Monday, June 8, 2009

A 2000 forecast: How'd we do?

At the end of the last century, several industry associations commissioned McKinsey & Co. to craft a detailed picture of what the foodservice business would look like in 2010. It wasn’t intended as some what-if game, or a slab of Jules Verne-like imagineering. Foodservice 2010, released with considerable hoopla, was intended to serve as a roadmap for suppliers and restaurateurs who wanted to keep their businesses in sync with the marketplace. And that setting, McKinsey concluded, was likely to be much different from the world we knew in the year 2000.

But the think tank, it turned out, didn’t have the gift of Nostradamus. Nor The Amazing Kresgin. Or even Carnak. Here were some of the changes it foresaw:

  • "Chief among them,” wrote the researcher and consulting firm, was “a boost for full-service restaurants over the younger generation’s choice, fast-food restaurants.” Maybe that’ll happen next year, but for right now, fast-food places are walloping their up-market peers. Fine-dining is shrinking into a rarified sector where the Monopoly man can still tuck into a Coq au Vin after checking the polo standings. But that sector, in its classic form, seems to be going the way of the monocle. And casual dining is fighting to recover its relevancy.

  • Online purchasing would become the norm. If you’re buying music for an iPod, maybe. But the online commerce hubs that proliferated in foodservice during 2000 have faded into obscurity. Each promised at the time to provide a way for restaurateurs to compare prices and buy in an efficient manner that could essentially cut out the middleman. Better deals, consummated with manufacturers either directly or via third-party buying cooperatives. Distributors were expected to be recast as transporters, not wholesalers controlling the supply pipeline, as they traditionally had been. Alas, it clearly never happened. Sysco is probably dispatching a henchman to my house right now because I dared to air the possibility.

  • Technology would fundamentally change the restaurateur-customer interaction. “For example, PDAs will facilitate mobile commerce which could revolutionize the meaning of takeout,” asserted Foodservice 2010.

  • The percentage of women working outside the home would continue to rise, albeit at a slower rate. Even before the recession hit with full force, the number of working women had declined.

  • To be fair, the forecast was on the mark in several respects.

    For instance, it advised full-service restaurants to engineer more efficient ways of offering takeout, citing pent-up demand. Today, curbside service is a standard offering for the big casual chains.

    It also counseled full-service restaurants to differentiate themselves. Too bad they didn't heed that recommendation.

    Almost eerie was the prediction that consumers would simultaneously demand “individuality,” or what chains of all stripes would now label order customization, and “belonging,” or the sense of inclusion that social media is viewed as delivering.

    This isn’t meant as a knock on McKinsey or the groups that sponsored the study. It's actually a bit of self-criticism. One of the study's backers was Restaurant Business magazine, which I served at the time as editor. I was also one of the people who were interviewed to give input into the qualitative study.

    Rather, the look back underscores how difficult it is to peer a year into the future, never mind a decade. Credit-default swaps were unknown at the time. And yet they’ve profoundly changed the industry’s fortunes since last summer. Who could've imagined such a thing.

    Indeed, Foodservice 2010 was marketed as the best of its sort, with a price tag of $2,000 for non-members of the sponsoring organizations.

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