Monday, January 31, 2011

I'll Soft Drink To That - Eventually

I will admit that I eat out a large percentage of the time, which is generally not the case for people so in to saving money. While I certainly understand that restaurants are in business to make money, it’s the drinks that are the big issue. And it is getting worse across the board, especially when it comes to soft drinks.

We as consumers should not be allowing so many restaurants, including many of the fast food establishments, to continue to get away with this. My pointing it out to wait staff and order takers, who are not the ones making these decisions, does not help. We all need to begin to point this out to management and to the decision makers.

Part of the problem is that hardly anyone has questioned why soft drink prices at restaurants have risen so much over the past couple of years even though prices have held steady at the retail level during the same time. Now, it’s time to start.

Last week, I wrote the following via e-mail, to Applebee’s, Chili’s, and Denny’s, to get this started. These are just 3 of the chains charging at least $1.50 for a mere soft drink:

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This is not just a ( Denny’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s ) matter. The price of your soft drinks has risen significantly over recent months, and it appears to be without justification.

I can still purchase a six-pack of the drinks you sell for around $1.50 paying retail price for 72 ounces of the soft drink beverages of my choice. That breaks down to about 25 cents per can. Again, at the retail price. As I figure it, allowing for double the markup at the wholesale level, a 12 ounce soft drink at your restaurant should be priced around 40 cents. More realistically, this would put a 16 oz. serving around 50 cents. There is absolutely no reason to gouge patrons for more than the price of a 6-pack for just one serving.

If your base cost for these beverages is above that, even though I am not an expert in wholesale food and beverage, it would mean that your people are not buying efficiently at that level.

While I’m sure you would respond that refills are free, I take issue with that. Your customers are being charged for more than the price of a 6-pack, meaning that the vast majority are forced to pay higher than retail for one or more additional servings they may not want.

My suggestion is to go with a 12 to 16 ounce serving in the 40 to 50 cents range, while providing the menu option of with free refills in the 75 to 85 cents range with any meal.

This is certainly a more viable option for patrons than going with tap water and not purchasing any of the soft drinks on the menu at current pricing. In addition, making this change in soft drink prices would allow many of us the ability to add a dessert, leave a larger gratuity to support the wait staff, and ultimately return more often for full meals. Otherwise, the wait staff would suffer in the long run as more people use carry-out service in order to have their soft drinks at a reasonable price.

May I hear from you on this?

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You are welcome to use this e-mail yourself, and certainly to take the points it expresses to any and every appropriate restaurant’s management if you agree.

Since this is not a marketing forum, I will only say that of these 3 companies, I received one response that my “comments were forwarded” to the food and beverage people, an auto-response with a “ticket number”, and an “out of office” e-mail from the specific person I had as a contact name that she would be out of office until Jan. 28th (and did not follow up). However, after allowing 2 business days from my original correspondence, it is time to move on.

This type of situation is exactly what led to “The Frustrated Consumer”. Sure, I know there is no “explanation” for this, and that this is not a mistake in how these places “buy”. Nor is it only the 3 chains I sent that to. Yet, a big part of the problem is that literally millions of consumers are far too accepting of these prices. Maybe you never thought about it, or didn’t notice – until now.

Suppose you eat out an average of 4 times per week, and that is probably below average. Using that conservative estimate, you are NOW spending at least $220 per year more for that soda (or iced tea, etc.) while allowing these restaurants to charge approximately double the retail value. ($4 per week more times 52 weeks.) Double that if you eat out an average of 8 times per week, and that rises to $450 per year “extra”! Note that the latter amount is enough to purchase THREE HUNDRED more 6-packs of your favorite soft drink – at retail pricing!

Why am I making such a big deal about soft drinks? Because they are all the same. Some restaurants charge $2.00 for a hamburger, while others charge $10 or more. In the case of food items, the size and portions differ from one place to another. The toppings may or may not be included, along with a “side”. Some have better tasting food than others. Our decision regarding a future visit is based on how much we like the food, how it is priced, convenience, and other variables. In that regard, we do have a choice. The number of restaurants, whether fast food or slow food around the country, which have closed within the past two years, reflects this.

Yet, a Coke or Pepsi is the SAME drink whether in McDonald’s or the most expensive steak house in town. The same as you and I can purchase at retail prices for significantly less than the majority of restaurants are now charging us. We, the people, do not need to continue to put up with this.

We can make a difference. Those of you over the age of 40 probably remember Howard Johnson’s Restaurant, which was an almost national chain of family style restaurants. There were more than 1,000 of them from coast to coast in 1975. One of the long-standing comments was how that chain was charging for coffee refills, which at that time hardly any other restaurants would dare to do. By 1988, the entire chain had been sold (in 1985) and while many of the hotels remained, Howard Johnson’s Restaurant was gone. The people spoke.

Obviously, every restaurant and chain isn’t going to go away. And they don’t have to. Keep in mind that Howard Johnson’s showed the power of consumers. In this case, it is consumers who don’t plan on buying an extra three hundred 6-packs of soda.

For the past few years, I cut back on my personal soft drink consumption to reduce my caffeine intake, instead going with ice water at the majority of slow food restaurants. Now, I find myself just going with ice water even more often because of the soft drink prices. If thousands of consumers begin to do the same, and (more importantly) begin to complain about soft drink prices, maybe we can get something done. (Note that I mean ice water and not bottled water for purchase.)

Yet, reducing soft drink prices to a reasonable level is not the entire “battle”. We as consumers are also entitled to choices we are not getting. We as consumers are also far too accepting of this. A big percentage of soft drink customers (whether regular or diet) have a definite preference for Coke, Pepsi, or 7-Up products. Yet, we have no choice about that. You might prefer Pepsi, but your favorite restaurant only serves Coke. Why is that?

It’s not like you don’t have a choice of what type of salad dressing, cheese, toppings, or side orders. It’s not like you can only order one style of pizza, yet the somehow have the right to limit us to the only brand of soft drinks they carry. And at these outrageous prices?

It’s time for all of us to take a “hard” approach when it comes to soft drinks.

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