Presence of food may decrease enjoyment of customer experiences, study

Research by Emily Garbinsky presents a lesson for marketers: food and experiences don’t mix.

By: Stephen D'Angelo
Research says that food can sometimes be a distraction

Consumers frequently engage in experiences in the presence of delicious food. Restaurants make tempting desserts visible to diners eating their entrees. Amusement parks, movie theaters, and concert venues offer delicious food to boost customers’ enjoyment of these experiences. And retail companies, have even begun to incorporate in-store dining in an effort to reinvigorate interest and allow customers to interact with the brand.

Emily Garbinsky

Through ten studies, Emily Garbinsky, associate professor of marketing and management at Cornell’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, and her co-authors show that the presence of such food actually decreases the enjoyment of a target experience across a wide array of consumption activities.

The presence, versus the absence, of food in fact prompts mental imagery of consuming that food, decreasing engagement with the target experience and resulting in lower enjoyment, Garbinsky found.

Industry implications

For companies, the study’s findings offer several suggestions for how they should structure their retail environments to enhance customer experience—a central objective for marketing managers, said Garbinsky along with her co-author Anne-Kathrin Klesse, associate professor of marketing management at Rotterdam School of Management.

“In particular, restaurants, or any setting for which the target experience is eating, could benefit from listing appetizers and main dishes on a separate menu from desserts,” the researchers said. “[This would] prohibit diners from mentally simulating the consumption of dessert while eating the other courses.”

Similarly, said Garbinsky and Klesse, restaurant managers should refrain from making desserts or other foods visible while customers eat their entrees.

“If restaurant managers believe it is important for customers to see the desserts before they order, the wait staff should bring a dessert tray to a particular table after the dinner, rather than displaying desserts in a glass case that all patrons can see while eating,” they said.

In addition, they suggest that buffet-style restaurants may want to discourage customers from bringing their desserts to the table before they have eaten their main meal, separating main dishes and desserts, and nudging consumers to enter the dessert room only after they have finished their main dish.

For industries in which consuming food and beverage is a complementary experience, such as athletic events and concerts, companies might encourage customers to consume food immediately after its purchase. To do so, venues might consider altering the types of food available and feature options that must be consumed quickly, such as ice cream that will melt.

“Alternatively, they could package food in a way that encourages customers to consume immediately, because customers want to avoid the hassle of carrying the food around,” the researchers said.

However, the results do show that companies could purposefully consider using delicious food, or even pictures of food, when the target experience is negative, such as waiting for service.

“For example, could showing customers pictures of the food they ordered while they are waiting in the drive-through line increase their enjoyment and subsequent likelihood of repeat purchase?”

Businesses may want to present food in situations where consumers engage in aversive experiences, for example while waiting in line, to make the experience less negative.

Faculty expertise

Garbinsky’s area of expertise is consumer financial well-being, focusing on three streams of research: 1) understanding how couples make financial decisions, 2) motivating individual consumers to make more fiscally responsible decisions, and 3) illuminating how people can maximize the happiness and enjoyment they derive from various consumption experiences.