Editor's comment: Do you want Big Mother?
AsdaÂ’s Andy Bond made some excellent points at the inaugural BRC Annual Lecture this week, about the responsibilities that retailers hold, the changing nature of consumers and the illusion behind some premium products. By Matthew Valentine, EditorHe also touched on the 'Big Mother' role of retailers. This sees stores use education and encouragement to enable shoppers to make healthy lifestyle choices, as opposed to the Big Brother mantle usually ascribed to the state when it tries to browbeat the population into the making same choices.
So rather than The Department of Health telling us we should eat less salt and drink less booze, retailers would do more to educate us as to the dangers and offer better value alternatives. As Bond puts it, the retailers would be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
This dovetails neatly with Bond's view that retailers should be at the heart of their communities, taking on a role as central as that of schools and GP's surgeries. But while it offers undeniable benefits, such a path is also strewn with dangers.
The recession, growing distrust of some large organisations and an increasingly well-connected population has seen a resurgence in local communities, often highlighting the lack of a physical centre where they can come together. It is tempting for retailers to offer up their stores to fill that gap.
However, consumers equate schools and doctors with the state and the public sector, not with profit-making. Retailers are seen as commercial entities, perhaps more benign than banks, but still in existence to make money. Put simply, we don't expect retailers to look after us, and we aren't shocked when they make a lot of money selling things to us.
Retailers trying to keep a foot in both camps could find themselves in the firing line of public opinion on issues from which they are currently shielded. While customers find online tips on money saving to be useful, they might blanche if they feel retailers are trying to tell them how much to drink.
Retailers may have been criticised over their role in supplying binge drinkers, but they have been sheltered to an extent be being 'just' shopkeepers. They are meeting a demand and acting entirely within the law by supplying cheap alcohol. Taking a more formal role in society introduces a great deal of accountability which might be a poisoned chalice.
Consumer expectations of an institution which holds itself up for public scrutiny are high, and arguably getting higher by the minute. As Parliament has discovered, transgressions can be avenged sharply and mercilessly.
If retailers put out too many mixed messages about their place in society and their role in looking after people, it might not be too long before they are asked how, if consumers are so important to them, their profits got to be so high. If profits from the confectionery aisle are examined as closely as an MP's expenses sheet the tactic will have backfired.
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