Menu descriptions help sales, study says

Cornell University study finds descriptive menu labels build sales.

Published in FSD C&U Spotlight

cafeteria menu

Having trouble building sales of that new menu item? Try including more descriptive labels, says a recent report from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.

During a six-week field study within a faculty cafeteria at a Midwestern university, Brian Wansink, marketing professor and director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, and his team of researchers found that sales of menu items with descriptive labels were 27% higher than items without descriptive labels. In addition, customers who ate items menued with descriptive labels consistently rated the items as being of higher quality and a better value than customers rating items with regular labels.

Not only can descriptive labels help operations generate first-time trial of items, the study finds, they can also impact overall customer impression and support repeat sales. “When people have positive associations with a descriptive label, a chain reaction of positive attitudes and intentions follows. That is, after enjoying their meal, customers are more likely to give the meal a positive evaluation for quality and of a better value,” states the report.

Noting that descriptive labeling can be broken into multiple categories, such as geographic, nostalgic or sensory, the study aimed to test a variety of description types “to determine if the general use of descriptive labels was more effective than not using them.” The study found that the most effective description type depends on the item that it is describing but should always use favorable and positive language.

While customers are more responsive to descriptive menu labels, the study also found that consumers will not pay more for well-described items. “One possible explanation of this can be attributed to the anchoring effect that the purchase price had on their estimate of how much they would be willing to pay,” the study, in combination with previous research, found. “Were the purchase price still salient, it would be the most prominent predictor of how a customer believes he or she should pay. That is, if a customer recently paid $3.99 for an entrée, he or she is likely to say that $3.99 is the most they would pay for that item, even if they would pay more in another context.”

Food quality, regardless of its menu description, should always meet customer expectation, the report concludes. Foodservice operations “should monitor their use of descriptive labels in order to avoid unjustifiably inflating their customers’ expectations. But beware of the temptation to label yesterday’s goulash as ‘Royal Hungarian Top Sirloin Blend.’ It will generate first-time sales, but they may be the last.” 

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