LAS VEGAS — Retailers should spend more time talking with consumers to determine what they want to buy rather than leaving it up to the federal government to make those decisions, a panel of industry executives told the National Grocers Association's annual convention here last week.
Joe Sheridan, executive vice president of Wakefern Corp., Keasbey, N.J., said the industry needs to make more information accessible to consumers “to give them the choice to make the right decisions on their own. But a lot of us are wrestling with the proper amount of information to give to avoid government regulations.
“And given Mrs. Obama's ‘war on obesity,’ I'm sure the various Cabinet departments will move soon to put out more regulations.”
With the government trying to regulate vendor relationships and school lunches, “the government has become a partner in too many things, and where does it all end?” Frank DiPasquale, executive vice president of NGA, said. “All that [activity] does is create more confusion, which only heightens the attention of regulators.”
Jeff Brown, president and chief executive officer of Brown's Super Stores, a ShopRite operation based in Bellmawr, N.J., said he is “willing to work with everyone,” including the government, if that's what it takes to eliminate obesity, “which is a national epidemic. But we should be at the table helping the government solve the obesity problem before it does more things to hurt our industry.”
Brown said no single set of guidelines on what's healthy and what isn't can provide solutions for every person's differing needs. “No one statistic will tell everyone what's good for them,” he said.
“This is a very edgy time,” Sheridan said, “and retailers must be flexible enough to try different programs, because if we stick to any single one, we will be vulnerable to criticism and regulation — and that means everything we do matters.”
When someone pointed out that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has proposed country-of-origin labeling laws for dairy products, DiPasquale said, “Anything Al Franken proposes, I hope never passes” — a statement that generated applause from the audience.
To help customers make their own decisions, Wakefern has launched a “Live Right” educational program, “because we must communicate with clarity to each customer so he can make an educated choice. The federal government wants to legislate those decisions, but it should be up to the people — and it's up to us to provide the information they need.
“Once we communicate that kind of information with shoppers, we can get a positive reputation and they will come back to us.”
Brown said he would prefer that everyone take personal responsibility for themselves, although the population continues to get more obese, “so maybe we should offer assortments to help resolve that problem. We should be in the business of selling solutions to obesity. For example, we partnered with an insurance company to do customer training in the stores, to build a network to come up with solutions for customers.”
Among Brown's large African-American customer base, he noted, a lot of customers prefer to cook collard greens with fatback. “So we began merchandising smoked turkey parts next to the collard greens, and we've been able to influence their behavior and help them eat healthier.
“We also have a full-time community-relations person at every store to interact with customers on a one-to-one basis and to understand what's going on in the local community.”
The Obama administration honored Brown earlier this month for his efforts to open stores to serve consumers in inner-city areas of Philadelphia.
On another topic during the panel discussion, MacGregor Read, co-CEO of Grocery Outlet, Berkeley, Calif., said health and wellness is a key to growth, even in the hard-discount stores his company licenses. “If you track healthy, you can have top dollar growth.”