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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Making the best of worst-case scenarios

In the world of natural products, shoppers look to retailers for more than just good food. They expect advice, information and transparency, especially when a food-related crisis arises. Whether the issue is organic dairy practices, a tainted-meat recall, a report of product tampering or—as happened this past fall—a report linking spinach to E. coli illness, natural foods customers want their retailers to have the answers.

That means retailers need to be prepared for every eventuality. "As an old retailer myself, I always say educate, educate, educate," says Sylvia Tawse, president and founder of The Fresh Ideas Group, a public relations firm for the natural products industry, based in Boulder, Colo.

"The first thing you should do is prepare readiness docs—fact sheets on issues you know are cropping up," she says. "Do you have a notification tree that works no matter what the crisis is? Do you have a rapid-response team that can put together materials, so by the next morning you have a position statement, fact sheets and, if you're really doing your job, handouts to give to shoppers?"

Tawse says the same basic procedures apply to all stores, regardless of size. "It doesn't matter if you're a one-store co-op or a chain of 150 stores," she says. "It should be clear who's in charge during a crisis and who inquiries should be sent to."

This can be illustrated by the similar manner in which two retailers responded to the recent spinach crisis. The first is Whole Foods Co-op, a single-store retailer based in Duluth, Minn. "First, we want to make sure that we always have our customers' trust, and that we're aware of the situation," says Michael Karsh, produce manager for the co-op. "We made it clear to customers that we had a commitment not to sell any spinach that could possibly be affected until we had confirmation from the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] that it was safe to put out."

In keeping with the mission of many naturals retailers, the co-op strives to be known in the community as a source of accurate information. "We made sure the staff was informed, so everyone could answer questions," Karsh says. "We had people who had bought spinach at regular grocery chains, and were calling us to find out if it was safe."

In addition, the co-op placed signs on produce shelves verifying that other bagged products did not contain spinach, and posted USDA updates as they were made available. "We found that, with the steps we took, people were ready to eat spinach as soon as it was back on shelves, because we took the care to be vigilant and make sure it was safe," Karsh says. Though spinach has been the biggest PR issue recently, Karsh says the store has dealt with other issues over the years, including unpasteurized apple juice and sprout safety. The co-op has used its newsletter, Web site and even op-ed pieces in the local newspaper to address issues.

Wild Oats Natural Marketplace took a similarly proactive approach to the spinach issue. "When news about the potential contamination of spinach broke in the evening, our vice president of produce got on the phone with me, and we determined the best course of action would be to pull all fresh spinach from our stores," says Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for the Boulder, Colo.-based chain. "By 7 a.m. the next morning when we opened stores, we weren't selling [any spinach]. We took spinach out of salad bars, juice bars and value-added products in the meat department—a clean sweep."

Responding quickly to crisis is one way to keep customer confidence. Providing clear and complete information is another. Wild Oats informed customers about alternative products, such as Swiss chard, kale and arugula, directed people to frozen and canned spinach, which are processed in ways that kill any potential bacteria, and brought back local bunch spinach where available as soon as the USDA had identified the Salinas Valley in California as the source of contamination.

"Another thing we did that was relatively unique was that we were very open with the media," Tuitele says. "In all our stores, we probably had 50 television outlets coming [in], shooting video of pulled product with 'do not stock' signs on it or of the signs we made for customers to notify them of the recall. Mainstream grocers don't allow that kind of activity in their stores, but it helped us get out our side of the story and to correct misperceptions about the role of organics in the spinach recall."

Not all issues are as high-profile as the E. coli outbreak in spinach, but Wild Oats follows a similar procedure for any threat to public safety. For example, this past December an animal-rights activist group claimed to have tampered with pomegranate juice in stores in the Northeast to protest the fact that pomegranate health claims are verified by animal testing. "Even though we believed it was a hoax, we erred on the side of caution and pulled all product from our stores until it could be tested," Tuitele says. "We worked closely with our vendor, who picked it up and tested it for us. Once we got assurance it hadn't been tampered with, we received new shipments."

"It's important always, but especially in times of crisis, to realize you're not just selling products, but selling a lifestyle."
"It's important always, but especially in times of crisis, to realize you're not just selling products, but selling a lifestyle," Tawse says. "Retailers have to be purveyors of information."

For smaller stores, this may seem a tall order, but often there are resources outside the store staff. "With complex issues that aren't going to go away, create expert education panels for the media or shoppers or both," Tawse suggests. "Dip into the pool of expertise you have from industry and manufacturers. Reach out to them and see what they can provide, whether it's expert spokespersons or packets of material. That way, you become a wellspring for credible information."

Even Mother Nature can create a crisis, and how retailers deal with it deter?mines whether it's a boon or a bane for their public image. When the Rocky Mountain region was hit with deep snow in the days before Christmas, Tawse says, many distributors' trucks couldn't reach stores for several days. "When shoppers went into area [conventional] stores they were greeted with 20 feet of empty space in the produce case," Tawse says. "In every foot of space there should have been a sincere letter of apology for the inconvenience, and what they did have in stock, like cider, should have been offered as hospitality."

Tawse experienced the other end of the spectrum when she went to her local natural products store to pick up a pre-ordered 22-pound organic turkey for Christmas. The meat department employee explained that the truck carrying large birds hadn't been able to get through. Instead, he offered two 11-pound turkeys—the second one for free. "When an employee is empowered to give away some birds here and there, that can really help keep customers happy," Tawse says.

Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 56, 62

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