How Consumers Are Faring

Unexciting Merchandise

Turned Off

Need for Ad Translators

Meat Scares

Irradiation Now?

The Passionate Opposition

What About Tamper Evident Packaging?

Does Branding Help?

Many shoppers are cutting back on spending. Some are tuning out the marketplace. The Conference Board's March report on an upsurge in consumer confidence was music to the ears, but the music was out of tune with what we are hearing, which shows spending softness coming from two sources:

1) Real or feared income decline (close to what consumer confidence measures)

2) Disappointment in the consumer marketplace.

Number one is all too familiar from today's headlines. It's number two that is triggering disconnect. Consumers are tuning out because:

  • They aren't being turned on by today's merchandise - which just isn't that exciting
  • They are being turned off by the treatment and the value they are getting
  • They aren't connecting with advertising - which often doesn't make sense

Unexciting merchandise. Maybe it's too many stores with too many of the same products. Maybe we've had too much of everything. Maybe it's today's Been There, Done That mentality. Except for Kashi, Jet Blue, green ketchup, skate boards, Wegman's, and Dollar Stores, we aren't seeing much enthusiasm for the stuff or the stores. We'd suspect winter doldrums but the calendar says that it's Spring - a combination that reminds us of the times when women weren't buying new clothes because they didn't like the fashions in the magazines or the stores.

Turned off by products and experiences. Consumers are expressing disdain for more and more kinds of consumer experiences -- from grocery shopping to fine dining and from appliances to advertising. If prices haven't gone up, sizes have been shaved. Profits have been squeezed. Weights and warranties have been reduced. Service has been trimmed. Advertising is confusing, incompressible, and everywhere. (See Translator Wanted below.) Graciousness has gotten rare. Among the disparate comments we've heard in the last month:

  • Supermarkets make endless sign errors, and when I act on what the signs say, the checkers and often the managers act as if I'm the one who is cheating.
  • My favorite brand (Toyota) is now priced well beyond what I'm willing to pay so I traded down and am keeping my fingers crossed.
  • I bought a new top-of-the-line Hoover vacuum cleaner in January and three weeks later was charged $48 to have it unclogged. They said I set it on deep clean and the clogging that results from deep cleaning rugs isn't covered by the warranty.
  • Four of us had dinner at a fixed price dining room at a Ritz Carlton hotel in Florida. Two of us sent back entrees that we barely touched because they tasted yucky. A three-course meal in their "good" restaurant was priced at $77 a person plus wine, tip and taxes - and no one asked if we liked the meal or said a word when we sent it back (One manager said that waiters expect women to send most of their food back.).
  • Premier fliers usually get to board the aircraft first, even if they are sitting in coach. As a Premier flier assigned to a coach seat in row 8, I reached the gate attendant just after she had announced that row 25 and higher could board. She embarrassed me by loudly admonishing: 'I didn't say you could board at leisure so sit down and wait for your turn.'
  • I bought a pants-with-jacket sweat suit on sale at Saks that I thought was a really nice buy. When I actually wore it, I discovered that it had not a single pocket - none in the jacket and none in the pants. I felt really had, and from Saks Fifth Avenue!
  • AOL was fun at the beginning. Now I'm so agitated by problems getting and avoiding ads that it's no fun at all.
  • Banks have lower and lower services, but higher and higher fees. It really feels like they are trying to screw their customers.

This wide array of disgruntled comments suggests a widespread loss of customer focus and consumer connection. We suspect that many of the businesses involved in these consumer perceptions are facing profit squeezes and looking for advertising magic or solutions that trim costs. If stimulating an economic rebound depends on growing top lines as well as bottom lines, let's hope that more companies can get beyond quarterly profit measures to reconnect with their consumers.


This is a guest column from Shel Sosna of Supermarket Advertising Associates. When I was growing up in the advertising business, I was taught that the essence of a good television commercial was to offer a single promise later called the unique selling proposition that consumers would connect with. Today consumers have to fathom both the meaning and the selling proposition in many of today's 30-second excursions into fantasy. And I am not talking about local advertising for aluminum replacement windows. I'm referring to the big advertisers like AT&T, Nissan, Motrin, and Bank of America.

For example, can anyone figure out why AT&T uses a shepherd and a flock of sheep in its wireless telephone commercials? They don't seem to have any connection with the story they are trying to tell, which is quite straightforward: AT&T gives you a wide menu of wireless options. But to understand the message, you have to close your eyes and pretend that you are listening to the radio. These days, when I think about sheep, I think hoof and mouth disease!

