Exploring retail responsibility, consumer trust
Supermarkets and other retailers don’t typically get pulled into the increasingly polarized national political dialogue. Stores are typically places to escape the political and media blitz by strolling the aisles for eggs, paper towels, beauty items and pharmacy needs.
So it was surprising to see supermarkets cited on a roster that spotlights “the year’s worst actors in the news media and anyone else who interfered with a free press.” The New York Times’ Mediator, Jim Rutenberg, wrote an opinion piece in late December called “The Top 18 Media Grinches of 2018.” Not surprisingly, the roster was filled with politicians and media giants.
The article put supermarkets on its list, and it read this way:
“Long before Twitter and Facebook, the magazine racks in supermarket checkout aisles were the original platforms. In 2016, those racks featured covers of The National Enquirer as it pilloried Hillary Clinton with false allegations that she had covered up a “child sex scandal,” committed treason and was hiding a deadly illness (from which she seems to have miraculously recovered).”
The piece went on to more directly implicate supermarkets.
“The supermarkets arguably played as much of a role in spreading politically motivated misinformation as any online entity swarmed by Russian bots.”
First, let me get something out of the way. I don’t care if you voted for Clinton, Trump, or George Washington. This is not a column about politics. Neither is it specifically about the actions of the National Enquirer, published by American Media, which has been in the news lately over a number of alleged controversies related to the 2016 election. I’ll leave it to others, including the Enquirer’s readers, to evaluate those details.
Instead, my point here is about retailers. I feel it’s going too far to place blame on retailers for selling a specific “supermarket tabloid” at the checkout. Supermarkets were not intending to play a political role. It’s ludicrous to put supermarkets and “Russian bots” in the same sentence. Moreover, tabloid readers have always understood they aren’t exactly getting a fully journalistic or objective version of events.
That said, this topic is still important for retailers to explore. That’s because they are likely to be pulled even more into the spotlight on many issues in this 24/7 news and social media cycle. How can they deal with these types of situations and make sure to retain the trust and respect of their shoppers? Do they need to police everything they sell and pull products in advance that might potentially offend?
I turned to an expert on the topic of shopper trust, Charlie Arnot, who is CEO of the Center for Food Integrity.
Arnot said retailers need to avoid overreacting in cases like this. “It’s not the retailer’s job to censor unless something is immoral or illegal,” he explained. “If a retailer decides an item is what shoppers want, then I see no problem keeping it.”
He emphasized that retailers need to offer choice, but also to let consumers make decisions for themselves.
Interestingly, Arnot said today’s “increasingly tribalized nature of communications” will put retailers more in the spotlight. He’s referring to a growing number of narrow-focused and even obscure issues and media outlets. Retailers will need to decide which topics are relevant to the broad base of their shoppers, “because you can’t respond to everything.”
The tabloid case may be an extreme one, but it’s instructive. Retailers need to stay on top of what’s really important to their customers. The rest is just noise.
David Orgel is an award-winning business journalist, industry expert and speaker. He currently is the principal of David Orgel Consulting, delivering strategic content and counsel to the food, retail and CPG industries. To read last month’s column, click here.
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