Food shoppers active on Facebook and Twitter are influencing other consumers — and the stores they shop
Facebook users don't hold back.
If they're upset about a supermarket experience, they'll let the retailer know about it.
“Consumers who use social media express honest opinions about what they like and don't like,” said Jim Hertel, managing partner at Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill.
Food and beverage shoppers, in particular, like to make their views known, said Hertel.
“Supermarket shoppers are the most loyal and passionate of shoppers,” he said. “They like being asked their opinion and exerting some control over the shopping environment.”
Though most of the big retailers have a presence on social networks, some have been hesitant to create a Facebook page or Twitter account for fear that negative comments will be posted. While certain Facebook and Twitter users may indeed be critical, their voice should be heard, said Hertel.
That's because if one person posts about being frustrated with a product or service, chances are others feel the same.
Successful retailers are those that respond to each and every criticism and, if warranted, acknowledge that they made a mistake.
“It's important to validate that they've taken the time and effort to make a comment,” he said.
Social media is giving them a new way to do that. Safeway is adept at responding to nearly every compliment and critique posted on its Facebook page.
Just a few weeks ago, one Facebook user complained that she never received her Catalina coupons at checkout. Safeway immediately posted an apology, plus an 800 number for Catalina Coupon Customer Service so that the customer could obtain the coupons she should have received during her visit.
Minneapolis-based Supervalu takes social media comments so seriously that it recently assigned call center employees to monitor the Facebook pages of some of its retail banners. The call center workers make sure comments get directed to the right people at the company who can answer the questions.
The increased number of consumers active on social network sites has also prompted retailers to create other types of online dialogue.
Take Hannaford Supermarkets. It's using Facebook to let consumers talk with its new swordfish vendor: Linda Greenlaw, a fishing captain featured in the book and movie “The Perfect Storm.”
Hannaford notified its Facebook users last month that they could post a question to Greenlaw, and that she would respond to them soon.
Such an exchange is an example of how retailers are adapting to the changing food consumer — one who peruses the social network sites of their favorite businesses. By being active on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, YouTube and elsewhere, retailers can interact with and engage shoppers in ways not possible just several years ago.
Unlike the typical one-to-one conversations between shoppers and supermarket employees inside a store, social media allows Hannaford to respond to hundreds and even thousands at once.
That's why the retailer is not only active on Facebook, but also Twitter and blogs.
“When you have a conversation with customers via social media, it's more like throwing a block party,” said Gail Schwarzer, Hannaford's manager of branding and creative services.
It's a more natural way of having a conversation than the typical letter, comment card or phone call, she said.
What's more, it puts the consumer in control.
“It's all on their terms,” she said. “They can choose to pop in and out of any conversation that interests them.”
When critical comments are posted on the Hannaford Facebook page, it's typically because a customer is upset that a certain product was discontinued.
“The fact that you stopped carrying their favorite variety of bagel can ruin their whole day, and cast a really negative shadow on your brand,” said Schwarzer.
Though supermarket shoppers are forgiving when a retailer explains why the product was taken off the shelves, they simply want their voice heard.
“It's important that they had an opportunity to tell you how your universal decision to discontinue an item impacted them on a very personal level,” said Schwarzer.
Along with letting consumers vent their frustrations, Facebook assists them in making product requests.
“When we are able to source an item for a customer that isn't normally carried in the store, they are elated, and their loyalty to the brand hits an all-time high, all because of a simple question they posed to us on Facebook or Twitter,” said Schwarzer.
Hannaford has even recruited online bloggers to promote its Hannaford store brand. Last month, it invited a team of popular food bloggers to substitute Hannaford-brand ingredients in their favorite recipes.
“Working with bloggers can help us tell a story in really new ways — like having a friend tell all her friends about a great new product or service that we offer,” said Schwarzer. “We become the subject of a conversation, instead of a talking head, and we get great, honest feedback on things we need to improve on and be aware of.”
Hannaford provided the bloggers with a $200 gift card to purchase their products and review them in their blogs.
“I am impressed to say that nearly every Hannaford product I have used was delicious,” one blogger wrote. “Many of their products are 100% natural without excess preservatives and chemicals, which is always a major plus for me.”