On the other hand, AT&T wireless competitor Cingular is confusing in both the audio and video portions of their commercials. The video is often of a dancing red asterisk. Another Cingular commercial features a bunch of overweight football players learning ballet! The message is always the same; "Cingular believes in the power of self expression." Well, duh. No mention of wireless that I noticed. To confuse things even more, there are often adjacent commercials for Singulair, an asthma remedy.

Bank of America is running a series of commercials that feature an androgynous little boy who wants to become a teacher but whose father wants him to be a doctor. "Without teachers," he tells his daddy, "where would doctors come from?" Well, ok, but then why should I bank at Bank of America?

Lately there have been a whole lot of ass jokes in commercials. There's the one, probably written by a young agency recruit who just flunked out of pre-med but who remembers an unimportant thing or two. It's for Nissan pickups, and the line goes, "Some trucks haul dirt, some trucks haul bricks, but some trucks haul gluteus maximus!" Tee-hee. Get it? He's daring to say, "hauls ass" on television! Asses are big in commercials these days. How about Motrin that tells prospects that it "kicks butt?" Just what you want for a headache remedy.

Has anyone ever seen an auto showroom as crowded and joyous as those in Toyota commercials? Yeah, right. And why do almost all automobile commercials (for SUV's and pickups as well as sedans) feature vehicles on mountainsides, fording streams as if bridges have not yet been invented, churning through mud or tooling down dusty gravel roads with empty fields as far as the eye can see? As if most people didn't drive their vehicles in crowded city traffic and on busy streets. I am especially intrigued by the attractive lady on a snowy mountaintop who is carrying the back seat of a Chevy Tahoe, just to show how light it is. What's she doing up there, anyhow? Well, fantasy does sell if viewers understand it. If you buy a Jeep, you may at least think that you could climb a mountain with it. Why else would any sensible woman think that by buying a bra at Victoria's Secret she is well on her way to looking like Julia Roberts. (Shel can be reached at 919/384-2990. His new book, How To Never Make A Mistake, is as much fun as this critique.)


Twenty percent of the shoppers surveyed by The Consumer Network last month are actively worried about meat safety at the present time. Twelve percent believe that the problems facing European consumers and farmers will soon be here. Half of those who are actively worried cut back on meat and/or poultry before Europe's problems started getting media attention. And half of the consumers who are not worried now say they will immediately cut back on or give up beef if mad cow comes here. Some of these consumers are buying and eating more, rather than less meat in order to enjoy it while they can. "I'm enjoying beef a lot, right now so I can be prepared to give it up if it becomes too iffy or scary."

Some are considering switching their meat purchases to stores that can assure them that all the beef in their stores comes from producers that use only plant foods as feed. Although most shoppers feel the media usually overdoes it on food scares, several told us that they felt there has been too little media about the current food scares. "We are scared to death but there seems to be a relative conspiracy of silence in this country to avoid overreaction, perhaps led by the cattle industry and retailers like McDonald's, etc. It seems almost inevitable that either "mad cow" or "foot & mouth" or both will spread here to some degree but little is said about it."


Technology stocks have taken an enormous hit but consumers haven't lost their faith in technology as a solution to real problems as well as a provider of new dimensions to life itself. This month, in the shadow of the animal diseases that are plaguing sections of Britain and Continental Europe, we revisited consumer attitudes toward irradiation and tamper evident packaging, either or both of which might be used to make fresh meat and poultry somewhat safer for American consumers. It is about a year since irradiation got USDA approval for fresh meat and poultry, but shoppers haven't seen any irradiated meats or poultry in the stores. Over 40 percent of the shoppers we polled last month feel that irradiated products should be available and that they would buy them if they were. (The remaining 60 percent are almost equally divided between those who feel they need more information to know what they'd do and those who are somewhat or strongly opposed.)

As we read what our national cross section of consumers had to say about irradiation for meat and poultry, it became clear than the concerns and opinions we were hearing from today's consumers were more sophisticated than the reactions to irradiation that we heard ten years ago. We reported on attitudes about meat and poultry safety and irradiation in 1988 and 1989. Even then, many consumers thought that meat and poultry weren't nearly as safe as they should be. On irradiation as a remedy, many thought it was probably not safe in the long haul; many felt they needed to know lots more about it; and many felt that it sounded like progress and should be available for consumers who wanted the benefits it offered. What's dramatically different is the awareness of consumers' vulnerability to a mix of specific dangers, acceptance of the global village, and awareness of the shortage of government inspectors.

