructure, TV and cinema production, etc. The new business and technology mixtures are created through mergers and acquisitions, accompanied by integration of different functions (horizontal and vertical) that will enable companies greater capabilities along the wider spectrum of the production and transmission of video content to consumers. Notably, there is emphasis on delivery of digital content through various platforms in combined modes (e.g., text, still images, video and audio). Content characteristic of TV programmes is just part of the media ‘basket’ companies are planning to offer their customers. A further implication is that content of different domains in Internet and TV formats will be increasingly blended on the same screen — from news information and education to entertainment and shopping.

In a highly remarkable merger in sight, AT&T is planned to acquire Time Warner for $85 billion. The deal between the parties is already agreed, but approval by the American antitrust authority is still in question (peculiarly, a political matter is also involved because of the bitter dispute between President Trump and CNN owned by Time Warner). This merger would combine the competencies of Time Warner mainly in content (including production and broadcasting) with the telecommunication infrastructure and services of AT&T in Internet and wireless (‘mobile’) communication. It should allow the integrated corporation to reach a wider audience with a richer and greatly varied content on screens of TV sets, personal computers and mobile devices.

Time Warner holds a broad and impressive portfolio of TV channels, production units and digital services for delivering their content. The most famous brand is probably CNN which includes its American and International channels. But Time Warner also owns HBO for TV programmes and Cinemax for cinema films, both available to subscribers by streaming. In fact, Time Warner also owned in the past the AOL Internet company. In 2015 AOL moved hands to Verizon telecom company, and just within months Verizon also acquired the troubled Internet company Yahoo. The expansion of Verizon is yet another example of an integration of telecom infrastructure and services with digital  content capabilities, but it does not have yet a strong TV presence.

  • Time Warner spun off its print arm of magazines in 2014, identified now as the independent company Time Inc.. Some of its better known magazine brands include the Time magazine of current affairs and Fortune magazine of business affairs, but overall the company publishes magazines in various areas of interest (e.g., entertainment, fashion & beauty, photography, home and design, as well as politics, business and technology).

The TV business is reshaping. Frahad Manjoo of the New-York Times (October 2016 [1]) foresees a future of TV “built on lots of bold, possibly speculative experiments”. Advanced digital technology companies (information, Internet & mobile) of the kind of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix may readily disrupt efforts of the large telecom and “old-guard” media companies. When TV viewing habits also are fluctuating and reforming, business decisions involve much “educated guessing”.  In another article, Barnes and Steel [2] consider repercussions of the AT&T-Time Warner deal on other media and telecom companies. While some of those companies declare their objection and intent to fight the merger, they may follow a similar trail.  The cases of four companies are reviewed:

  1. The Walt Disney Company insists on its market position as a predator and not as a prey to technology companies. Its current objective is to bring more premium TV channels directly to consumers by streaming; that may entail the purchase of desired brands (e.g., Pixar, Marvel, ESPN).
  2. Comcast, a telecom company (cable [TV] and broadband), is also the owner of TV networks or channels  (e.g., NBC and MSNBC), as well as film and TV studios. It may not sit idle and may try to take over another telecom company to complement its coverage (e.g., extending to wireless).
  3. 21st Century Fox (cable TV, films) is claiming to have no plans of expansion and entering into new areas. It previously failed to acquire Time Warner (2014). But the recent AT&T-Time Warner deal may change their plans. (The Murdoch family is currently aiming to take full control of UK-based Sky satellite TV).
  4. CBS and Viacom engage together in TV broadcasting, a cable TV service, and TV and cinema productions. The controlling owner (Redstone family) may now be encouraged to unite the sister companies (once again) into a single corporation.

We should not rush to assume that watching TV programmes on a TV set or watching programmes in real-time are about to end anytime soon. Traditional live TV viewing and digital video viewing are complementary, possibly preferred on different devices at different times and in differing circumstances (eMarketer, 14 March 2016).

There may be personal but also social benefits or incentives to watching programmes or films in the ‘old-fashioned’ way. First, enjoyment and visual comfort, particularly for certain types of video content, are expected to be greater when viewed on a large screen (37” and above). Second, there is real value in watching a programme such as an episode of a popular TV series at the same time with others so that one can share impressions and discuss it with acquaintances the next day or right after the show. A similar argument can be made for watching live a sports contest, on top of the thrill of watching the event as it unfolds. Third, there is still pleasure and enjoyment in watching TV together with family or friends on a large TV set at one’s home (and in some cases in a pub or bar).

