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What Can You Learn From Pret A Manger’s Freebie Sandwiches?



Laura Swinton investigates the psychology of generosity

What Can You Learn From Pret A Manger’s Freebie Sandwiches?

This week the CEO of Pret A Manger, a global sandwich chain with footprints in France, Hong Kong, the US and its native UK, revealed that staff are encouraged to give away free food and drinks to their favourite customers. I can’t recall ever getting a Chef’s Chipotle Salad on the house but, putting my mild indignance to one side for now (baristas, why don’t you love meee?), the story made me smile anyway. And the more you dig into the science of giving, this simple company policy could have benefits that go way beyond brand sentiment. Could encouraging a little generosity improve your whole business?

Speaking to the Independent CEO Clive Schlee explained the policy of setting targets for the amount of food and coffees to be given away per week, “We looked at loyalty cards but we didn’t want to spend all that money building up some complicated Clubcard-style analysis.” 

On the surface it’s an endearingly faff-free alternative to an overly complex loyalty scheme. Sometimes simple really is better. It’s also notable that, from Schlee’s perspective, the benefits of mining vast swathes of ‘big data’ from customers just wasn’t worth the hassle and expense. But Schlee is still convinced that the tactic could help the brand rival behemoths like McDonald’s and Starbucks, as he told London’s Evening Standard

And hey, superficially, isn’t it a sure fire way to surprise and delight customers, most of whom will be grabbing an quick lunch in the middle of a humdrum day in the office? Trying to delight customers is more than just a frippery - mathematical studies show that it also attracts customers from less delighting competitor brands.  For psychology nerds, the unsystematic schedule of giving will likely catch their eye. When it comes to rewarding and reinforcing a desired behaviour, rewards that occur on an unpredictable schedule tend to create behaviours that are likely to be more lasting.

However the brand benefits of dishing out freebies could be overstated – psychologists have identified an anxiety and sense of obligation that comes with receiving gifts that can make people uncomfortable. What’s more, it seems that while young people and women are more likely to enjoy receiving gifts and feel comfortable expressing gratitude, while men – particularly older men – are less likely to feel positive about receiving a gift or giving thanks. This could be down to feeling suspicious about ulterior motives and future obligations. 

Giving out random freebies is probably, on balance, a good thing, but the biggest benefits are likely to be felt internally. The Bible says, ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’, and it turns out that this little religious nugget is actually backed up by science (t had to happen eventually, right?). There’s a circular relationship between giving and happiness; happier people give more and giving more makes people happier. Psychologists have even shown that the parts of our brains associated with positive reward are more active when we give than receive.

A happier workforce is one thing, but what about a more engaged one? I’ve done my time in retail, in clothes shops thronging with menopausal women tearing each other apart to get to bargains during sales time and cafes where I’ve spent most of my time unsticking raisins from the floor while poorly controlled sprogs rain down cheese slices and tomato ketchup. I know how tiring it is to force yourself to keep smiling on the shop floor while my every movement is micromanaged. So, from my perspective, Pret’s freebie policy looks almost empowering. They can reward whoever catches their eye – an amiable old lady, a hot mess 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' – and can secretly dole out punishment to the rude and obnoxious, like some whimsical God of Sandwiches. Employee empowerment has been shown to be related to engagement – and is particularly important where job security is weak.  In turn, engagement and empowerment are related to job satisfaction and customer satisfaction. Win-win-win-win. Right?

But giving is easy when it’s not your own coffee and sandwiches that you’re giving away. Looking beyond Pret’s simple gimmick, generosity can be a tricky thing to encourage and manage, particularly when employees have to sacrifice something of their own (time, energy, money) or are given mixed messages. It’s well worth getting stuck into the work of psychology professor Adam Grant, author of ‘Give and Take’, who is well-versed in the intricacies and benefits of generosity at a personal and organisational level. 

In our world, the world of advertising and production, generosity is abundant. It can be a good business strategy, opening doors to future opportunities. It can be a good career strategy too as you get involved with truly innovative but underfunded experiments in creativity. But it can also be a piss take. Individuals and even whole businesses are frequently exploited in the name of collaboration or ‘publicity’. Generosity of time, of expertise results is a brilliant thing; it’s a signifier of real passion and can result in some mind-blowing projects. Ingratitude and expectation, however, is less good. In an industry where you’re giving away more than the odd carton of hot soup, boundaries are important and the balance can be tricky to achieve.  

As the research shows, the concept of generosity can be difficult to navigate, but if you can get it right it can be incredibly impactful. In the case of Pret, much has been written over the past year or two about the ‘Pret Buzz’ – inhouse training, guidelines and rewards designed to encourage a friendly atmosphere. Does it foster genuine happiness or is it a company exerting ownership over its employee’s very emotions? It’s a tough call but at least the company is being consistent with its brand values and policy of generosity. The café chain has a history of donating leftover food to the homeless so dishing out a few free coffees to lucky punters feels like a plausibly authentic extension of this. Anyway, sliding someone an on-the-house drink feels so much more human because you fancy them or think they need to be cheered up is so much more human than the convoluted stunts, competitions and schemes other brands in the fast food space engage in. On balance, then, I think I kind of admire what Pret are trying to do. Now, where’s my free sarnie?

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Categories: Fast food, Retail and Restaurants

LBB Editorial, Wed, 22 Apr 2015 16:21:25 GMT