business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

It shouldn’t happen, but there are times that we all forget what we are really doing. It can happen because we are so busy concentrating on the details on daily work or because we are looking (as I do) for metaphors and lessons in everything around us.

Sometimes we simply have to remember the business we are in. As Rob Bell, one of my favorite consultant/speakers on personnel issues, likes to say, the food industry is easy to explain: "We’re feeding the world here."

It’s the truth because that’s exactly what this industry does.

Yet we are more. Supermarkets, drug stores, c-stores - in fact, all shopping areas are now the center of town. We get this reminder all the time and manage to ignore it. We see it in the panic that grips a small farm belt town that has lost its last supermarket and we see it in urban food deserts, where basic needs aren’t met without a labored series of bus rides.

We are the community or certainly the center of these communities.

In recent weeks we got some stark reminders of just how central we are. We got it when millions of Americans, me included, got e-mails telling us our names and vital information may have been compromised in a data spill that is properly called the “biggest to date.” Sadly, we know more is coming.

Worse yet, we got reminders in Indiana and Maryland about how fragile our way of life can be when a crazed gunman decides to invade that space we all take for granted. In Indiana, the victims were a supermarket worker pulling the late shift and a shopper who no doubt only found time to visit the store well after usual hours.

And this weekend, a shopping mall in a Maryland suburb not far from where I live, was the latest location of craziness. This time two young people working at a shop for skate- and snow-boarders lost their lives and no one knows why.

I’m not writing this today to discuss gun control or the lack thereof because like too many issues in our society these days, those discussions go nowhere. Certainly our elected officials seem fixed in place on their positions and there is no expectation on this or countless other issues that they would actually have a reasonable debate.

Today I’m writing about the new challenge we face with shoppers; to find a way to create a feeling of safety and security, the only thing they need more than the food that keeps them alive.

I have some personal connection to this issue. It was just a decade ago that the area where I live was constantly on edge due to the Washington sniper attacks. We saw endless coverage of senseless, random killings at supermarkets, gas stations, home repair stores and even school bus stops.

Everyday I sent my children to school in fear. I feared for my wife every time she went shopping and feared for myself every time I simply parked my car. It simply changed the way we live.

As an industry we need to keep these difficult times in mind. We need to understand that shoppers are scared of what could happen, whether it’s from an unhinged armed attacker or a well-planned hacker. They need to know we care and are trying to do all we can even though there is so much we simply cannot do.

It might be time for a lot of people in the industry to reflect back to the early 1980s, when another derange lunatic managed to lace Tylenol bottles with poison and kill seven people in the process. Remember how Johnson and Johnson pulled the top selling product off the shelves, not returning it until launching the tamper evident and resistant bottles we know all too well today.

As Kevin is fond of writing, trust, once lost, is near impossible to restore. Yet Tylenol did just that and consumers rallied around the company.

It might be time to reflect on how we can all do the same to keep our shoppers and their identities as safe as possible, knowing that we cannot guarantee anything. After all, our stores, products and shopping centers are where they come and where we need them to keep coming back.

After all, we feed the world.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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