The new technological developments in distributing and displaying video content in high quality, offer opportunities for consumers to improve and enrich in several ways their experience of viewing TV programing and other types of video content. Consumers would be given more freedom of choice and flexibility to watch TV as they truly like. Companies in the wide spectrum of media, telecom and Internet may also find new business possibilities to enhance their services to customers, including in particular TV-like content. But it will take more time to see how the TV domain shapes-up.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

In New-York Times (International Edition), 26 October 2016:

[1]  “A Risky Bid With the TV Industry Up for Grabs”, Farhad Manjoo,

[2] “A Chilly Reaction to AT&T Deal”, Brooks Barnes and Emily Steel

 

 

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One of the things people probably most dislike is getting sick because of some food they have eaten — usually an annoying and unpleasant experience. The sickness can happen within hours or two to three days after eating the contaminated food. The trouble is that oftentimes one has no way of anticipating the disease until feeling sick, and sometimes even after becoming ill it is not easy to connect the disease with consumed food. A food item may come from a respected and trusted brand, the expiry date looks fine, the food may also taste good, and still without suspicion it may cause poisoning and sickness. Food companies are walking on the edge of food safety when they skip necessary precautionary measures to prevent and detect contaminations in time, but furthermore when they conceal problems or try to solve them quietly in the factory without warning of a looming health risk to their customers.

  • The most common infections and poisoning are caused by bacteria of the type of Salmonella, Listeria, and E-Coli. But a foodborne disease may also be viral (e.g., norovirus) or being caused by insects (e.g., food moth). For most people a foodborne disease is not dangerous; it will cause sickness and inconvenience, passing after a few days without medical treatment. Yet, these diseases may be troublesome and cause more serious complications in people whose health is vulnerable (e.g., little children, seniors, pregnant women, prior illnesses, weaken immune system).

This summer there were a number of incidents of food contamination revealed in Israel. Yet two of the cases are more significant and instructive: the cornflakes of Unilever (Telma) and ready-to-eat salads by Shamir Salads.  First, the failures exposed in the conduct of the two concerned companies commend particular attention and taking lesson from them. Second, these incidents were the earliest to become public (late July, beginning of August) and have put the matter of food safety under a spotlight. A number of additional incidents of contamination may have been revealed just because of that, partly reported by alarmed food companies themselves (e.g., salmon fish, halva, frozen potato fries, pre-prepared grilled hamburger).

Unilever (Telma) — A contamination of salmonella was discovered by Unilever in Israel in packages of a few of its cornflakes products under the brand name of Telma (an Israeli-grown brand acquired by Unilever). The company insisted, however, that all contaminated packages remained in a company’s facility to be disposed of (they were converted into corn oil to be used as energy source for another industrial process). When upset consumers and the Ministry of Health pressured Unilever to provide assurances no packages reached food stores, the company claimed they had checked that the marked packages were separated and excluded from delivery in its facility. Only that this information was not accurate, not properly verified. It was soon after revealed that some 240 contaminated packaging parcels found their way out of the facility and distributed to food stores. Some of those cornflakes packages were probably consumed though no complaint of sickness was firmly connected with the cornflakes. Nevertheless, since cornflakes of the type contaminated are largely eaten by children, it is understandable that parents were strongly agitated by that belated discovery.

Unilever directed responsibility for the ‘mishap’ to an employee of a local logistics contractor who apparently mistakenly misplaced labels of some parcels for delivery and sent out the wrong packages. Even so, responsibility for the whole chain of supply of the products of Unilever rests with the company marketing them (not physically distributing them). That is the onus of the brand’s owner towards its customers. That Unilever failed to verify this mistake earlier makes the explanation just weaker.

  • Food safety experts suggest that it is unusual for a dry product like cornflakes to contract bacterial contamination of salmonella. Additionally, the cornflakes are roasted at a very high temperature that kills any bacteria that might have settled in the material. Therefore, it is much more likely that the culture of salmonella developed during the packaging or storage in preparation for distribution.

