On Point: A question of answers

When shoppers come asking, knowledge is power.

By Tom Weir

As the grocery industry’s main point of contact with the consuming public, retailers have to field all manner of questions about food. The quality of the answers that store managers and associates provide can have a positive or negative impact on shoppers’ perception of the store and of the chain itself. So it’s best to be prepared in advance.

It’s quite reasonable to expect supermarket personnel to be able to explain the store’s ongoing policies and practices, as well as to be knowledgeable about current specials and whether items promoted in the circular are on dedicated endcaps or in their usual aisle locations. Those topics should be thoroughly covered in employee training.

Where things get more complicated is when the questions involve events or circumstances that are outside the scope of retailing and get into areas like health, science, law and politics. In cases like those, the store manager needs to be prepared with clear, concise, non-judgmental explanations when customers come asking.

A recent example is the Food and Drug Administration’s consideration of whether genetically modified salmon can be sold to the public for food. Despite the fact that most Americans uncomplainingly eat products made from genetically modified crops every day, the idea of tinkering with the DNA of living creatures to make them grow faster sounds too much like the plot of a second-rate horror movie. Resistance was predictable.

Developed by Waltham, Mass.-based AquaBounty Technologies, the Atlantic salmon have been given genes from two other fish that bring them to marketable size in 16 to 18 months, compared to 30 months for conventional farmed salmon. An analysis by the FDA staff concluded that the genetically modified fish are safe to eat.

There is, however, controversy. Some scientists, consumer groups and members of Congress have criticized the quality of the data on which the analysis was based. There are concerns that some modified fish might escape and cause problems among wild Atlantic salmon. It is likely that FDA rules would not require that the salmon be labeled as genetically modified.

Sorting this out is the FDA’s problem; explaining what’s going on may be yours. If the agency approves the salmon for sale, the company says they won’t be on the market until two or three years later. That would be an important thing for seafood associates to know now, because headlines in several major newspapers have given the impression that the new fish are almost upon us, although the accompanying articles made the time frame clear.

But not everyone reads that far past the headlines, and there are bound to be shoppers who think it’s all happening now. Someone at headquarters should be following this issue and others (like the court decision in August that may mean short supplies and high prices for sugar a year from now), and e-mailing updates to store managers as they occur. It’s not necessary to take a position pro or con, but it is necessary to know and be able to explain the current status of the issues.

Having the facts on hand when customers come asking for information is a sure way to convey the message that their supermarket is paying attention to things that matter to them.

Tom Weir can be reached at tom@taweir.cnc.net.

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