Whole Foods Market reaped quite a harvest of favorable publicity last week with its announcement that it would no longer sell live lobsters or soft-shelled crabs from in-store holding tanks.
Perhaps in the world of crustaceans this is cause for celebration, but the news doesn't represent an unmitigated triumph for the creatures since Whole Foods still intends to sell them in their frozen and cooked state.
Indeed, lobsters were ditched only after a couple of alternatives were tried in some stores in an effort to find a way to keep them. One was to move tanks out of customer reach so the lobsters wouldn't be harassed by children tapping on the glass; the other - implausible as it seems - was to test "lobster condos" consisting of lengths of pipe laid in the water to offer them refuge.
Evidently, none of that was sufficient to placate shoppers who complained that of all food retailers, Whole Foods was not the one that should sell live lobsters. In a statement, John Mackey, the chain's chief executive officer, told customers, "We place as much emphasis on the importance of humane treatment and quality of life for all animals as we do on the expectations for quality and flavor."
The lesson to be learned from this is that in retailing, when it's necessary to make a change, tout that change as a high-value development, and do so in a style that will resonate with the core shopper base.
Live lobsters are an increasingly slow-moving category, so many supermarkets have removed lobster tanks without a thought about using the occasion to generate publicity. According to a news article in the Chicago Tribune, Jewel abandoned live lobsters eight years ago. Several weeks ago, Safeway quit selling live lobsters too, probably becoming the largest chain to eschew the product. Safeway didn't gain much of a halo effect because the decision was styled in straightforward business terms: They didn't sell well, so out they went.
One chapter in the saga of the missing lobsters points out a fact about consumer thinking, though. It's quite evident that in recent years squeamishness about food's pre-processed and living form has increased. Few consumers would think of raising their own chickens in the back yard to ultimately slaughter and consume, even though that was a common practice a couple of generations ago. To some degree, that's the fate befalling lobsters, one of the few remaining food products that customers frequently see alive. Doubtless, lobsters are destined to become a specialty and restaurant product.
The other chapter in this saga has to do with the onset of what might be considered ethical food. That's because there is increasing consumer pushback against supermarkets and restaurants that offer product seen as endangered. That's why orange roughy has vanished from many store cases and menus.
Similarly, in the United Kingdom, Asda, the supermarket chain owned by Wal-Mart Stores, has pledged to discontinue the sale of North Sea cod next month because stocks are nearly fished out. Wal-Mart itself intends later this year to offer MSC-certified fish in North America. That certification is granted by the Marine Stewardship Council, London, to fisheries that hew to certain standards of sustainability.