Most retailers have spent a lot of time and effort crafting distinct store profiles in an increasingly cluttered marketplace. Everything from store layout and signature programs to signs and private label has been designed to help create a stronger bond with consumers.
At best, it's a tenuous connection, as shoppers continue to patronize multiple channels for their needs. In committing to this course of action, however, retailers have made themselves more than just a physical transfer point between the supplier and the consumer. Value-added experiences like cooking classes, outreach programs and lifestyle sections have compounded the trust quotient; that is, stores today are more than just a merchandise outlet -- they are library-like sources of information and education.
So, when something goes awry, such as the Washington state mad cow disease case, or publicity surrounding methylmercury in certain species of seafood, there is a lot more at stake than just the food product involved. That bond -- the connection between the food product and the entity that sold it -- grows stronger. Customers go back to that store to determine if they're impacted by the event, and look to the retailer to provide them direction -- and resolution.
The mad cow disease case is a perfect example of this relationship at work because it's being tested on multiple levels. A poll by Rutgers University, profiled in a story on Page 58, indicates 77% of those aware of the BSE incident believe the beef they buy in their supermarkets is "safe," compared to only 65% who think the U.S. beef supply in general is safe. On the surface, the statistics reflect the progress that's been made connecting with shoppers.
Yet, more recent events threaten those numbers. A story on Page 51 details a criminal investigation into allegations of record falsification regarding the infected cow; a customer in the Pacific Northwest is suing a retailer for not actively notifying her that she had purchased recalled beef; and a number of small meat processors are publicly criticizing the USDA for preventing them from using private firms to test their product for BSE. Certainly, the case is far from closed, and it's another instance of the food industry on the defensive.
Retailers, notoriously reluctant to alienate or offend a single potential shopper, may not have much wiggle room on this one because their efforts at promoting themselves as destinations finally have the potential to really pay off -- even though cases like mad cow disease or mercury in fish aren't the platform they envisioned using. Nevertheless, the opportunity is here to do something truly outstanding, to lift the "image" to "reputation."
There are precious few operators out there who have earned this level of trustworthiness. It requires a business plan, an overall philosophy, that moves beyond labels and signs and color schemes to include such intangible attributes as candor, forthrightness, honesty and loyalty to the customer -- not customer loyalty. It means taking a side.
In a world polluted with messages, logos and slogans, such traits and all those other responsibilities that go directly against the retailer's natural, but misguided, instinct to avoid controversy at all costs are the deeper characteristics that today's consumers are anxious to connect with.