By: Leslie G. Sarasin, President and CEO, Food Marketing Institute
I usually think I have a pretty good grasp on public opinion and can reliably predict popular perspectives across diverse topics. I have found I can usually trust my instincts and intuitions when it comes to knowing what most people think, and when I question my judgment in this regard I tend to rely on my Kentucky roots and the connections I still have there to gauge what conventional thinking outside the Washington Beltway might be. Occasionally, though, I encounter a data point in a study that catches me a bit off-guard. I recently ran face-front into one of those reality-check moments when reviewing this year’s FMI research U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends.
The 2017 edition of Trends sought to bring more light to the oft-referenced subject of transparency; seeking to define it, identify precisely the information that most interests consumers, and clarify lines of whom the shopper holds accountable for particular issues. It was in the data detailing where consumers tend to ascribe responsibility to the food manufacturer and where they hold the retailer accountable that I was surprised.
The information we gathered from the questions designed to probe these areas revealed that when it comes to what is WITHIN products, consumers want retailers and manufacturers to be open and honest about the ingredients and processes used to ensure food safety as well as the source of the ingredients used in the products. In all these areas, every age group of shopper significantly holds the manufacturer more accountable than the retailer. For ingredients used, 50 percent hold the retailer responsible, while 63 percent hold the manufacturer to higher account; regarding manufacturing processes to ensure food safety, 39 percent expect frank communication from their retailer, while 57 percent expect the manufacturer to be forthright; and regarding ingredient sourcing, 26 percent want retailer honesty, while 45 percent believe the manufacturer should provide open communication. Also, our research revealed that when it comes to on-package labels bearing information about product content, a strong majority (70 percent to 80 percent) find the labels convey sufficient information.
When we turn the corner to concerns that are BEYOND product content, including issues such as labor fairness, humane treatment of animals, sourcing choices and giving back to the community, we hear a different story from consumers, and this is where I was most surprised. In these areas, the scores between manufacturers and retailers are much closer and in fact, in the three areas of how employees are treated, product/ingredient supplier choices and giving back to the community, shoppers actually hold food retailers more responsible than manufacturers. When it comes to environmental impact, the retailer and manufacturer scores were a virtual tie, indicating consumers hold them equally accountable, except in the category of the mature generation of shoppers, who consider ecological concerns significantly more of a manufacturer responsibility. The one “beyond the product” concern that shoppers believe to be much more of a manufacturer concern than a retailer responsibility is the area of humane treatment of animals. In this regard, 32 percent of consumers want openness from their retailer, while 41 percent desire honest communication from the manufacturer. I found this split a bit odd in that animal activists tend to target retailers more frequently than they do manufacturers in their activities.
In short, manufacturers are mainly on the hook for product transparency, while the biggest opportunities for retailers to fulfill shopper hopes and expectations come in filling in the information gaps in the more nebulous areas of sourcing, certifications, and processing information. These are the areas where shoppers find the label information insufficient. The challenging aspect of this revelation is that it means there must be much more open and honest communication between retailer and manufacturer if the retailer is to be able to convey this more-difficult-to-access information accurately to the consumer. And lest any of us think this might not matter much, consider that Millennials – those portals to the future – are the group most apt to judge a company by its business ethics and sustainability practices.Transparency is the currency of trust in a digital age. It provides the shortcuts shoppers seek to help them navigate an increasingly complex food system. In order for all of us to succeed in giving the shopper the information he or she wants, transparency must also characterize the exchanges between food manufacturers and food retailers. Learn more at FMI.org/GroceryTrends.