Social media has forced retailers to stay abreast of current trends. Hannaford shoppers, for instance, frequently ask questions about topics like high-fructose corn syrup, sustainability and ethical sourcing. Even if it doesn't have all the answers, it responds to each and every question and refers shoppers to an agency that can help, said Schwarzer.
“Customers get a real feel for our brand personality as the conversations evolve,” she said.
A few times, Hannaford has used social media to notify customers about a product recall. In those cases, social media provided an additional way to get information out. Hannaford posted a link to the Food and Drug Administration so that shoppers could get detailed information.
Today's consumer is one who goes on supermarket Facebook and Twitter accounts in search of coupons, recipes and product information before they venture out to the store, said Don Stuart, chief operating officer of Kantar Retail, Wilton, Conn.
“It's become the pre-shopping trip,” he said.
As more retailers dabble in social networking, some are asking consumers directly what they're looking for on Facebook and Twitter. Brookshire Grocery Co., for instance, recently conducted an online survey that asked shoppers a range of questions, including how often they shop, what time of day they shop, if they use coupons and if they prefer national brands to private label, among other topics.
What made the survey unique was that it included a question about social media use, asking shoppers if they agreed with the statement, “I would use a grocery store's Facebook page for coupons/sales/promotions.”
The growing influence of social media users has prompted retailers to run exclusive promotions for Facebook and Twitter users.
Giant Eagle, for instance, recently concluded an “Ultimate Tailgate Showdown” photo contest for its Facebook fans. All those who posted a photo of a tailgate party on the Giant Eagle Facebook page were eligible. The winner received free NFL tickets.
The retailer has also built up its Twitter following by occasionally posting trivia questions about its company and the brands it carries. It awards prizes to the first few people who answer correctly.
Last June, Giant Eagle tweeted various questions about Gillette and shaving. The first five people who tweeted back the correct answer won a Gillette Fusion ProGlide shaving kit.
Giant Eagle tweeted a different question every 30 minutes until 4 p.m. A total of 50 kits were awarded.
Another time, Giant Eagle gave out free tickets to Idlewild amusement park in Ligonier, Pa., to those who answered various trivia questions about Giant Eagle. One Twitter-exclusive promo, however, irked several of Giant's Facebook users, who posted that they shouldn't be required to create a Twitter account just to win prizes.
“How about the shoppers/followers who don't tweet?” one person wrote on the Giant Eagle Facebook page. “Why not do a Facebook giveaway?”
Another person said Twitter is “frustrating” to use and not popular in Giant Eagle's target market.
At least one Facebook fan, however, said she created a Twitter account just so she could partake in the Giant Eagle contests.
Safeway is another retailer that gives its Facebook users exclusive offers. One coupon, for instance, gave Facebook fans a loaf of Safeway Select Artisan French bread for 25 cents. The print-at-home coupon was limited to the first 20,000 customers. The deal required a $10 minimum purchase and was valid between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Safeway's decision to institute such redemption limitations was a smart one. That's because it may have learned from others' mistakes. In 2009, Marsh Supermarkets canceled one of its first Facebook coupons because its was being misused. The coupon offered Facebook users a coupon for $10 off on an order of $10 or more.
“Due to the vast numbers of inappropriately transmitted and replicated copies of this offer, we will no longer be able to accept these coupons in our stores,” the company said. Like Safeway, Marsh now caps the number of coupons that can be used.
Other retailers have had different types of social media troubles. Price Chopper issued an apology for a social media mishap a few months ago when a customer complained in a Twitter post about an out-of-stock item. A Price Chopper employee allegedly contacted the employer of the message writer, requesting that the individual be disciplined. Price Chopper subsequently announced that its employee was not authorized to respond for the company, and did not follow company procedures.
Despite situations like this, social media is a valuable promotional tool because the more supermarkets and manufacturers can engage consumers about their product and services, the more likely they are to buy them, said Candace Corlett, president, WSL Strategic Retail, New York, a marketing consulting firm.
Of the 21% of consumers who research food products online, a whopping 77% will make a purchase, according to WSL research.
“Food is a category that not many people check out online, but when they do, they're highly influenced,” Corlett told SN. “They have a very high ‘buy’ rate.”