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Experimenting with milkshakes?

I have been on a mission to convince firms to do simple experiments that will give them feedback regarding the decisions that they make. Just as with people (as Anders Ericsson studies), firms cannot learn without feedback. It turns out, however, that it is not easy for people in companies to see the wisdom in experiments.

Which is why I was so heartened the other day when I was with my wife in a restaurant, and I noticed that our two menus seemed to be identical except for one item. On my menu it was called something like “Coffee mocha milkshake” and on my wife’s menu it was “Chocolate Kona milkshake swirl.” The names were better than that, but one stressed the coffee part of the milkshake and the other stressed the chocolate part.

I hadn’t thought of menu descriptions as something restaurants should experiment with, but when I saw this, I suddenly realized it was a good idea. Do the names you give the food matter for what gets purchased? Do the descriptions affect the total amount of money spent, the satisfaction with the meal, or the likelihood that a diner returns? Can experimenting with the descriptions help the chef to know what types of food people do and do not like?

Fascinating, I thought, that this little restaurant would be experimenting with its menu (although if I were doing the experiment I wouldn’t be giving different menus to two people in the same party, but rather, to different parties). Perfect fodder for our next book! When the waitress came over, I asked her about the two different menus. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I must have given you one of our old menus by accident. Let me take that one and throw it away and get you a real one.”

Oh, well, I guess that little restaurant won’t be an example in our next book after all. But the choco/mocha/kona milkshake was quite good my wife tells me.