business news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday, MNB had a story about the efforts being made by Safeway's Genuardi's division to rehabilitate its reputation. We made some statements and characterizations that prompted the following email from Safeway's Greg Teneyck:

Just for clarification, the Genuardi's story in the Philadelphia Inquirer Monday was not another attempt to "admit mistakes and apologize to consumers," as reported in Tuesday's MNB. Summarizing the piece more accurately, the headline in the newspaper stated, "Genuardi's is trying to win back its old customers." A comprehensive and noble effort, indeed.

The story was the result of an invitation to have the Inquirer reporter, Tom Belden, visit a Genuardi's store as a follow up to a negative article he wrote one year ago and the "Genuardi's Is Back" advertising campaign of last fall. As Belden wrote in Monday's story, "Now, after months of listening to customers, store employees and managers at Genuardi's local headquarters in Norristown, Safeway has mended its ways, Schroeder and other officials said." The reference is to Karl Schroeder, Safeway's Eastern Division President who oversees 136 Safeway and 42 Genuardi's stores in the mid-Atlantic region. He showed Belden the impeccable store conditions, quality prepared foods and remarkable meat and produce departments. While he did so, he explained the exhaustive methods Genuardi's employed to communicate with its customers and employees to address concerns. Notably, he found that many of the products customers wanted back had never left the store and that most of the others were now on the shelves again. Likewise, customer service has never been better.

As the newspaper reported, Schroeder said, "We're going to win back customers one store, one shopping trip, at a time." Genuardi's customers are telling store employees and management, verbally and with their shopping dollars, that the effort is working. So contrary to the MNB editorial opinion, perhaps it is not too late.

To be clear about our position, we would absolutely agree that it is a noble effort, and we hope that it is not to late for Genuardi's to rehabilitate its reputation. So on that, we agree.

We also would expect that Karl Schroeder and other Safeway officials would maintain that the company has mended its ways, that store conditions are impeccable, and that business is returning. In fact, we'd be surprised if they said otherwise.

We are a little surprised that the company maintains that "many of the products customers wanted back had never left the store and that most of the others were now on the shelves again." Were consumers so confused that they couldn’t find products they wanted that were actually in stock? (That's not an argument that we'd be inclined to make to consumers; it borders on saying, "Well, in this case, the customer was wrong…")

That said, it probably is fair to concede that after more than a year of writing about Safeway's various problems at Dominick's and Genuardi's, we've become a little jaded, and tend to get a mite sardonic when writing about these companies and the issues they face.

That's not necessarily fair to Safeway, and it certainly isn’t fair to the people on the front lines at Genuardi's…so we'll try to curb that impulse in the immediate future.

Which isn’t, of course, to suggest that we'll be rolling over on this issue. Not that it matters…because we hardly are writing in a vacuum. Take, for example, the following email that we received from MNB user Chris Hendricks:

Do you think that Safeway finally realized they have alienated their shoppers long enough. They have driven traffic to OTHER grocery stores in droves because they lost the focus on Quality Meats, Quality Produce, and Quality Customer Service. Let's not stop apologizing at Genuardi's. Come on down to Texas and apologize to the Randall's Customers, the Tom Thumb Customers, these folks have been mistreated as well. Safeway long ago pulled out of Texas for the same reason they are declining today, lack of quality. Hence why it didn't come as a shock to any of us that HEB was rated one of the top supermarkets in the latest Consumer Reports.

And, coincidentally, on the subject of SKUs that customers want not being found in the store, another member of the MNB community wrote:

In November of 2002 Safeway had a one week campaign to bring back products that Safeway had discontinued in the Dominick's division. But with no publicity, the old customers did not know because they were already shopping elsewhere.

They did set up a table where customers could say what products they wanted Dominick's to carry again, but due to the lack of help, no one was manning the table, so customers walked by and Safeway missed their chance to increase their sales and possibly, their customer count.

And we can certainly see how well that it's all turned out for Safeway and Dominick's…

(Damn…there we go being sardonic again. Sorry.)

We got several emails about yesterday's story regarding adding blueberries to hamburger. For example, MNB user Cathy Donahue wrote:

Today's story on blueberries being added to meat closes by saying that "various studies are being done into the use of cherries and prunes in burger meat." Ray Pleva of Pleva Meats in Michigan has been selling meat mixed with cherries since 1988. School districts in 17 states have served his Plevalean burgers. He's been written up in numerous magazines and covered on television programs. To learn more about him and his many products using cherries, visit his website I have no connection with him but I remembered reading about Plevalean in Eating Well magazine years ago.

Actually, Pleva is selling lean burger patties flavored with cherries and oats. There's a joke in there somewhere, but either it is too early or we haven't had enough coffee…

We got varying reactions to our story about the FDA deciding that there no longer need to be warnings on products containing Olestra, a move roundly criticized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

One MNB user wrote:

The CSPI thinks the FDA has made a mistake by eliminating the caution labeling of Olestra. Considering the state of obesity in our Country and especially in our youth, maybe the original FDA actions were inappropriate.

Maybe we should be working with industry, not against them, to find products like Olestra to assist us in this National problem.

What has CSPI done lately to solve this national problem?

It is easy to complain but hard to be constructive.

Maybe our school lunch program should endorse Olestra.

MNB user Gary Breissinger added:

Isn't it wonderful that the FDA has now recognized the data that supports the safety of this fat substitute....long after it's concessions to pressure from FOR PROFIT groups like CSPI killed the public's confidence in the ingredient?

In a country struggling to deal with obesity, doesn't it seem that a fat substitute would be a very useful and valuable ingredient to help consumers battle the bulge? Forget the destruction of commercial value inherent in this fiasco....what is the lost opportunity for healthier snacks and other foods?

MNB user Andrea DeRouen had a different take on the subject:

By removing the Olestra warning labels from food, the FDA is probably sending the message to most people (who are generally uninformed) that something changed in Olestra and now it doesn't cause the gastrointestinal effects. Boy will those people be surprised when their Olestra-filled potato chips give them the runs.

(Can we say "the runs" on a family website?)

And finally, another MNB user chimed in:

There are many policies and stories with which I disagree but this one, about removing warnings on products containing olestra, really got my dander up. What a narrow minded, shortsighted decision. Maybe - and only maybe - "most consumers" know about the risks associated with olestra (and I am appalled and horrified at the nerve it takes to make such a broad generalization in the first place).

But that's today. What about tomorrow? Is the FDA saying that from all the messages about eating healthily that people are trying to instill in children, the one that they are absorbing is that there are risks associated with olestra and that they don't need product warnings because this is something that they already know? The ignorance and arrogance of such a move is rivaled only by the continuing refusal to label ingredients because "it costs too much".

Obviously all the figures we've been reading lately about the high cost of taking care of people who develop health related illnesses by not eating a balanced diet or getting off their couches come to a total less than the cost of telling them, in the first place, what is in the food they are eating. This week will be 33 years since I emigrated from the US to the UK and it is behaviour like this that convinces me over and over again that I made the right decision. There are many ways in which fascism can be expressed.
KC's View: