Lobster Was Once a Prison Food!

Lobster Was Once a Prison Food!

I’m fascinated by the history of business, and one of the most amazing discoveries I made was that until the late 1800s, lobster was a food that was not only incredibly abundant, (and therefore very cheap,) but was also looked down upon as a food for the low class poor, for servants, for pets… and for unhappy prisoners. Indeed, the modern word “lobster” is believed to have meant “spider” or “locust” since the early days when the English language was born, (and derived from the word “loppestre.”) Most people didn’t see much value in eating it unless they were really poor.

How perceptions have changed! Somewhere towards the latter half of the 1800s – we’re not sure exactly when – lobster was rebranded in fancy eating places as a mysterious and glamorous delicacy on restaurant menus and railway dining cars, and became more expensive. The demand for lobster as a fancy food soared, to the degree that by the time of the Second World War overfishing led to shortages, and conservation laws were passed in America and Europe so that lobsters would not become extinct through overfishing.

The simultaneous increase in prices means that today in South Africa lobster costs around R1400 per kilo, (retail,) and it is exported around the world as a lucrative product. Many tourists come to SA for a fine dining experience with lobster near the top of their list of a “royal treat.”

Of course, it’s not just lobsters that are in this category. Another “miracle” food that suddenly emerged as an expensive alternative to rice and pasta is quinoa, a seed/cereal that was eaten in vast quantities for many centuries by the Andean peoples of South America. It is so popular now that the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation declared 2013 as “The International Year of the Quinoa,” and the peoples of South America have found it completely unaffordable now.

Ask any man what drives them crazy about what their wives, girlfriends and daughters buy that they see as a rip-off, and they will bravely mention shoes, handbags, cosmetics, salons of any type, fashion items, and so on. And then, as they sit back, smugly delighting in the fact that men are more rational, logical, and left-brained humans that wouldn’t dream of being separated from the hard-earned money in such a stupid manner, ask their wives and girlfriends about what drives them crazy about men’s expensive purchases. They will talk about liquor, sports equipment, electronic toys, power tools, motor-cars and motorbikes, and a host of other very expensive items. (

I know I am in this territory when I gently and diplomatically ask my wife to explain her buying choices to me. She usually spends 10 minutes saying that men don’t get it, and will never understand, and then finally, in exasperation she will say, “Because it makes me feel better.” Aaah.)

Why does this all happen? One of my favourite marketing models is what’s become known as “The Competitiveness Value Map,” and it is a matrix which helps one to understand how customer’s perceptions of the value of a product or service are mostly what determine the price they are prepared to pay – even in times like these. If the product or service, (or person, holiday venue, property or place, event or show, idea, school, or even experience,) is something that they perceive as very desirable, they are happy to pay a higher price – and to hell with the consequences.

Why do customers pay so much more for these things – even when they are similar, unneeded or expensive? There are some categories that are easy to understand. For example, if there are no other alternatives…

  • If a company is a monopoly, or is part of a cartel, we have no choice but to deal with them – or do without.
  • Similarly, if a company has some proprietary technology that makes it the sole supplier.
  • If we have to buy “grudge purchases” where prices are set by the government, (think petrol and passports,) or the monthly shopping for basic foods. Once again, the choice is to buy them, or do without.
  • When we are desperate for something. If your child is howling with pain, you aren’t going to negotiate the fee with the doctor. You’ll pay whatever it costs.
  • If there’s a powerful “loyalty programme” where customers have invested too much, and will lose miles/points/rewards, no matter how the company treats them. This is known as “loss aversion,” and often leads to completely irrational behaviour from us as people. We live in hope that someday it will all be worth the wait.
  • When switching to another competitor is just too expensive or too inconvenient.
  • Alternatively, if the price of ownership in the longer term is lower, we may invest a little more up front – but we want clear evidence that this is so.

However, what are fascinating are the reasons when customers willingly pay much more because the decision is emotionally and/or perceptually based, rather than rational and logical. Some examples…

  • When the brand is the most well-known and desirable, it gives us a sense of safety and lessens the risk, but it is also part of “fitting in” with our peers. Think about the average teenager’s choice of clothes, music or party venue.)
  • Related to the point above is when a particular product or service is fashionable or a fad. My dear old dad wore Hush Puppy shoes when I was young, so you won’t be seeing me dead in a pair of Hush Puppies. But it skipped a generation and now this brand is incredibly popular – to the degree where not even the company fully understands what made them so desirable. Of course, fashions and fads are not limited to clothing or the latest colour for nail varnish: they include the latest gadgets, movies, holiday venues and dozens more examples.
  • When we feel that the purchase gives us status, prestige or power in society. For example, “I live in a particular suburb, drive a particular car, and send my kids to a particular private school just because I can.” Often, this is directly linked to the price paid, and the most attractive feature of that purchase is… the price! Newly-rich people become boastful that they can afford it, rather than because they actually need it.
  • When something is rare, exclusive, unique, exotic, or one-of-a-kind. You’re not going to hire a wedding dress when your daughter gets married, because you become a dead man walking. But you will pay thousands of rand for an exclusive and specially designed long white dress that will be worn for a maximum of twelve hours. This category also includes antiques and classic cars, rare paintings, or some other iconic item like the underpants that Elvis Presley was wearing when he had a heart attack on the toilet.(There’s a classic marketing experiment where the sample group of customers were given exactly the same wine to taste in different glasses. However, when subjects were told about the names of each winery, the wineries with the most-difficult-to-pronounce names received the highest ratings! They also claim to experience more pleasure from the more expensive wines.)
  • In a society where everything seems to be hard, where there is so much inconvenience and pressure on our time, and where instant gratification and delivery is the only acceptable way to do business, companies that make our lives simpler, more convenient, and respond quickly with home deliveries today, will succeed.
  • All three points made above are also easily managed by most companies through great service. Caring for customers in a special manner, and making them feel good about themselves and about your business is a winner, no matter what way you look at it.
  • Increasingly in most nations, rich and poor alike, customers say they are willing to pay more for products when companies are seen to be giving back to society, or performing in a socially responsible way.
  • Finally, some purchases are by their nature highly emotional. Fear (and creating a sense of security) is a good motivator to spend more than one should. Guilt is what makes married men buy copious flowers at high prices to put their wives in a better mood. A desire to do the best for our children means we pay far more for education – with diminishing returns for special schools and private lessons. A sense of pride causes people to buy a brand new suit because they are making an appearance on a business TV programme for a couple of minutes.

So the transformation of lobster (locust?) from prison food to a great delicacy is easy to understand when you look at it from the perceptions of value of customers.

Now, if you want to take me out for a lobster dinner, and you are paying, consider me there at a moment’s notice!

(I am indebted, in this article, to Jeanna Heerman of Vouchercloud.com for reminding me about the history of lobster eating in the world pre-1800s, something which I saw a very long time ago and forgotten completely until her article.)

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