Inside This Issue - Opinion
Itís time for retail to fight back
August 12th, 2013
by David Pinto, Editor
In ways too numerous to mention, retailing is its own worst enemy.
How else to explain the fact that the most significant and most positive contributor to the U.S. economy is constantly in the news for its overreactions, the mistakes it makes, its judgmental errors, its ill-considered or hastily conceived positions, while the pivotal role it commands in the life and welfare of the American citizen and economy often goes unnoted, overlooked or taken for granted.
It’s as though Americans, and the American media apparatus, expect retailing to adhere to our highest business ideals — providing more jobs than any other sector of the economy, offering quality merchandise at competitive prices, rolling out groundbreaking concepts and stores that are the envy of competitors around the globe. We Americans expect it, take it for granted — and only comment when the reality falls short of the hype.
The fault, here as in so many areas of society, cannot be placed entirely at the door of the media. Rather, the problem lies, at least in part, at the retailers’ doorstep. Put another way, retailers are novices at promoting themselves — or even at honestly assessing and publicizing the many significant benefits they provide the American consumer.
On the other hand, they unfailingly call attention to themselves anytime a controversial story emerges, usually by putting themselves on the wrong side of the equation. Here are some samples:
• Kroger was recently the subject of a story on NPR that accused the retailer of charging customers in lower-income neighborhoods more money for the same merchandise than the retailer charges middle-class customers. At the same time, the story intimated that the products Kroger sells to lower-income customers are not of the quality sold to middle-class customers. If Kroger responded, that response has been lost.
• Rolling Stone magazine recently ran a cover photo of the man indicted for setting off the bombs that resulted in death and devastation at this year’s Boston Marathon. CVS and Walgreens, America’s two largest and most successful drug chains, determined that they would not sell that issue of Rolling Stone because the cover shot, in their view, glamorized the accused murderer, even though the copy accompanying the cover photo referred to him as a “madman” — and despite the fact that no one at either drug chain had apparently bothered to read the story to which the photo referred.
• A recent proposal to raise the minimum wage in Washington, D.C., brought an immediate response from Walmart, to the effect that the world’s largest retailer could not afford to pay its associates higher minimum wages — and the passage of a higher pay rate might force the retailer to curtail its new-store program in the nation’s capital.
What turn of mind or effort to spin public opinion could possibly force these world-class retailers to position themselves so defensively in controversies where silence is so obviously called for? Walmart is, after all, the largest private-sector employer in the United States and arguably, despite its well-documented shortcomings, one of the businesses that have kept America alive during the current recession.
Kroger is the nation’s largest grocery retailer, one that exerts an impact on more Americans than any other U.S. retailer except Walmart. And CVS and Walgreens, between them, influence the health and well-being of more Americans than any other public or private health care organization in the country.
In short, these are four exemplary retailers. Among them, they employ over 2.9 million people, they record over $698 billion in annual retail sales, they influence the lives of more than 100 million American consumers, usually in a positive way. They serve their communities, support their neighborhoods, aid numerous causes, usually without credit. Yet their place in American society often goes unnoted. If noted, it is usually dismissed as unremarkable or, at the least, expected.
But when something unusual occurs — a cover photo of an alleged assailant, a proposal to raise the minimum wage for society’s lowest wage earners, an allegation that a reputable retailer is gouging its poorest customers — it’s front-page news. Retailing is the villain — and there is no hero. Retailers can’t wait to take advantage of an unsuspecting public.
Well, the time has come for retailing to fight back — or, at the least, to learn public relations. Or, better still, to learn when to shut up. The public relations people at Walmart could write a book on what not to do in publicizing the company. On occasion, CVS and Walgreens are not far behind. As for the grocery industry, it still largely operates in the early years of the 20th century, a time when grocers offered credit against crops or cattle, then charged excessively for being so understanding.
Mass retailing can no longer stand for or tolerate this kind of publicity. It’s hurtful. It’s unfair. And it’s self-destructive. In short, it’s time for the other side of the story to get an equal airing.