Shamir Salads — A contamination of salmonella was found in Mediterranean salads that contain tehina. Shamir Salads, like other food producers, buys the tehina mix as a raw material from a supplier, in this case a company named “HaNasich” (meaning “The Prince”). Badly enough, the grave problem for Shamir Salads is that the company did not identify the contamination itself. It failed twice: by not testing initially its raw material and by not testing the final salad product before delivery to retailers for any possible contamination. It should be clarified that laboratory tests are run on samples and therefore they cannot eliminate absolutely any contamination, but if sampling is conducted appropriately it gives a good chance of detecting the traces in time for further checks and corrective action. Skipping any sampling and tests cannot be excused.

The management of Shamir Salads argued in its defence that the company trusted its supplier, HaNasich, and therefore did not see any need to continuously check on the quality and safety of their tehina. The company was deeply disappointed and felt betrayed by its supplier for not advising them of any problems. The reference to the concept of trust between parties is not unfounded, but one can still check internally as a precautionary control measure without violating trust in the other party. A company does not have to trust blindly, especially not when a sensitive matter as health is concerned. It may even be doing a favour to its supplier that could miss contamination in its factory. Much less understandable is the lack of tests on the company’s finished products. If not before or during production, then at the very least testing of the finished salads would have given the company a chance of detecting a contamination before leaving the factory, investigating backwards and identifying the source in the tehina. Other companies (e.g., Strauss, Tzabar Salads) using the same tehina ran tests on their finished products and identified the contamination, linking it to tehina by HaNasich.

Both Unilever and Shamir Salads were actually forced to order recalls of their products. A recall becomes damaging in the public eye when the company does not seem to control the process and its timing, or is not honest with the consumers about the recall’s reasons and circumstances.

Complicated relations and flawed working of safety procedures in the food industry may have some responsibility for contamination getting lost or hidden from public knowledge. Companies have a reasonable interest to try to solve a problem in production they identify internally in hope they can contain it “behind closed doors”. It is a matter of calculated risk — but risks sometimes realise in a worse way. The Israeli Ministry of Health is criticised for not placing a proper procedure that requires food producers to perform microbiological lab tests on samples of finished product items and that current reporting procedures are vague. For instance, the companies are not required to report to the ministry until after ordering a recall due to contamination. Consequently, there are repeated conflicts over responsibility and blame-exchanges between producers and the Health Ministry. Furthermore, food companies are working with private labs that are in turn required to report directly to the Health Ministry only in case of contamination found in finished products and not in their raw materials. The implied outcome: food companies have a latent incentive to keep anything that happens in the factory silent, handle a “situation” for a longer time, and not report to anyone until the problem becomes severe or an urgent recall is inevitable.

Issues of food contamination and foodborne illnesses concern many countries, gaining particularly growing awareness in Western countries. The Fortune Magazine published an article, kind of special report, on problems of food safety in the United States (October 2015) titled “Contamination Nation“. The number of food recalls has grown more than twice from 2004 t0 2014 (2004: 288 recalls of which 240 of non-meat products; 2014: 659 recalls, 565 non-meat). Nearly half of recalls (47%) in the US are due to microbiological contamination. The highest proportion of recalls (21%) are of ready-to-eat food products.

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 48 million Americans suffer each year of foodborne illnesses (128,000 are hospitalised and 3,000 die of a foodborne illness).

The writer, Beth Kowitt, proposes four reasons it is so hard to battle food contamination and poisoning; their relevance extends to Israel and to many other nations:

  • Foodborne illnesses are very difficult to identify and track down their roots — cases of illness are sporadic and therefore hard to tie with a specific “outbreak”; hundreds of components may be involved in isolating a cause of poisoning.
  • The food industry does not trust state regulators, their knowledge and tools — major food companies are performing their own tests for bacteria on food and in factory premises and develop a knowledgebase independent of state departments or agencies (FDA, CDC); companies are reluctant to disclose information they do not have to, part in concern of being implicated before the epidemiological mapping is completed.
  • The more food is imported from other countries, the more difficult it gets to control and verify its safety — exporting countries have different food-safety standards and inspection regimes, and the more steps food passes before entering one’s destination country, there are more opportunities for becoming contaminated.
  • Consumers have to do more to protect themselves — when consumers seek certain ingredients to be reduced or excluded (e.g., potassium, salt, sugar) or refrain from consuming frozen products because of health considerations, they could render their food less protected from bacterial contamination of their food; consumers are responsible for taking active measures to reduce contamination risks at their homes (e.g., washing hands, boiling milk, checking meat temperature).

