JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Winn-Dixie Stores here experienced the downside of the communications revolution late last month when it came up against dissemination of false information over the Web.
The false information was reported on a third-party Web site that indicated the retailer had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy -- a patent untruth.
Winn-Dixie joins a growing list of supermarket companies, including Harris Teeter and Delhaize America, that have been victims of incorrect information on the Internet. According to Mickey Clerc, vice president and director of public relations for Winn-Dixie, the erroneous information was quickly retracted. While he said he doubted the error caused any serious problems "because it was so unbelievable, bad information is never good."
The Winn-Dixie problem originated on a pair of Web sites, one operated by Stores Magazine and the other by KPMG,New York, which operates a third-party site -- KPMG Insiders -- that aggregates and posts input from a variety of sources, including SN.
Stores, an 88-year-old publication, is owned by the National Retail Federation, Washington.
According to Rick Gallagher, the magazine's publisher, the error occurred when a reporter read only the headline on a Winn-Dixie press release that said the company planned to reorganize its operations, and inferred, without reading further, that the company planned a financial restructuring through a bankruptcy. As a result, Winn-Dixie was listed as one of two companies that had filed for Chapter 11.
"Like any magazine we strive for 100% accuracy in our reporting," Gallagher said, "but this was the worst mistake we've ever made."
Although the magazine caught the mistake before it was published on its own Web site, the information had already been e-mailed to KPMG for posting on the Insiders Web site, where it appeared briefly before it was retracted later the same day, Gallagher said.
To prevent a recurrence, Gallagher said, Stores has added an extra layer of fact-checking that includes his participation. "We're going back over each item and asking the reporter for his source, then comparing the source to what's written," he explained.
For its part, KPMG said it is reviewing its editorial policy "to ensure that something like this does not happen again." The company declined to elaborate.
According to Gallagher, people who click onto aggregate Web sites like Insiders may not realize the source of the information they're getting. "KPMG reported information that we provided incorrectly, but it's difficult to explain a licensing agreement to someone else," he said.
"It's like a newspaper that picks up an erroneous story from one of the wire services -- people attribute the error to the newspaper, not the source. That's the kind of awkward position third-party sites get into."
For Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., its Web-related problem occurred last month in a message-board posting that insisted the chain would be sold Jan. 14 to Boise, Idaho-based Albertson's, which also proved to be false. Harris Teeter executives declined comment on the incident.
Another recent Web-site victim was Delhaize America, Salisbury, N.C., which caught an error in a USA Today listing of stock winners and losers. "The paper ran a correction, but the erroneous information was still on the paper's Web site a week later," Chris Ahearn, vice president for corporate communications, told SN.
One of the challenges with the Internet, she added, "is that a problem can take on a life of its own because of the search capabilities. You can try to get something corrected, but you have to figure out everywhere else it might be."
Another retail-industry source, who asked to remain anonymous, said information in chatrooms is becoming less positive. "People are not interested in sharing anything that's constructive anymore," the source told SN, "and most of it is just garbage now. We'd like to be able to get into the chatrooms and dispute what's being said, but it's our policy not to respond to rumors."
Gary Giblen, New York-based managing director for Banc of America Securities, San Francisco, also said he decried the kind of information found in chatrooms.
"You can have a disgruntled employee at store level who embellishes a small truth into something much more widespread, or an investor who puts out deliberate misinformation to manipulate a stock price," Giblen said.
He cited an instance of a company outside the food industry that used cyber-sleuthing to track the source of a negative rumor down to a 16-year-old who was just being mischievous.
Bernie Rogan, director of public relations for Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass., said the issue of controlling aggregate Web sites is insolvable. "We've been the subject of chatroom discussions about the prospects for a sale or acquisition," he told SN, "but the only thing you can do is make it clear those are nothing more than rumors and deny them."