Counting the Costa

Photo by Maria Tyutina on

A little while back Costa decided to change their soya milk brand.  That shouldn’t be a big deal should it? Milk is milk, soya milk is soya milk. Except that when you start using milk replacement brands, they have to use a mix of ingredients to get the replacement right. Unfortunately, there were two problems with the new brand.  The first and most important is that a lot of people use these alternatives due to allergies.  When you switch brands, it is possible that the person might be allergic to the new ingredients. 

Secondly, I understand from other people that the stuff tastes rank. That’s not much of a surprise given that I suspect the primary reason for switching brands is to reduce costs and the reason why there are additional ingredients is because the purer the soya content the more expensive the product.

This reminds me of two things. First, my dad fought many battles when working in confectionary with the accountants who constantly put pressure on him to reduce the cost of the chocolate.   As he often explained, you could make the chocolate cheaper but it would also taste much less pleasant.  If the accountants were hoping to increase profit by reducing costs then they were likely to be disappointed. To be sure the margin per chocolate bar would increase but if less people bought them because they were disgusting, then they would end up selling fewer chocolates and that would mean less profit.

Secondly, my own experience of working on process improvement was that rarely were the cost savings found in the places that the accountants expected. Rarely could you make genuine savings by making the product with cheaper materials and certainly not by cutting staff numbers. The other day I heard about an organisation hoping to make savings by reducing the number of services it offered.  The problem is that they’d forgotten an important detail.  They had forgotten that the members of staff responsible for providing those services still had to be employed to do other things. No savings had been made.

One day I might write about how to make genuine business and process improvements that save time and money but that’s not my focus today.  Instead, I want to come back to the poor customer and Costa and think about their experience some more. You see, not only had Costa changed their soya milk but they hadn’t thought it worthwhile to tell the customers. To them, it was just soya milk.  To them all soya milk was the same, just some was a bit cheaper.

To the customer, the milk mattered.  And the risk was somewhere between them having a not particularly pleasant tasting drink and something dangerous to their health.  So, this really should have mattered to Costa.  I would like to draw from this a few lessons.

First, in terms of the specific issues around allergies and food reactions, if you are responsible for catering, whether that’s for profit in a restaurant, or on a voluntary basis, for example putting on church meals, please take these things seriously and please take the detail seriously.  There are a range of complex reasons as to why someone might have to avoid certain foods and not every food allergy or intolerance is identical. Yet all can lead to significant pain and risk to the person. Make sure that you listen to what people tell you, listen to the detail, don’t just assume that as soon as you hear the word “allergies” that you’ve got it covered.

Secondly, and here is a lesson for anyone involved in business.  Life is not just about money, there is more to consider than cost.  There’s an old saying that it is possible to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.  So don’t just make a calculation to work out what is the cheapest option. This applies of course not just when selling but also when buying. Think about the actual purpose of the good, think about whether or not it will give real pleasure and enjoyment. Consider its value.

Thirdly, these lessons are applicable I think to church life as well.  We should not get into a consumer mentality. However, those of us in pastoral ministry should still be taking time to listen carefully to people who come along and join with us.  We shouldn’t just hear a few generalities and then make some assumptions. We should take time to understand who they are, what their needs are and what it is that is drawing them to the Gospel.  This will enable us to properly respond to them and offer pastoral care.

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