business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

There was a wonderful scene on the old “The West Wing” television series in which the US president, played by Martin Sheen, looks to his old parish priest, played by Karl Malden, for guidance. Malden tells Sheen the following story:

One day a man heard radio and television reports that his town was in imminent danger of flooding. Soon after, a policeman came by to warn him. Then when the waters started rising, the rescuers came by boat and then by helicopter. Each time the man rejected the offers saying the Lord would save him. Sadly, he died.

Once in heaven, the man demanded to see the Lord to find out what happened. The response was simple: I sent you the radio and TV messages, the policeman, the boat and the helicopter.

What more did you want?

Sometimes, you have to be open to signs. Last week, I saw two for our industry.

First, Roger Cohen, a columnist in the New York Times, contrasted eating and cooking styles in France and the US, writing: “The American healthcare debate is skewed. It should be devoting more time to changing U.S. culinary and eating habits in ways that cut the need for expensive care by reducing rampant obesity, to which anxiety, haste and disconnectedness contribute.”

Maybe you consider the Times too biased toward anything French. In that case, consider this line, from Self magazine (hardly a seat of politically motivated discussion): “Your ideal body starts in your kitchen. Having nutritious, tasty food on hand is key to conquering cravings, feeling energized, defeating disease and dropping pounds permanently.”

I’m sensing a sign.

The US is embroiled in a debate about health care right now. We’ve already seen how complex this issue can be for a retailer, thanks to John Mackey at Whole Foods. Let’s avoid the complexities for a second and focus on where there is no debate:

America has a health problem and much of it is traced to our burgeoning national waistlines. Much of that problem is linked to the foods we eat, how we cook and our lack of physical activity.

The problem exists and we have the traffic, the customer connections, the food and the information to turn this into an opportunity. We don’t need to take political stands; we need to engage the shopper with what they want and need. That is, dependable information that helps them make good choices. As we’ve seen from some recent flack thrown at product health claims, the information must be solid.

I got a reminder of this while talking with my friends at Aisle 7, the makers of Healthnotes. (Full disclosure, I do a good amount of work with Aisle 7 and I try to keep those kinds of connections out of columns in hopes of being as non-biased as possible. Except sometimes that does you, the reader, a disservice.)

You see, I think Aisle 7 is onto a solution. With an array of products from kiosks to web information to even multiple daily postings on Twitter, Aisle 7 pushes the connection the shopper needs by providing information to help them make better choices on products and meals. It’s simple, straightforward and exactly the kind of step shoppers need. (I actually saw an incredible example of how great this could work at The Wedge natural food co-op in Minneapolis. There, the staff uses the kiosk to help guide shoppers through decisions making both the store and staff seem instantly more engaged and knowledgeable.)

Now, Aisle 7 isn’t alone. There is a tidal wave of information offered to shoppers in the store today through virtually every means possible. It’s just that too often that this wave leaves the shopper drowning like the man in the beginning of this column. We need to help them rather then deluge them.

This isn’t meant to be an ad for Aisle 7 and it’s not. There are competing services and you should consider them all. But consider something. Consider the signs, consider the needs and consider the opportunity that faces your store, your products and your people today. Don’t let this moment pass.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
KC's View:
FYI…Because of the shortened week and the large number of stories we had yesterday, Michael’s usual Tuesday column is running today. Kate’s BlogBeat will return next Wednesday.