01 May 2005

I have finally succumbed and joined the legions who commute wearing a set of earplugs shoved in tight. In the past 20 years, I have avoided Walkmans, portable CD players, mini-discs and, until a month ago, MP3 players.

This is odd as I am a committed music fan with eclectic tastes and, yes, I do enjoy the visceral experience of heavy metal, particularly live and particularly Motorhead. So, until recently, I never thought portable music would give me the sound quality I need.

So, what changed my mind? A recent article in the Daily Telegraph, by music writer Robert Sandall, shows that iPods are dramatically changing the way we listen to music by pointing out that most owners of MP3 players are over 35 and previously bought cumbersome high-fidelity equipment. Come on, we've all been there, positioning speakers to get the best performance from "Dark Side of the Moon".

In short, iPod has engaged music fans because of its convenience, accessibility and portability. The stunning iTunes software can sort a music collection, giving the listener the ability to access by song, artist, album, genre and composer - all while on the hoof.

You are probably wondering how all this affects what we do in multiple restaurants. Well, the trade-off is clear for music-lovers who have forsaken sonic excellence for convenience, accessibility and portability. Is the same thing happening in food, and will it ultimately cause the same seismic shift as iPod has in music listening?

Time is tight for most people living busy urban lives, but the quest for new experiences, flavours and tastes hasn't waned. You could argue that supermarkets are "food-iPods" with rows and rows of ready meals satisfying consumer choice with their version of convenience, accessibility and portability: multi-ethnic, multi-cuisine, high fat, low fat, complete meals, individual dishes, mix-and-match - the customer decides.

This smudging of the lines between a supermarket experience and what we can provide as food service operators will present challenges. For some, home-delivery could be a good route. This seems to be happening, with a proliferation of businesses providing this service, particularly the ones marketing their offer with well-known brands and multi-menus offering choice across price and cuisine.

For others, it may be necessary to clearly differentiate our restaurant experience from buying ready meals. Quality of customer experience will be the focus, and balancing that with convenience will be the battleground.

The speed of modern society is forcing consumers into significant choices. What choices they make - in this case, the trade-off between quality and convenience - will determine where they spend their money. Get the balance right and it will lead to significant new opportunities for success.

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