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Seasons Change, and So Do Our Preferences

October 3, 2023 | Letters

Author: Nicole Olynk Widmar, Interim Department Head and Professor, Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics

Consumer Corner has an admittedly odd history of gleaning wisdom from unexpected places, like lessons from rodents – famous ones, but still rodents. We learned why Mickey Mouse wears gloves (hint: it involves preserving his charm) and why you should smell your cheese – a tale of change and the timely pursuit of fresher horizons. “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson has long been renowned amongst business, leadership, and other audiences. If you haven’t read it in a while, you should probably do a refresher (along with your cheese). I’ll briefly summarize … we have two little people (Hem and Haw) and two mice (Sniff and Scurry) in a maze. Everyone wants cheese, which seemingly represents success more broadly defined than a stash of physical product. The cheese is the embodiment of success; whatever that means to you. Here’s the punchline: Hem and Haw (with all their human problems) spend their days looking for cheese. Their search involves complex viewpoints, focusing on achieving happiness and incorporating how one feels about the prospect of finding cheese. Sniff and Scurry (with no human problems) simply run and look for cheese with the simplistic “we want cheese” motivators. That’s lesson one — stop complicating matters with how you will feel once you find the cheese and what it means to you. Start looking for cheese; get going.

The second lesson, simple yet incredibly underappreciated, imparts a vital truth: finding cheese doesn’t equate to a lifetime of entitlement to cheese. Blinded by your own cheesy success, you could become fixated on your hard-won cheese, not noticing the pile shrinking and encroaching mold. Essentially, if you stop looking, stop paying attention, and become engrossed on your personal cheese haven, you might not notice when it starts to stink. You must regularly sniff out success; it’s not a one-and-done sort of thing. It’s constant. In the story, the mice keep their sneakers handy, so they are ready to run. Likewise, you need to keep your sneakers close and, when the cheese gets old, set forth to find new opportunities.

Speaking of old cheese and truth … remember that seasons change just like consumer preferences. While I lack a crystal ball for predicting tomorrow’s demands, I’m reasonably comfortable demands will change, because they always do. Our ever-evolving tastes and preferences are not only a reflection of shifting needs and wants but also a response to options or new alternatives we didn’t have before. Or, we may have fewer options and be forced to seek alternatively. We’re often (almost always) unsure of what we really want; we’ll know it when we see it, we say. Of course, that means that when you see something new … you may want something new. However, our wants and needs are intricately tied to our stage of life or individual circumstances. For example, consider the demands faced by those purchasing baby formula in recent years when the shortage hit. We also have seasonal demands that ebb and flow much like the changing seasons themselves. Think about holiday food items, for example.  You only want them exactly when you want them, and you likely have very little interest in whole turkeys in June. Let’s be honest: how many whole turkeys do you buy and cook outside of November? (Answer: Not many.) It’s easy to respond with “that makes sense” when you’re the consumer looking for holiday treats in December, back-to-school items in August and September, and turkeys at Thanksgiving. These are the proverbial low-hanging fruit, symbolizing anticipated changes in consumer demand. Meeting these demands is essentially forever chasing moving cheese; we knew it would move, although we might not know exactly where. In late 2020, holidays reshaped entirely and meat supply chains questioned what people would want to make and serve to smaller crowds during a tense first COVID-era holiday. Even when we anticipate changes in consumer demands, it is sometimes unclear exactly how those changes will manifest. And, that anticipation is on top of constant evolution and the fact that none of us are entirely consistent in our preferences, even if nothing around us changes. The seasons and environment changes – so do we. The cheese (business success in this environment or success in meeting consumer demand) is almost certainly going to move.

Instead of fixating on having found cheese and parking oneself next to said pile, Sniff and Scurry (the mice) move on easily and run after new cheese. Hem and Haw (human problems, again) feel sad and sorrowful about their tiny moldy cheese pile. The longer you linger by your blue cheese of sadness, the less time you have to discover the fresher cheese ahead. At some point the fear of leaving the old cheese becomes crippling. Eventually Haw goes out to find new cheese without his human friend Hem. But it took a lot to get him to go, and they aren’t together anymore. There’s new cheese out there, but you aren’t going to find it standing next to your old moldy cheese crumbles. Step one: smell your cheese to know when it is getting old. Step two: Go. Find. New. Cheese. And preferably, without too much Hemming and Hawing.