Does increased distribution lead to reduced perceptions of quality?

03Mar10

I have always preferred dark chocolate over milk chocolate and other variants, but I never really paid attention to things like the percentage of cacao in each bar. A few weeks ago, I decided to try my hand at chocolate snobbery, so I purchased several new types of dark chocolate at Trader Joe’s, including their house brands and some third-party ones. What’s most interesting about this exercise is the awareness it’s given me of how ubiquitous some brands of chocolate are in the retail channel, while others remain more exclusive.

To most people, brands like Godiva and Ghirardelli are probably considered premium or high-quality options. However, now that I’m paying attention to how common they are, my own perception of their quality is considerably lower. For instance, I’ve seen Ghirardelli in CVS and Border’s — in some cases, with an entire free-standing display dedicated to the brand. If you can buy the product virtually anywhere, it can’t be that special or high-quality, right?

I don’t have enough data to answer that question. From my own experience, it seems like increased distribution of the product makes it seem more ordinary, and thus lower-quality. This is especially true when the places selling the product aren’t exactly known for being purveyors of fine goods. For instance, selling gourmet chocolate in Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s makes a lot more sense than peddling it at CVS or Borders.

With all that said, if the increased distribution and exposure leads to a significant increase in sales — and that increase can be sustained in the long run even as snobbier customers defect to other brands — then getting the product into more stores is probably the right thing to do. However, ubiquity comes with a price: you can never go back to being the high-end brand that loyal customers seek out and are willing to pay a premium price to obtain.



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