LAS VEGAS — Nutritional labeling is best left in the hands of the food industry itself, according to a retailer panel at last week's annual National Grocers Association Convention here.
“This new round of nutritional labeling is only in its infancy,” Peter Larkin, NGA president and chief executive officer, said, “and it would be far better if the marketplace itself provides the information in the way consumers want it than for the federal government to do it.”
His comment was greeted with spontaneous applause from the large general session audience.
If labeling requirements were to be issued by a host of government agencies, “the flow of information and how people get it will be taken out of our hands,” Larkin added.
“There are so many different sources of information and so many different applications, and it's going to continue that way. So if consumers don't trust the information grocers provide or what manufacturers provide, then the information is going to come from other sources, and we can't control it when that happens.”
Panelist Jimmy Nichols, senior executive of Houchens Industries, Bowling Green, Ky., said he agreed. “The industry should be the one to tell the story. We should be able to resolve these issues ourselves.
“We have that opportunity coming with front-of-package labeling. But we must be accurate and complete. And we've got to do it in a hurry to avoid any involvement from the Food and Drug Administration.
“What worries me most is government regulations that might alter our relationship with our customers.”
Regardless of labeling requirements, it's ultimately up to consumers themselves to decide what products fit their particular needs, Roger Lowe Jr., president and CEO of Lowe's Markets, Littlefield, Texas, added.
“For most consumers, the issue is what's healthy for me? They need to know what's good for them and what's not and then decide what to buy, regardless of any labels.”
According to Cheryl Sommer, owner of Kaune's Neighborhood Market, Santa Fe, N.M., “People want to do the right thing, but they want the information they're given to be simple.”
When it comes to matters of health and wellness, “We answer customer questions when we need to,” Sommer said. “But we don't want too much information next to products because we want to be sure it's accurate.”
“Health and wellness is an area that gives us opportunities to communicate information,” Nichols said. “But we like to keep it useful and simple.”
Lowe said his company is “stepping back to see where the market ends up in terms of health and wellness information before we make any decisions, because right now we feel there's a real lack of information flow between manufacturers and the independents.”
During a 90-minute session reflecting on some of the findings from NGA's consumer research, the panelists commented on a variety of topics:
• The anticipated rise in food prices
“As an independent,” Lowe said, “we must do a better job of being more efficient and more conscious of our budgets so we can implement the cost increases with consumers and still drive value.”
“Consumers are very savvy,” Nichols said, “and they know inflation will boost the cost of goods. Our job is to keep it fair.”
Sommer offered a similar opinion. “We have to be as honest with them as we can about the rising costs of food and energy and talk about how we're trying to keep prices as static as we can.”
Larkin suggested retailers do more to share best marketing practices “because until we see more employment, there will be tremendous margin pressures on retailers to hold the line on prices.”
• Community involvement
“That's at the core of an independent's business,” Nichols said. “That's the area where we can win.”
“Community involvement is the price of entry for the independent grocer,” Larkin said. “My dream would be to determine how much money independents raise and be able to demonstrate how much we mean to the real fabric of American society.”
“It's simply a matter of saying ‘yes’ when the community reaches out to you because if you turn away, it hurts your image,” Lowe said.
• What independents can do better
“It's that intangible something that enables us to connect better with the customers in our stores,” Nichols said. “We need to find ways for store personnel to connect with customers and share knowledge and solutions face-to-face.”
“The best thing we can do better is make the customer comfortable when they enter our store,” Sommer said, “to improve the overall feel, the lighting and the friendly attitude of our team members. People just need to feel good, both when they enter the store and when they leave.”
“We've got to focus on our strengths and be who we are, not who we think we are,” Lowe said. “We've got to focus on the neighborhoods around our stores and their specific needs.”
• Buying locally
“Local is huge,” Lowe said. “It gives us a certain degree of flexibility, and the more flexible we can be, the better job we can do serving customers.”
Sommer agreed that buying from local sources is important to an independent in terms of building loyalty. “But sometimes you run into problems where someone who's been supplying you suddenly can't deliver, and that upsets customers.”
According to Nichols, “We don't worry too much about a local vendor coming up short because if you have enough local goods coming into the store, it will be OK if you're out of something some days.”
“Everyone needs a stable supply chain,” Larkin said, “so it's about adding local to your existing supply and telling consumers about it with store signage or special packaging.”
• How to let consumers know your supermarket cares
“It's a matter of how customers are treated when they enter your store,” Lowe said. “One bad apple can ruin it for everyone. So you've got to empower your people so they can really shine.”
• Use of social media
“We're trying to understand what's relevant in that arena,” Nichols said, “because we recognize it's becoming very important. We're dabbling in it with a couple of pilot programs such as collecting email addresses and sponsoring a Facebook page.”
Lowe said his company is analyzing different technologies, “and we recognize the value of Facebook and Twitter, which we're using. But we're trying to figure out if an application is driving customers or if customers are driving the app before we move forward with it.”