As we were putting the final touches on this week's Healthy Foods International show (co-sponsored by SN Whole Health), I spent some time on the phone with one of the seminar planners talking about “authenticity.” It's one of those intangible words that's been floating around in the industry for some time now, along with others, like transparency and accessibility.
What are these words? How is the food industry defining them? What do they mean to supermarkets?
The terms first surfaced in the health and wellness sector, but they're important to everyone in the food business today. It doesn't matter what you sell, or what kind of store format you operate. Consumers want real food sold by real companies, and they're demonstrating their desires by asking smarter questions and expressing more skepticism about the sources of their food, and the way products are manufactured. Their behavior has played an important role in a number of recent developments, such as the new food co-ops sprouting up, the local food movement and the popularity of farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture. The common thread running through all of them is their ability to connect buyer and seller.
No doubt these consumers continue to shop their favorite supermarket, but they're bringing these same attitudes and desires in with them, and here lies the latest challenge for conventional operators. What can supermarkets do to foster the sense of trust enjoyed by these alternate venues? The sooner we find out, the better, because the traditional role of the supermarket — as a merchandising and promotional platform — is becoming somewhat irrelevant.
Luckily, inspiration and guidance aren't far off. Just take a look at the supernatural and specialty retailers like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's. They have buying policies they publicize; they actively solicit feedback (and are willing to act on it!); their merchandising programs respect consumers and strive to include at least a little education; and their hiring practices create a workforce that's loyal and content — and it shows.
These are some of the more obvious elements that define authenticity and transparency. Any retailer who can incorporate these qualities into their business plan will be richly rewarded, but it needs to start at the top. The same is true in this case. Look at Wal-Mart. It wasn't until CEO Lee Scott became interested in the company's environmental impact that changes — big and innovative — were made.
As the health and wellness movement further conditions shoppers and their buying habits, the food industry has to get its arms around one important concept if it's going to take these words and ideas, and turn them into something real: Higher sales are not the goal. They're actually a byproduct, an offshoot, of working in a right, ethical manner. Set up a company that promotes not products, but openness and a set of values consistent with its role in the marketplace, and the rest will follow — including sales.