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Schizophrenic Nation

Strange Bedfellows

As Americans have become more eclectic in their beliefs, they've also become strangely demanding. The snack food market is one example. Once upon a time, snack foods were universally loaded with fat--in short, they were bad for you. In the fit of piousness that cropped up in the early '90s, a truckload of virtuous, fat-free chips and cookies spilled forth with the promise of guilt-free snacking. Last year, in response to lagging sales, many such snacks--including Nabisco's flagship Snackwell's line--were reformulated to include a little bit of taste-enhancing (you guessed it) fat.

The point? Consumers are no longer willing to take their medicine--if it's bad-tasting. Just a few years ago, the mere notion of a fat-free snack was enough to make people sit up and beg. Today, the same virtuous snack also has to taste good. Really good. The once-acceptable argument that a low-fat snack with a rich, satisfying taste was a scientific impossibility simply doesn't hold water today--and not because science has changed. Consumers simply want--and expect--more.

Susan Mitchell, author of American Generations: Who They Are, How They Live, What They Think (New Strategist), observes that for baby boomers and later generations, the availability of choice and the ongoing race for innovation have created a mentality that anything is possible. "Years ago, you could have a Model T in any color, as long as it was black. Today, people want to build computers according to their own specs and order custom-made Levis," Mitchell says. "Companies have done such a good job of meeting consumers' expectations that expectations are now unreasonable. People expect to get A and B, even when A and B are contradictory."

Naturally, this mind-set establishes a high standard for entrepreneurs. "Customers want what they want, when they want it," says luggage retailer Borsack. "They don't want to be told, `No.' "

So, whenever possible, Borsack avoids the negative. If a store is out of stock on an item, El Portal will offer to ship it to the customer's home in two days. If a customer prefers something he or she saw at another store, El Portal will try to special order it. And for folks who want El Portal's high-quality, high-end luggage at bargain prices, the company now has outlet stores.

Indeed, outlet shopping may be the definitive sport of the '90s. You get good stuff at good prices, which is saying a lot for a retail transaction. Yet, true to Mitchell's observations, consumers aren't always content with the outlet experience either. Often, service is sacrificed. Or convenience is lost as they drive to the outskirts of Nowhere to visit the nearest outlet mall.

Is it unreasonable for consumers to think they can get upscale goods, bargain prices, service, convenience and a twist of fun? Yes. But that doesn't stop New York City entrepreneur Ken Seiff from trying to provide it. Seiff's new Internet apparel business, Bluefly. com, offers a wide selection of high-quality designer-label clothing for men, women and children at 25 to 75 percent off retail prices.

With Bluefly.com, Seiff hopes to quiet all objections to outlet shopping. "Customers don't have to drive two hours to get here, and they don't have to dig through bins to find the right size," he says. "We have a liberal 90-day return policy and a low $3.95 flat rate for shipping." Bluefly.com customers can also create personalized online catalogs that contain only the brands and sizes they want.

With Bluefly.com, Seiff and his team illustrate the flip side to unrealistic consumer expectations. When you harness innovation and unconventional thinking, sometimes you can break new ground. "Wherever you have consumer conflict," Stark points out, "entrepreneurs have opportunities."

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This article was originally published in the March 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Schizophrenic Nation.

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