CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
October 18, 2018

What's your gluten-free?

Many companies have an untapped competitive differentiator that they shouldn't ignore.

About a dozen years ago, business writer Ian Altman's two kids convinced him to take them to Disneyland in Southern California. While the family was planning the vacation, a complication arose. Altman's son, 12 at the time, was diagnosed with celiac disease. People with this potentially life-threatening disorder cannot tolerate gluten, which is found in wheat and some other grains. The boy's diagnosis came at a time when gluten-free menus were a rarity.

For Altman and his family, the challenges of dealing with celiac disease on the road soon became clear. They arrived at Disneyland early, and as they toured the theme park, hunger began to build. First, they came across a stand selling sugared churros. Not gluten-free. Next, they walked by the bakery. No, again.

And so it went until they turned a corner, and there it was. A popcorn stand. "Dad, can I get a large?" Altman's son asked. "At that point, I was about ready to pay the guy to follow us around the park with his pushcart for the rest of the day," Altman notes. That's when it hit him. The popcorn vendor didn't just have something Altman's son wanted. He had something the boy needed. And it got Altman to thinking.

That popcorn vendor had a key advantage over the other food purveyors at Disneyland. Further, he didn't have to do a thing to gain that advantage. The only thing he hadn't done was to put a big "gluten-free" sign on his cart.

A few years later, as more consumers began to seek out gluten-free foods, that is exactly what some restaurants and food manufacturers did. The best example might be General Mills. Sales of its long-standing Chex brand (made from rice and corn) were declining. The cereal maker reversed that decline by calling consumers' attention to one key attribute of its product that had become increasingly important: It tweaked its packaging ever so slightly to add "Gluten-free. Same great taste."

"Well, of course it was the same great taste," says Altman. "It was the exact same product." All General Mills did was call attention to the fact that it was gluten-free. The point to be made, though, is not about celiac disease, Disneyland's food vendors, or even the gluten-free trend. It is about the value of recognizing something advantageous about your operation that already exists. Something that you do better than any of your competitors do.

Perhaps Altman's story can help you identify where to begin making your existing supply chain operation a competitive advantage for your company. You know what you do. You know what your competitors do. You know what your customers want (and need). Now, just ask yourself what is it you currently do better—ideally, much better—than your competition. Answer that question, and you will have discovered your own "gluten-free."

Mitch Mac Donald is Group Editorial Director of AGiLE Business Media.

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