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In Brand We Trust: How Recalls At Trader Joe’s, Costco, Can Enhance Customer Engagement

A recent recall of almost 400 frozen fruit and vegetable products is one more reminder of the effective role data can play in alerting the public to health issues. The challenge is serving an increasingly scrutinizing public without appearing intrusive.


Several major grocery retailers were recently given 358 ways to protect their consumers, and how they respond could determine whether shoppers will have a taste for them in the future.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Trader Joe’s, Safeway and Costco are among the chains affected by a recall of 358 frozen food products under 42 fruit and vegetable brands. And while most headlines address the dangers of food contamination, the recall also serves as one more reminder of the highly effective role retailers and their loyalty programs could play in preventing illness.

Many people are alerted to these recalls through the news, but customer data can serve a more targeted and immediate function in notifying the public to and answering questions about such health scares.

The challenge is enabling the consumer to see that such notifications are an added benefit of loyalty program membership, not an intrusion. How to accomplish this? I can say that retailers that make customer trust a cornerstone of their strategic marketing have a superior edge, while those that do not risk getting lost in that trust shadow.

‘Rare And Powerful Moments’

Research shows there is an appetite for brand reliability, even if it reveals fallibility.

Almost nine out of 10 consumers (87 percent) said they would more likely purchase and remain loyal to a brand that handles a product recall honorably and responsibly, according to a 2010 report from the Relational Capital Group. These same consumers said they’d feel this way about a brand “even though [it] clearly made mistakes that led to a safety or quality problem.”

A similar amount of respondents (91 percent) said they understand that product and safety recalls occur at even the best-run companies.

“Product recalls create rare and powerful moments of truth for companies and brands through which loyalty can actually be strengthened and enhanced,” Chris Malone, chief advisory officer of the Relational Capital Group, said in a press release. “The way they’re handled leaves a deep and lasting impression on consumers, for better or for worse.”

That’s a potentially big burden to bear, but supermarkets that do not get involved in recalls risk appearing as if they are ducking a situation they have an ever-improving ability to manage.

575 Cases in 6 Years

There certainly are enough opportunities not only to respond strategically to food recalls, but also to justify a dedicated program that can parlay the data into an action plan.

From the years 2010 to 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recorded nearly 575 cases of food recalls, according to its website. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate about 1,600 people are infected with listeria each year.

Factor in family and friends of those sickened, and that is a wide circle of consumers. In the latest recall, manufacturer CRF Frozen Foods, of Washington State, said it is performing the recall in cooperation with the Food and Drug Administration because the products could be contaminated with listeria. The affected brands include Columbia River Organic, Trader Joe’s private label, Farmer’s Bounty, Organic by Nature, Live Smart, Signature Kitchens, Simply Nature and Wild Oats.

Recollecting Moments of Truth

If product recalls have the potential to create powerful moments of truth, then thoughtfulness is a requisite when contacting consumers (this actually should be the case regardless of whether the retailer is alerting them to a listeria scare or delivering a special offer).

Loyal customers tend to deeply identify with the brands they choose, often on an emotional level. The best brands in the business nurture an affinity with their customers that can withstand recalls because customer trust is a foundational element of operations.

Following are four methods for responsibly alerting consumers to potential health scares, and in the process gaining trust.

Activate the database: Loyalty program data provides unique identifiers that enable retailers to determine which customers purchased certain items, including those on recall. Immediate notices can be sent to the loyalty members via their preferred methods of communication. Kroger Co., for example, has used its Plus rewards program data to aid in food-borne illness investigations and recalls.

Keep the database current: With that said, it is essential for retailers that use their loyalty data as a source of customer contact information to provide those customers good reason to keep their information current. If these names and addresses are wrong or out of date, then the retailer will be out of luck when it comes to tracking down affected individuals.

Reinforce trust: Regardless of how quickly they alert customers, retailers should be poised for questions about brand reliability. By offering a hotline through which questions can be answered, as well as the numbers of agencies that can provide information, the retailer can restore its foundation of customer trust. Practice sessions with customer-facing staff can ensure the company is prepared to answer questions quickly and consistently. It’s a good idea to assign a trusted team leader.

Get in front, but not affront: Outside of staff, all company communications should be direct, thorough and easy to access. Sending vague or hard-to-interpret messages will only dial up the concern, or panic (consider if the consumer is a new mother). In 2011, when Publix Super Markets recalled store-branded ice cream due to undeclared almond allergens, it added a red “Retail Alert” button to its website that directed visitors to a press release, product images and an explanation of the issue, with an apology (in English and Spanish).

Lastly, empathy will help guide the appropriate ways to respond to a recall. In the consumers‘ eyes, the retailer will be part of the circumstance, regardless of whether it is at fault. After-the-fact coupons won’t change that fact.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, where Bryan serves as a retail contributor. You can view the original story here.

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