Rory Sutherland

The surprising brilliance of meal kits

The surprising brilliance of meal kits
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Ford’s Kumar Galhotra once remarked that carmaking is 100,000 rational decisions in search of one emotional decision. You spend five years and billions of dollars perfecting the drive train, the suspension and the onboard software only for people to choose a car based on the number of cupholders or the fact that the satnav is voiced by James Earl Jones.

I’m hardly immune to this myself. I recently decided I wanted a Tesla because it offers an ingenious function called dog mode. This is faintly absurd to begin with: it’s even more ridiculous when you consider that I don’t own a dog.

For this reason, I argue that the businesses that best reward investment are those which succeed despite (or because of?) some element of seeming illogicality. Consumer capitalism is the Galapagos Islands of human psychology. Just as you can learn about evolution from the apparently needless variation in the beaks of finches, you can learn about innate human needs through the study of strange things people buy. Business, like biology, is a science of exceptions.

And so I’m fascinated by my own recent and unexpected enthusiasm for meal kits. Visit gousto.co.uk and you can choose four recipes from a choice of about 50. The recipes, along with the ingredients — down to the last ounce of coriander — are delivered on a day you choose the following week. I find it weirdly life-changing.

And yet I discovered this only because the man who founded the business met me and offered to send me a free box. As my physique attests, I’m not a man to turn down free food. But at the time I couldn’t understand the concept at all. After all, my home contains about 30 cookery books. Why not choose one of those recipes, add the ingredients to my Ocado order, then cook them at my convenience?

But here’s the thing, I never do. Nobody does. Cookbooks dominate the finances of the publishing industry — yet, outside a few devotees, they are less read than Thomas Piketty’s Capital. In fact you’d be better off buying your mother-in-law a copy of the Kama Sutra than the latest foodie bible for Christmas, as the odds are considerably higher she will act on the instructions within. Admittedly this risks a certain awkwardness at the moment of unwrapping.

In women’s magazines, too, recipes rank among the most requested content, yet research shows nobody acts on them. So Gousto, it occurs to me, is a rather brilliant behavioural business. Although logistically it doesn’t offer you anything you couldn’t do off your own bat, it gets you to do something repeatedly, regularly and enjoyably which you’d never do unprompted. It’s akin to my financial adviser in that respect. Yes, I give the bugger a sack of cash for doing things I could theoretically do myself… but I’m honest enough about my self-discipline to know that, left to my own devices, I’d never think about my pension for more than 15 seconds without a narcoleptic attack.

It isn’t just me. Everybody I’ve introduced to Gousto has experienced the same epiphany. Both Gousto and German competitor hellofresh.co.ukare valued at more than £1 billion. Recently Gousto hired 1,000 employees to deal with demand.

The arrangement is particularly good for British palates, since the Indian and exotic food we like generally requires a wider range of ingredients than we are likely to have at home. And eating high-quality Indian food at home is particularly good for lockdown relationships. As I regularly remind my long-suffering wife, the Indian divorce rate is only 0.5 per cent. Once you go dhansak, you never go back.