What a Sociobiologist Tells Us About Risk and Business

What a Sociobiologist Tells Us About Rick and Business

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If you’re like me, the title to this week’s column left you scratching your head. Just what is a “sociobiologist” and what does such a person have to do with the produce business?

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Let’s start with the definition of sociobiology: it is the scientific study of the biological (especially ecological and evolutionary) aspects of social behavior in animals and humans. Rebecca D. Costa, an American sociobiologist, author, and host of the syndicated radio program The Costa Report, recently authored an interesting whitepaper: The End of Risk – Can Risk Ever Really be Eliminated? Costa begins with this interesting overview: “What is risk? What compels most of us to avoid it while others run straight into the fire? Is risk a necessary component of progress? And more importantly, can risk ever really be eliminated? If so, how?”  And she continues, “One year ago, the largest grocer in the United States learned about a study which revealed cows produce less milk as temperatures rise. The retailer began tapping NOAA’s meteorological data so they could look in milk prices before shortages began. Imagine the advantage this gave them as competitors attempted to adjust prices in real time as milk supplies constricted.” Costa writes of the power we now have to adapt before the fact…to “pre-dapt”. And she concludes her opening statements with these words of encouragement: “The same principles which produce successful results in nature since life began can be used by business, government and individuals…”


MERCHANDISING TIP OF THE WEEK. Rebecca D. Costa outlines these principles of adaptation, each followed by some commentary as to how these principles might apply to selling produce in supermarkets.


Failure is more common than success. From Rebecca Costa: “In any fast-changing environment – such as the one we face today- there are more wrong choices than right ones. The best strategy to beat those odds is diversification. When faced with a high-failure environment we invest in as many solutions as possible, then vet and eliminate options as more facts become available.” What this means? I think this speaks volumes about trying new items and changing category emphasis. But equally important is the process of vetting items based on sales success and emphasizing the winners while eliminating the losers. 


The greater the magnitude, speed and complexity of change, the higher the rate of failure. From Rebecca Costa: “Scientists estimate that 99.9% of all organisms which once inhabited the earth are now extinct as a result of sudden, extreme events (such as the Ice Age). The rapid proliferation of digital photography put Kodak out of business. Adapting after-the-fact is a failing strategy in a world where future outcomes, trends and events are known.” What this means? Simply put, your Produce Department should look different than it did five years ago – and next year it should look different than it does now. The basis for those changes is information that numerous publications, including this column, have presented about popular items, dietary trends and culinary styles, all which are reflected in the of items sought by consumers.


Any drive toward singularity is a drive toward extinction. From Rebecca Costa: “In fast-moving environments, waste and failure are necessary ingredients of progress. Removing all the waste and failure is a guarantee there will be no innovation, no forward movement.” What this means? While many “no waste” movements seem to have consumer support, this cannot be confused with the inherent shrink that selling fresh produce brings. Simply put, fruits and vegetables, by their very nature, have a minimal percentage of shrink – and the only way to by-pass that “normal” shrink is to reduce item count and display size, which has negative sales impact.


Success warrants imitation. From Rebecca Costa: “The Viceroy butterfly is virtually indistinguishable from the Monarch. The reason for this is Monarchs have an unpleasant taste birds avoid. Lacking this defense, Viceroys do the next best thing: they mimic the Monarch’s appearance. Similarly, one of the most effective adaptive strategies is to adopt what is already working.” What this means? Visit your SUCCESSFUL competitors frequently and learn what makes them successful – then imitate it.


The size of an environment determines growth. From Rebecca Costa: “In nature, the size and resources within an environment dictate how fast a species can grow. This also applies to business. Market size determines the number of competitors which can be sustained.” What this means? Tailor your item assortment based on needs within your community. There is no need for five different merchants to battle to win the 10lb. Idaho potato war…offer smaller bags of Idahoes while also offering fingerlings and value-added.


Nature’s offense: strike first, strike hard. It’s a matter of life or death. From Rebecca Costa: “In the natural world, offensive strikes are rare and primarily associated with acquiring subsistence or defending territory or the young. An offensive strike is a ‘take no prisoners’ all-out proposition. Similarly, when businesses take an offensive stance, there is great advantage in making the first strike. But once made, a sustained commitment to prevail must be made – lest the strike invite peril.” What this means? Choose the differentiation point(s) between you and your competitors, then emphasize those relentlessly. If you are the “quality” merchant in your area, never diminish quality levels to attain a lower price.


Incremental adjustments pose less risk. From Rebecca Costa: “Organizations which embrace the Japanese concept of ‘kaizen’ – continuous improvement – greatly reduce the need for a radical, life-threatening adjustment later.” What this means? Even the simplest operational concepts – cleanliness and sanitation at the top of that list – need ongoing emphasis and continuous improvement to keep your store / department in top form and not in a crisis situation.


Pattern recognition is vital to survival. From Rebecca Costa: “Predators who learn the habits of their prey have an upper hand in nature.” What this means? Customize your advertising / marketing messages to the specific interests of a new breed on consumer.


Fortune favors the prepared mind. From Rebecca Costa: “There can be no greater advantage than foreknowledge. Not in nature.

Not in business.” What this means? Take advantage of every tool to better understand the current consumer, future trends, the way          customers relate to your company and to your business approach. Attend Conferences, workshops, participate in webinars…and read the thoughts and ideas of remarkable people like Rebecca D. Costa. Happy Selling!