Clear intentions: Retailers leverage transparency


Transparency has become more important than ever before for retailers, given that consumers have grown skeptical of corporate claims, fearful of food additives and increasingly concerned about environmental impact.

Indeed, consumer trust in the major institutions of business, media, government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has been declining worldwide, with people today more likely to be influenced by their peers than experts, according to Jay Porter, the president of public relations agency Edelman Chicago, who gave a presentation titled “Why Transparency Matters” at the TransparencyIQ conference, co-sponsored by Store Brands’ parent company, Ensemble IQ, and Label Insight last fall in Rosemont, Ill.

But the news isn’t all bad for business, as Porter observed. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, an online survey of more than 33,000 adults in 28 countries, revealed that the majority (52 percent) of respondents do trust business, while just 43 percent trust the mainstream media and 41 percent trust government. The positive takeaway for retailers and manufacturers of consumer packaged goods, Porter stressed, is that “consumers are more trusting than ever of your attempts to tell your own story.”

Retailers today are finding that they can forge stronger connections with their customers as well as brand identity through transparency, and they are telling their stories in many ways. For example, if their store brand produce or dairy products are locally or regionally sourced or USDA-certified organic, they can introduce shoppers to the farmers who produce these products — through in-store signage, website videos and even possibly scheduled appearances at stores. With private brand packaged goods, retail chains can use packaging to share stories about how and where ingredients are sourced. And retailers that have embraced sustainability practices can offer store tours that point out food waste reduction strategies, energy-efficiency measures such as the use of solar panels, and related initiatives.

Although driven largely by millennials’ desire to learn everything they can about anything they consume, the transparency movement is not just about sharing product data in a meaningful way, although that’s important, Porter said. It’s also about demonstrating genuine commitment to the values that consumers increasingly hold dear, including the elimination of artificial ingredients and preservatives in food, ingredient traceability, environmental sensitivity, animal welfare, fair trade and the equitable treatment of one’s own employees.

The way retailers and vendors convey their transparency message is also critical, Porter stressed. “It can be very easy to default into a very rehearsed dialogue,” he explained, warning his audience that “we live in an age where the spontaneous speaker, the one outspoken voice, is more credible.” 

Helping shoppers make healthful choices 

For Michael Teel, owner and CEO of Raley’s, transparency means communicating clearly with customers and helping them make sense of the plethora of product data available today. To that end, the West Sacramento, Calif.-based supermarket chain launched a new Shelf Guide system last August that combines color-coded shelf tags indicating specific health attributes with an extensive, easy-to-navigate online product database developed in partnership with Label Insight, a Chicago-based data science company focused on the packaged food industry.

The purpose of the Shelf Guide system is to cut through food-labeling and package-claims clutter to enable customers to immediately see whether specific products at Raley’s meet their dietary priorities, whether they are seeking vegan, clean label, low-added-sugar, gluten-free or nutrient-dense items. In addition, the Shelf Guide’s online capabilities allow consumers to build shopping lists that meet particular criteria.

“Label Insight provided us with access to product information for more than 400,000 items and helped us analyze the data,” said Teel, who also spoke at the TransparencyIQ conference, noting that the available pool of data includes information on thousands of attributes, from ingredient origin to the manufacturer’s sustainability practices. “This allowed us to create a custom set of attributes that generated specialized shelf labels for more than 13,000 items. Every item has at least one icon.”

Working on the project for more than a year before the launch, Raley’s created new definitions to serve as standards for whether products are “minimally processed” (M shelf icon), “nutrient-dense” (N icon) or have “no added sugar” (S icon); these were combined with more established dietary attributes, including “organic” (O), “vegan” (V), “kosher” (K), “gluten-free” (GF) and “non-GMO” (G).

“If the general shopper wanted to find an item that was minimally processed using our standard, it would take hours without the support [of the Shelf Guide],” Teel said. “We have made it much easier for our customers to find minimally processed packaged food.”

But the goal of Raley’s is not just providing product attribute data in an easy-to-access fashion. The Shelf Guide is just one step in the retailer’s overarching mission “to change the way the world eats one plate at a time,” as Teel told his TransparencyIQ audience.

For Raley’s, fulfilling this wellness mission meant giving up cigarette sales years ago and, more recently, not selling candy or cold soda pop as impulse items in the checkout area. Teel would like the Shelf Guide to encourage average consumers to make more healthful choices and, ultimately, spur more and more food companies to make products that are less-processed and free of questionable ingredients.

“All I want to do is effect change somewhere else, which will effect change somewhere else,” he says. “It’s going to multiply.”

Reinforcing the message

To be truly transparent, grocery retailers need to reinforce the messaging about their values and not assume that all consumers are familiar with their priorities.

At Raley’s, having well-trained associates who can explain the chain’s mission and the Shelf Guide system is a crucial component of the retailer’s commitment to transparency, notes Emmie Satrazemis, a registered dietitian nutritionist, whose title at the company is “wellness evangelist.”

“We have a wellness champion in every single store, and they are led by district wellness champions,” she elaborates. “These are team members who are very passionate about our program and interact with our customers on a daily basis.”

Founded in 1975 as a natural and organic retailer, Asheville, N.C.-based Earth Fare has needed to refine its food philosophy and refresh its message over the years. But the company’s mission has remained the same. “Earth Fare was founded on the premise that eating healthy, clean foods helps people live healthier, happier, longer lives,” says Frank Scorpiniti, the chain’s president and CEO.

He describes Earth Fare’s food philosophy as follows: “Under no circumstances would we ever allow anything in our store that has added hormones, antibiotics, artificial fats and trans fats, artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup or artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. In addition, all of the flour we use in our bakery is organic, and it can neither be bleached or bromated.”  

Earth Fare, furthermore, has a “boot list” of hundreds of chemicals it doesn’t allow in its 46 stores. To keep itself accountable, the company relies on a “boot patrol” of associates who make sure that nothing they see on the shelf has any of those banned chemicals.

“We also depend on our customers,” Scorpiniti adds. “We acknowledge that an accident could happen and tell our customers, ‘If you find anything in our stores that contains a chemical on our boot list, let us know and we’ll give you $50 on the spot.’ Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often.”

Despite its longstanding commitment to healthful, minimally processed food, Earth Fare has not been resting on its clean-label laurels. In fact, just over a year ago, the company received a startling wake-up call when the National Center for Health Statistics published some data that Earth Fare found appalling.

“For the first time in decades,” notes Scorpiniti, “Americans’ lifespan actually went backwards, even though we’re the richest nation in the world.” Recognizing the need to broaden its reach among consumers, the chain debuted the “Live Longer with Earth Fare” marketing campaign in January 2017.

In all Earth Fare stores, prominent signage explains the retailer’s strict food philosophy. What’s more, the retailer’s new quarterly magazine, The Clean Plate, champions healthful, clean eating while introducing customers to new Earth Fare products, including store brands.

Earth Fare also feels strongly that nutritious, minimally processed food should be affordable. “So we decided to put our money where our mouth is and launched a program we call ‘clean food security,’ ” Scorpiniti says. “We can feed a family of four dinner seven nights a week for $70, or $2.50 a person each night.”

These fresh-prepared, grab-and-go ready meals take little time to prepare. As Scorpiniti emphasizes, financially struggling families are typically busier than affluent ones and often erroneously consider drive-thru fast-food restaurants to be their best option.

“We believe that clean eating is not a privilege,” he says. “It’s a right.”  

Schierhorn, the managing editor of Store Brands, can be reached at [email protected]