Saturday, February 26, 2011

Yo, Mr. Fro!

In the words of Relient K, from leggings (which are not pants), to mustaches (which are not ironic), to big, ugly sweaters (which are also not ironic), Americans are once again "In Love with the 80s." We've seen the trend in fashion, but it extends to food as well. Sliders are reappearing on appetizer menus, and fro-yo is sweeping the nation. Unlike our parents, however, we don't head to TCBY for some White Chocolate Mousse. We head to Pinkberry or Red Mango for some probiotic parfaits that we can top with anything from Fruity Pebbles to lychee. The only problem? Not exactly experiencing the Reaganomics boom, it's difficult to afford our low-cal indulgences.

Admittedly, I live in New York City, which is the most expensive place to live in the US, and the eighth most expensive in the world, according to Forbes. So, last semester, I'd occasionally get down to Pinkberry (it was cheaper than Red Mango for toppings), and splurge. I even got my mom hooked on it. But then I discovered Yogurtland.

Yogurtland was magical — self-serve frozen yogurt, self-serve toppings, and a pay-by-the-ounce policy that set my age-of-the-individual heart aflame. Not only that, but Yogurtland doesn't charge much per ounce — usually between $0.30 and $0.45, depending on where you are. Over Christmas break, I ate buckets of delicious, cheap Yogurtland. Then I came back to NYC, and realized I had a Yogurtland-shaped hole in my diet.

One night though, after a long day at school, my roommate and I went to Koreatown to get Red Mango, because I had heard that they had redone their store. Had they ever! Instead of a small store with limited seating, they were in a modern, brightly-lit, self-contained Korean food court. Instead of a counter guarded by the miserly keepers of the yogurt, there were self-serve yogurt dispensers (though the samples are still guarded by miserly keepers of the yogurt). The topping bar had been deregulated, going from a pay-per-topping to self-serve. Oh, and you paid by the ounce. You paid a lot less by the ounce.

Suddenly, Red Mango fit into my budget. Suddenly, I saw regular trips to Koreatown in my future. Suddenly, I was thinking that maybe I could eat some noodles and kimchi for lunch if that meant that I could get Red Mango more easily. I was also very glad for competition.

Pinkberry and Red Mango had functioned like an oligopoly*. Their prices were comparable, and much higher than I wanted. In fact, there was usually one Red Mango on the same block as a Pinkberry (an urban legend credits this to a nasty divorce between the founders of the respective companies). Sure, the companies weren't identical. Pinkberry would give you as many toppings as fit, Red Mango charged per add-on. The yogurt flavors were different, Pinkberry was pink and green, Red Mango was red and white. Yogurtland's entry into the market though, broke up this oligopolous mess. Yogurtland's innovation and lower prices forced Red Mango to innovate and compete, which they've done. Now Pinkberry (which the Harvard Sailing Team has dubbed "totes the best hun-cal fro-yo") has to step up its game. When I went to Red Mango, it was packed. Just down the block, Pinkberry's formerly full foyer had only a few yuppies who hadn't ventured quite far enough down the block.

Competition is grand for consumers. It results in better products at lower prices. It's challenging for sellers/producers, forcing innovation. Sometimes creativity just needs a little nudge — so this could be a blessing in disguise for a company like Pinkberry. They may come up with a unique value proposition that would set them apart. Take the challenge, Pinkberry. It's a dog-eat-fro-yo world out there.

I ate cheap fro-yo in:
Sailor-button, wide-leg pants, cornflower-blue short-sleeve Oxford, silver hoop earrings, silver and semi-precious stone bangles, Susan B. Anthony coin necklace, and black patent pumps.

*Technically this isn't an oligopoly, because the ease of entry into the fro-yo market is really quite easy. I'm not using this as a technical term, but merely to illustrate their fairly symbiotic relationship.