OPINION: EDITOR'S NOTE
It already seems like a really long time ago that Americans were afraid to leave their homes.
When COVID-19 descended on the world in 2020, grocery stores were an essential lifeline that kept America fed. The U.S. consumer couldn’t say enough good things about the front-line heroes working in the grocery industry during this historically challenging time.
But times have changed — thankfully, the pandemic is under control — and memories are short. Last month, Gallup reported that the grocery industry suddenly has a reputation problem.
Since 2001, Gallup has asked Americans to rate U.S. business sectors and industries on a five-point scale ranging from “very positive” to “very negative.” The company’s latest poll found that positive ratings for the grocery industry have dropped by 14 points to 40% from last year. The grocery industry has historically been among the top-rated industries by Gallup. The restaurant (60%) and farming/agriculture (57%) industries were the only sectors with majority-level positive ratings this year.
Overall, Gallup’s August 2022 Work and Education poll found that an average of just 36% of Americans gave all U.S. business sectors “somewhat” or “very” positive ratings this year. While a 34% rating in 2008 was the record low, the record high was 49% in 2017. According to Gallup, the declines coincide with Americans’ lower confidence in the nation’s institutions amid struggles brought on by historic inflation.
Indeed, the high inflation and supply chain pressures giving the U.S. consumer negative perceptions of U.S. businesses — and the grocery industry in particular — are real and lasting, for now. So it’s critical for grocers to have a game plan to fight against these perceptions by creating an opportunity to tell a different story.
One grocer leading by example on this is Wegmans Food Markets. The retailer has a monthly newsletter called “Values in Action” that shares all of the ways that Wegmans is “living its values every day to help make a difference in the communities it serves.” In the September edition, there was a story about how Wegmans is focused on improving the efficiency and sustainability of its fleet, another story about battling food insecurity on college campuses, and another item about the Wegmans Organic Orchard, a sprawling 168-acre property where the focus is on fresh, organic and sustainably grown produce.
Wegmans frequently ranks high on corporate reputation surveys, and its ability to connect and build trust with its shoppers on various platforms and channels is one reason for that. This year, the company ranked fifth in the 23rd annual Axios-Harris Poll 100 list of the companies with the best corporate reputations. While some grocery retailers are employing keeping-customers-loyal-during-inflation strategies such as offering coupons, promoting store brands and prioritizing personalization, Wegmans is also reminding shoppers that it’s still that essential critical community outreach that came through when times were (very) tough, and that continues to make a difference every day.
Fuel rewards, meal kits and shoppable videos are just a few of the ways that food retailers are engaging with consumers throughout their shopper journey through high inflation. But along with coupons and sales, grocers should also remember that now is the time to reaffirm relationships with customers by elevating brand awareness, credibility and reputation. In times of uncertainty, trust is what keeps shoppers loyal, as we saw during the pandemic. As long as grocers have a trust and reputation advantage, they will also have a business advantage. That’s why reputation marketing needs to be a priority now.