Today, more consumers are eating less meat or no meat for safety as well as health reasons. More know something about irradiation. More think irradiation is worth doing, and more are interested in knowing more about it. Part of the high interest level is attributable to the worries from Europe. But much of it is part of American's belief in technological progress.

Three analogies were used that may help many of us to find new ways of thinking about this:

  1. Some see irradiation as an important niche offering - similar to organic options for which some consumers are willing to pay a premium.
  2. Some see irradiation as similar to microwave ovens in that people were afraid of the leaks when they first appeared on the market and now no one can live without them.
  3. Some compare irradiation worries with worries about sweeteners that have now been used for years without any of the long-term use fears bearing fruit.
    • Irradiation is a great idea. The technology is here and I'm surprised it's not widely used yet.
    • I am 100% in favor of radiation for meat and poultry.
    • I have no problem with irradiated food. I feel it is probably as safe as the many other elements we are bombarded with without our knowledge
    • You really hit a hot button, Mona. Irradiation of food poses no health risks, repeat NO risks. It is much more dangerous to take a risk of food poisoning from spoiled food. I would absolutely prefer irradiated foods and would like it labeled so I can select it
    • I would welcome irradiated meats, berries and milk products. If it would help bread last longer, I would say zap that too. I am a single person living alone and I tire of throwing out spoiled milk, moldy bread, and moldy berries because I can't use it fast enough. And if I buy a piece of meat, especially chicken or fish, I must "race" to have it cooked up so it does not spoil or change flavor/texture. My life has to revolve around my food instead of the other way around
    • I don't have the scientific knowledge to comment other than to say I am in favor of any reasonable steps that can be taken to make our food safer.
    • I think irradiation is safe. I fear that often really vocal groups on the fringe make so much noise that they keep us from forging ahead on things like this. I am very strongly pro irradiated meat and poultry. It is a sensible, cost effective, safe way to protect against some illnesses.
    • I think irradiation would be fine and I fail to see what harm would come from killing off dangerous organisms. Does the meat glow in the dark? (no) Does it get cancer? (no) Do people who have to have multiple x-rays pose a danger to those around them? (don't think so...) But, I wouldn't necessarily serve irradiated products to a baby, as I'm really careful with babies...
    • Irradiated food is a REAL pet peeve of mine. I think that the American consumer deserves the opportunity to at least choose whether or not they will use irradiated food, but the granola bunnies have done everything in their power to frighten the public and scare off any business person willing to market the products. I WANT irradiated products because I think overall they would be better for my health, killing all those pesky viruses, bacteria and such AND my pocketbook by increasing shelf life. It bugs me to no end that a few activists keep these products off of the shelves by blackmailing retailers and spreading false information.
    • I think irradiation would be a good idea and wish more products would be processed that way.
    • I am in favor of food irradiation, just as I am in favor of genetically altered seeds, etc, which I am certain was how hybrids of various kinds were developed and how our crops have improved - to our betterment, not detriment. People really need to get a life - and there are far too many groups out there devoting their mouths, but perhaps not their untutored brains to some cause.
    • Irradiation of meat is long overdue. Irradiation would increase the safety of our food supply immensely. The public would benefit from education about the use of irradiation. Once they understood it I think it would be demanded.
    • I think irradiation should be used extensively. It's the best thing to come along in a long time and I wish people weren't so paranoid about it. I'm not at all afraid to purchase food labeled as irradiated, as I know that it doesn't render food "radioactive."
    • Irradiation is completely safe. Bring it on! Ironically, Europe has embraced irradiation of meat and poultry and it is widely accepted there, while the U.S. remains wary. It would bring far greater safety to our meat supply. The E. Coli problems with hamburger would be eliminated by irradiation.
    • I think that irradiation is a good way to assure the safety of the meat. I would like it.
    • From what I've read on irradiated foods, it sounds like a great idea to me. And as far as long-term effects, it makes me think of saccharine sweeteners--30 or 40 years ago, they said it would kill us, but I'm still using it exclusively for all my sweetening of drinks, and I haven't suffered any ill effects yet--that I know of!
    • It has always amazed me that the general public is so leery of irradiated food. The spice companies have been using this procedure for years to kill off bugs, etc from herbs and spices.
    • I am for irradiation. I do not understand some people's fear. The same scare stories came out when microwave ovens came on the market. This issue has been researched to death. It is not a cure-all ... it's just part of the food safety precautions that can be applied to food.
    • I am really concerned about all the media coverage ... sensationalized ... that appears to be driven by so-called consumer groups who are supposed to be working in my favor. If we continue to let these groups control consumer perceptions, then we won't have any more improvements in our life. I believe that we need to do adequate testing and research on these new modified foods ... there is potential for abuse, or problems, but not to the extent that some groups would have you believe. Where are these same people when it comes to the "herbals" and supplements that have almost NO regulation, NO truth in labeling, NO proven track record or research to show these products do ANYTHING?? It's the same issue, but no one seems to be questioning these products.


