American food manufacturers and retailers have fewer fans in Europe these days.
It seems the Americans are criticized for a host of issues plaguing the international food business. This includes the 24/7-store-operating-hour culture that America helped export to the horror of some European countries. It also includes the growth of the genetically modified foods business, which has flourished without much friction in the U.S. but has encountered massive resistance from consumers in many other parts of the world.
But make no mistake, the international community is also envious of American food retailing. The main reason: U.S. stores have managed to outdo their counterparts elsewhere in fostering positive images of themselves.
Surprised? It may not always seem so evident here, but in fact there is a virtual love affair between U.S. retailers and suppliers, consumers, government and other constituencies compared to the food industry relationships that exist in many other parts of the world, particularly in Europe.
European food retailers are often frustrated in their attempts to create favorable self-images despite all the good faith they try to build around issues ranging from the environment to ethics. There's always another European consumer or political group ready to launch a campaign against local store practices, whether it involves pricing or competition or expansion or food safety.
So retailers in Europe and some other parts of the world recognize they need to look farther afield for solutions. Enter the international food retail association CIES -- The Food Business Forum, based in Paris. At a press conference last month, it announced a major initiative to improve the global image of food retailing. CIES will examine international ideas and practices and present recommendations for store operators, said Pierre-Olivier Beckers, president and chief executive officer of global retailer Delhaize Group (and CIES chairman), at the press conference, held in Atlanta in conjunction with CIES' World Food Business Summit. The talk turned to why U.S. supermarkets have succeeded in the image game while others haven't.
"There's better cooperation in the U.S. between farmers, food producers and retailers," Beckers observed. "And there's less protection of groups and less political confrontation than in Europe. The understanding and cooperation in the U.S. goes back many years. That may be part of the answer."
Another executive, CIES Chief Executive Officer Richard Fedigan, pointed out that many of today's top American food retail executives started at the bottom and rose through the ranks, which helps the image of U.S. food stores by creating a "can-do culture, and can-do it at retail."
To these points I would add that the image of American supermarkets is boosted by the stores' efforts to build ties to communities and by consumers' basic trust in the viability of the food supply.
On balance I'd say we have a lot to be proud of. Proud doesn't necessarily show up in the bottom line, but it can be found in the foundation that supports the entire store organization.