By: Leslie G. Sarasin, President and CEO, Food Marketing Institute

The following article appeared in the May/June 2017 Edition of Retail Leader.

Watching Your Language “Watch your language!”

Chances are the last time you heard that admonition; it came from the lips of an older relative urging some restraint after you had tested the limits of socially acceptable dialogue with some newly discovered vocabulary. In that context, watching your language had to do with what we in the south referred to as not cussing, but in the conversations swirling in today’s food retail circles, the invitation to ‘watch your language’ has some new implications.

For the past several years, FMI's research has identified a number of significant shifts in customer shopping habits that are challenging our longstanding industry vocabulary and forcing us to rethink the way we talk about traditional industry measurements. Food retail’s channel fragmentation, which is a fancy way of saying the increased number of places people shop for food, has challenged our long-held understanding of what it means to be a primary store. The increase in male shoppers and the sharp uptick in the number of households in which the grocery shopping duties are shared have expanded the volume of people involved in grocery shopping, making that long-cherished moniker of “primary shopper” a reference to put in the file with “groovy” and “cool cat.” These trends are deepening and this phenomenon provides strong indicators of areas where we must watch our language - lest we come across as insensitive and unaware of the new directions our shoppers are taking us. When I present the findings of the 2017 edition of U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends at the Future Leaders eXperience in June, we will continue to plot the trend developments and seek to establish the new industry vocabulary.

However, there is another area in which the challenge to “watch our language” has relevance for the industry.  Again, this is an area of focus for this year’s Trends research. As I share our 2017 Trends findings with the Future Leaders of our industry, I especially look forward to engaging them on the not-so-transparent topic of transparency. Our 2017 research took a long and disciplined look at the expectations of the new consumer and dove into exactly what shoppers are looking for when it comes to information regarding the food they wish to purchase. What we have learned is that transparency is yet another area where we need to watch our language. While some consumers might not even call it transparency, their interest is in honesty and a clear communication of company values.  Shoppers want what they want from someone they trust. When it comes to health and social responsibility issues, consumers hold manufacturers and retailers to different standards, but still expect their food retailers to not only have the information, but be able to communicate it clearly. This has profound implications for our trading partner relationships and the level of collaboration, trust, and communication that must take place.

Food retailers know that communicating stances on social issues – whether labor relations, animal welfare standards or environmental concerns - can easily become a field of land mines. Again, this is an area in which we need to watch our language. There is a fine line between saying something in a way others can hear and just saying what you think they want to hear. Positioning something where it can be better received and possibly heard is a way of showing customer care and building trust. But beware of crossing the line into the territory of just throwing a bunch of words you think they want to hear that are not backed with reliable action. Honestly conveying how you have explored, studied and even struggled to shape your position is appreciated much more than spin. Honesty builds trust; uncovered spin destroys it.

You will find the 2017 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends teeming with relevant, applicable and thought-provoking information. It will certainly challenge your company to watch its language!