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Homage to Wegmans' Not-So-Secret Weapon


Amid the hundreds of e-mails that cross our collective news desks each week, as many as 20 are research studies from any number of sources promising to offer original insights on the latest consumer preferences, interests, inclinations and irritations.

And though many often regurgitate that which is already widely known, or blatantly contradict a similarly themed study received just a few hours earlier, there’s been a profound uptick in the volume of so-called new consumer research that’s actually designed to prop up a larger self-promotional agenda.

Much like how today’s shoppers increasingly rely on retailers as trusted authorities – as opposed to being merely product aggregators – the onus is squarely on our editorial team to carefully curate, select and report on the most valuable, meaningful insights we believe will best resonate with our valued audience.

Such is the case with recent consumer intelligence from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, whose 2015 Science and Food Survey finds that Americans’ most trusted sources of food information are health professionals, who garnered a 25 percent “very trustworthy” rating, followed next by friends and family (23 percent), farmers (23 percent), scientists (20 percent), and the FDA (19 percent).

In Grocers They Trust?

While the above “most trusted” food info sources hardly seem surprising (save the oft-maligned FDA), the low scores given to grocery stores, food packaging and food companies – 5 percent and 4 percent (tie), respectively – in the national consumer survey tell quite a different tale. Ditto for the perceived trustworthiness of legitimate food information from the media, including blogs and social networks, which earned a meager 2 percent ranking.

Yet with consumers’ interest in food information, ingredients and sourcing practices poised to proliferate ever further, food retailers have colossal opportunities to proactively accelerate, and ultimately own, the conversations they have with consumers.

To this end, a watch-worthy template of superiority in this domain can be readily found in Wegmans Food Markets’ longtime SVP of consumer affairs and founding family confidant, Mary Ellen Burris, who was hired as the liaison between customers and the company by the late Robert B. Wegman in 1971. Her role as employee number 918 organically blossomed into helming a 100-person department responsible for consumer response and customer services, food safety and quality assurance, community and public relations, and sustainability.

Best known for her weekly column in Wegmans’ ads, Burris’s “Fresh Stories” regularly and reliably address a host of behind-the-scenes happenings at the 87-store chain, which earlier this year placed as the top-ranked most reputable organization among the 100 companies in the 16th annual Harris Poll Reputation Quotient (RQ) study.

Burris' pioneering 'peek-behind-the-curtain' counsel

Renowned for its cultlike customer loyalty and destination stores, Wegmans’ measured, deliberate growth in its relatively compact six-state footprint belies the dynamic impact it’s had on the industry over the past three decades. And I’m convinced that Burris’ trustworthy, approachable guidance – both externally and internally – has been a linchpin in helping the Rochester, N.Y.-based retailer build its unparalleled brand and benchmark standing by which all other U.S. supermarkets are often measured.

Through the years, I’ve been highly impressed by a variety of intriguing topics Burris has tackled on her blog, which, as you might expect, has become a highly popular component of both Wegmans’ website and its overall customer engagement platform. In one of her October entries, for instance, she discussed the significance of the company’s recent accolades from the EPA for its own-brand Safer Choice cleaning products. What struck me as most interesting about the post was that it was less about the retailer adding yet another feather in its already decorated cap and more about its years-in-the-making plant-based household cleaning line.

Another one of Burris’ intriguing and admirable online commentaries last month explored a semi-complex – albeit extremely timely and critical – supply chain topic: backhauling and perishable freight via coast-to-coast refrigerated railcars. Indeed, over the course of my career, it’s been rare to see a supermarket representative expound in such a clear, comprehensible and approachable manner on what’s traditionally been treated as a remote “industry-specific” issue more apt to appear on the print or web pages of an industry publication like this.

Beyond solidifying the trust and respect of Wegmans shoppers through the years, Burris’ pioneering, peek-behind-the-curtain counsel, in her longtime role as the voice of consumers, serves as a rich and inspiring narrative for other forward-thinking retailers to emulate as they seek new ways to build and nurture closer bonds with increasingly skittish consumers.

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