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Flu Scare Provides Retail Lessons, Opportunities

Flu Scare Provides Retail Lessons, Opportunities

As it turned out, the 2009 H1N1 Flu didn't become the horrific pandemic many feared.

But that won't be the only thing to remember about the scare. This episode helped the food industry fine-tune its preparedness and spotlighted opportunities.

First, this was as close as we'll get to a fire drill for a more severe pandemic. As the threat emerged, food associations and retailers quickly posted alerts and educational information on their websites with lots of links and resources. Food Marketing Institute, for example, provided real-time updates to an online brochure about H1N1. Retailers and wholesalers sprung into action by communicating facts across their organizations. At Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, for example, a memo was distributed to underscore basic but important practices, such as frequent hand washing and the need for sick employees to stay home, said Dick King, vice president.

Second, intense media scrutiny made consumers more aware of the need to follow sanitary practices, opening the door to possible new opportunities for retailers and suppliers. A survey from Information Resources Inc. found shoppers were washing hands more frequently and purchasing hand sanitizers. IRI suggested retailers consider grouping face masks, hand sanitizer, soaps and related products together in one section to make it easier for shoppers.

Meanwhile, some retailers were out in front by offering solutions. Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, a chain operating in states including Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, promoted an in-store educational seminar called “When Pigs Flu,” which advocates “a homeopathic/naturopathic approach to address the rising concerns of pandemic influenza cases.”

There is much good news in how government and health organizations reacted to H1N1. Jill Hollingsworth, FMI group vice president, Food Safety Programs, said the government response was stellar: “There was a lot of coordination, information flowed easily and technology was used very well.”

Some have argued that government and the media overhyped the situation, but realistically, it's difficult to judge a threat in real time, and without quick dissemination of information things could have been worse. Tough choices had to be made all over, such as Food Marketing Institute's decision to put on hold two events in Dallas, a painful but responsible move.

There was also good news in how consumers reacted. Most did not panic despite the media blitz. True, pork (in particular exports) took a hit because the flu was tagged with the name “swine,” but U.S. consumers were increasingly aware that the virus is not transmitted through pork.

Now is the time to review how all parties reacted to fine-tune responses to a future threat. It is hoped the relatively mild outcome doesn't desensitize people to future dangers. A few may see this scare as crying wolf, but at some point the wolf will really be at the door.

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