It may be added to the last reason that safeguarding from food contamination may start from the facilities of the food producer but it should continue through the retailers’ food stores and finally indeed at the consumers’ home kitchens. Retailers are obliged to keep stores and displays cleaned-up at all times and ensure products are not kept beyond their expiry date (e.g., chilled dairy products, ready-to-eat meals, eggs). As for consumers, the American CDC recommends four practices for protecting from contamination: Cook to kill bacteria, Clean working surfaces, Separate more risky items (meat, fruits and vegetables) from other food, and Chill to reduce chance of bacterial cultivation.

Next to the article cited above, Fortune brings the story of the Texan-based Blue Bell ice-cream company which demonstrates what happens when a food company stalls treatment of contamination hazards at its plants and even hides them for too long. The crisis has rolled during 2015 but an investigation found that its roots may have existed since 2010. There were three deaths and two more serious patient ilnesses in the same Kansas hospital in late 2014, and in total ten people were affected by listeria-type infection connected with the ice-cream over five years; establishing the connection with Blue Bell was hard.

Contamination occurred in two plants: at Brenham, Texas ‘homebase’, and in Oklahoma. It appears that already in 2013 the company discovered contamination in its Oklahoma plant that was not treated properly despite an FDA inspection. Importantly, bacteria were found in that plant on floors and catwalks (i.e., bacteria can be easily passed with movement of workers and objects). Additional flaws were found in further inspections, including “condensation dripping from machinery into ice cream and ingredient tanks; poor storage and food-handling practices; and failures to clean equipment thoroughly”. Because of its stalling, the company drifted into what experts call “recall creep” — it happens when executives think limited action every time they are told of listeria findings is enough to solve the problem and constrain commercial damages, thence find themselves forced to perform greater recalls over and over again.

Blue Bell is the third-largest ice cream maker in the US and its products are widely admired. Many people across the country are said to have saddened by the closure of the plants and loss of their beloved ice cream for a period. This year the company resumed production and marketing, adding gradually more flavours and markets, after a thorough clean-up of plants, change of procedures and rules and training of employees. One of the practices installed is “test-and-hold” where a production series is sample-tested  and all packs are held in storage until it is cleared from bacterial contamination.

A serious fatal crisis related to food safety in Israel occurred in 2003 with the milk formula for babies by Remedia. It should be noted this was not an incident of contamination. In this case the company made a change in the composition of one of its formula versions by which it drastically reduced or eliminated from the product the vitamin B1. This ingredient is vital for the development of the nervous system of babies. As a result, critical damage was caused to the health of babies: four babies died and several more children grew up with irreversible damage to their development (neural, cognitive and motor). Although this event is different, and the consequences in the recent contamination incidents are much less severe, two relevant notions are in order. First, a contamination incident can lead to just as severe consequences when the problem is mishandled and information is concealed from authorities and consumers as the crisis of Blue Bell proves. Second, Remedia made the grave mistake of throwing all the blame on a German company (Humana) that was hired to develop, implement and test the new recipe (and erred in its tests). However, Remedia was responsible and accountable for its product to the parents and babies in Israel, not the faulty German company it worked with. Remedia ceased to exist.

It is probably only human for the company’s managers to direct a justified accusation and blame for a failure on a contractor, supplier or business partner, as a way of saying: “Look, this is not a failure in our own operation; you can still trust us with everything we are doing for you”. It does mitigate responsibility somewhat, though from a consumer viewpoint this kind of ‘clearing’ does not work and is often doomed to be rejected. The companies that market the implicated products did allow them to be distributed to consumers. At the end of the day, it is their brand names on the products that count.

It is impossible nowadays to completely eliminate food contamination, particularly by bacteria. However, food companies (and not them alone) can and should make every effort for preventing bacterial and other types of contamination and poisoning. They are expected to show that they are proactively taking measures to that aim. In addition, the owners and executives have to be open and sincere about the causes or circumstances of recalls to consumers, and consider revealing incidents even beforehand as indication the company is acting responsibly. It is pure investment in the credibility of their brands.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Note:

These articles appeared in Fortune (Europe Edition), Number 13, 1st October 2015:

“Contamination Nation”, Beth Kowitt, pp. 53-56.

“How Blue Bell Blew It”, Peter Elkind, pp. 56-58.

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