Is All You Can Eat Bad Business?

Foodie Friday, and this week I had a number of food related items from which to choose.

SpiceMarket Buffet American food

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thing I noticed this week kept popping into my brain, however, and so that will be our topic today.  This was the item:

Starting January 2, 2014, you’ll want to head to your local IHOP® restaurant because “All You Can Eat Pancakes,” a perennial favorite among guests, is back for a limited time.

I preface what I’m about to say with an acknowledgment that there are few things more obnoxious than a reformed anything ramble on about their former addiction.  Like many folks, mine was sugar and carbs.  With that disclaimer, I think we all know there is an epidemic of obesity in this country.  Each of those (quite tasty) IHOP pancakes is roughly 150 calories and 22 net grams of carbs.  That’s as many calories as a large York Peppermint Patty and as many carbs as two Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups – the big ones.  As a once in a while indulgence, they’re a treat.  As an “all you can eat” incentive, they’re deadly.

Besides the ranting, I do have a business point to make.  IHOP isn’t alone in the food business in using the promise of low prices or vast quantities of food for the money to attract business.  I suppose this seems like a customer-centric way to market.  Dollar menus and all you can eat buffets are staples of our food culture.  However, while these promotions seem customer friendly, I would ask how friendly it is to kill off the customers sooner.  So much for average lifetime value!  How friendly is it to promote something that can lead to serious health issues?  It’s interesting to me that we forbid cigarette advertising and put warning labels on the packs but unlimited calories, carbs, and fat are all seen as virtuous offerings.

The food business isn’t the only one at fault in terms of promoting one thing and delivering another.  Anything that’s presented as all you can eat often has strings attached.  Take “unlimited” data plans.  Some wireless carriers won’t sell them any more.  I have one grandfathered in, although I know once I get to some point each month the speed gets cut back.  Some ISP’s throttle back speeds or charge more once certain limits are hit despite that usually being buried in the fine print.  Consumer centric?  I’ve seen ads for “unlimited” green’s fees for one price at golf courses only to find that a cart fee is due every round. False advertising?

I don’t think businesses need to “nanny” their customers.  If someone chooses to eat a lot of unhealthy food, so be it.  There is nutrition information on the walls of most quick service and family restaurants and I’ve never seen a line waiting to read it.  I’m not sure, however, that we ought to be in the business of encouraging it nor making it the center of our marketing.  I also think the marketing needs to be clear about what “unlimited” means.  What do you think?

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