Friday, November 18, 2011

New Fast Food Products Get Tested First In Columbus, Ohio

A Stoner Cooking Special
The Business Insider's Karlee Weinmann and Aimee Groth
Fri, Nov 4, 2011

It's a microcosm of the nation

Companies that can afford to test regionally often seek out cities with populations that are reflective of the greater U.S., or whose consumer habits match the broader market.

"There's a reason Middle America is called 'Middle America,'" Wendy's spokesman Denny Lynch told Nation's Restaurant News. "Columbus is very representative of American demographics."

Median household income levels in Ohio and in the U.S. overall fall between $45,000 and $50,000, and until recently, racial demographics were more closely aligned.

It's a college town — which means there are tons of young customers who are setting trends

Several colleges and universities call Columbus home, including Ohio State University. This means there's a guaranteed population of prospective consumers, Dennis Lombardi, executive VP for food service strategies at WD Partners, told Nation's Restaurant News.

Also, younger customers provide valuable insight to companies test-marketing products. After all, they're the ones who are setting trends and steering future consumer behavior patterns. By that logic, Columbus is not only a place to learn about consumers now — it's also a place that can help groom businesses for future success.

In fact, as a whole, Columbus is "younger, more educated and with a higher disposable income"

This is ideal for companies seeking a consumer base willing and financially able to try new things, says Shawnie M. Kelley in Insider's Guide to Columbus, Ohio, who also points out that from 1996 to 2006, the average age dropped from 34.3 to 32.5.

Advertising is affordable, which is vital for test-runs

New rollouts require at least the same amount of advertising as already-existing products, but it's especially necessary to be sure consumers are aware the new product is available, marketing expert Neeli Bendapudi said on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

If launching an advertising campaign is too expensive, no one will hear about the product. In Columbus, Bendapudi says, rates are reasonable.

The media market is more contained — which means it's easier to measure the success of advertising campaigns

"You have the ability to advertise without spilling over into adjacent markets," Wendy's spokesman Lynch told Nation's Restaurant News, allowing companies to more accurately measure their efforts with more controls in place.

Columbus is situated apart from other major cities, meaning different media markets don't have too much crossover and there's a stronger guarantee that the ads taken out to target people in Columbus will actually reach them.

Major interstates pass through Columbus — which broadens the city's consumer base

Interstates 70 and 71 go through Columbus, which brings in lots of visitors who might pass through and make a pit stop at fast food restaurants.

This also means stores with test-run items are relatively convenient to a large swath of the population, WD partners' Lombardi explains to Nation's Restaurant News.

Nearly 20 fast food chains are headquartered in Columbus — which makes it easier for companies to test products in their own backyards

White Castle decided it needed a more central location, and in 1934, it moved its headquarters from Kansas to Columbus.

The trend has lasted over the past several decades, Nation's Restaurant News reports. White Castle, Wendy's, and Bob Evans Farms have helped turn the Columbus region into a veritable fast-food stronghold.

People in Columbus have jobs — and more money to spend

Columbus' latest unemployment rate, 7.6%, falls below the national average of 8.8%. This means more people with money to spend on things like dining out.

Historically, Columbus' unemployment rate has hovered below the national average continuously for the past two decades.

Locals' tastes aren't too refined

Companies see Columbus consumers as having tastes that are generalizable, marketing expert Bendapudi told NPR.

In other places, namely wealthier urban areas, fast food might be vilified as an unhealthy alternative. But Columbus residents are typically of the Midwestern variety — the kind of folks famous for their basic, hearty meat-and-potatoes culinary preference.

For this reason, companies can draw on what these All-American eaters like to form an educated guess for what will work nationwide.

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