The passionate concerns about the long-term effects of irradiation are not to be dismissed. Many of those who are opposed are VERY opposed. They worry about the cumulative effects of irradiation and hormones and additives increasing resistance to microorganisms. They worry about using the current problems in Europe as an excuse to start widespread irradiation. Some worry about adding to or covering up the contamination of the food supply. American consumers have low levels of trust in the quality control of meat and poultry and many worry that irradiation could make it worse as processors; distributors and/or retailers become more lax about an irradiated meat supply than they are with the current supply.

  • I am sure the industry is wondering whether they can use the current meat problem to ram irradiated products down our throats. They have been looking for a justification people will go for years. This may be the thing that allows them to push this over. As you can tell I am vehemently opposed to this.
  • Irradiation can kill some microorganisms, but it isn't a cure-all. My guess is that if meat suppliers could rely on irradiation, they would become even more careless, such that the benefits would be lost. And we still don't know definitively the effects of irradiation
  • I would not buy any product that has been irradiated. Irradiation causes by-products to form in the food, and NO ONE knows what the long-term effects of those by-products are or will be. I also think that if processors could use irradiation, they would give up on many of their cleanliness practices.

    More than a third of our shoppers think that any measures toward greater safety, including tamper evident packaging, are warranted. They want it for several reasons:

    1. They think it will add another layer of safety.
    2. They have seen kids poke through meat packages.
    3. They think it would force cleaner packaging.
    4. They think it might be result in sturdier or less flimsy package.
    5. Many think that all food and drug packages should be tamper evident.
    6. Some think it would be nice but not necessary.

    Consumers who oppose tamper evident packaging for fresh meat and poultry believe that:

    • Tamper evident features would increase prices.
    • The meat case is continually observed by meat workers so in-store tampering is unlikely.
    • Consumers routinely inspect meat packages before purchasing and would see if the current packages have been opened without any T.E. additions.
    • Tamper evident features would increase amount of packaging.

A Meat Packaging Priorities Report from The Consumer Network will be available later this month. For more information, call us at 800/291-0100.


Tyson and Purdue are big brands - almost as familiar to American consumers as Tide and Oreos. But while relatively few consumers would say that detergent or grocery store brands are truly equal to Tide or Oreos, most of the shoppers we surveyed said that store brand poultry and store brand beef were really just as good as their national brand counterparts. Store brands of sausage, hot dogs, sliced lunchmeats or cheeses fall far short of national brand parity (in the collective ratings of our shoppers). Store brand meat and poultry are rated just about equal to national brands.

To understand where consumers are with this and where they are going, it's helpful to think about how brand equity develops over time. Most of the great food retailers built their franchise on the quality and value of their fresh meat and poultry. Even as case ready meat and chicken from Tyson, Black Angus and others make significant inroads into the nations meat cases, many of the consumers who are buying them have personal and family histories to remember and defend - and those histories include holidays and everyday meals based on roasts or steak or chickens from Kroger or Safeway or Freddy's. The cookies may have come from Nabisco and the hot dogs from Oscar Mayer but the meat came from Jewel or Red Owl.

As one consumer put it, "The brands have more color and more coupons but they really cook up and taste the same." Another wrote: "The main difference between store brands and national brands is that the store brands are packed fresh in the store and the national brands aren't." Only one of the more than 200 consumers we heard from on this subject associated national brands with greater safety than store brands on an unaided basis. "I question the cleanliness of all meat/poultry/fish packaged in the store. When I do purchase poultry in a supermarket, I purchase only national branded products which were not cut and wrapped at store level."

The Shopper Report, © 2001, edited by Mona Doyle, is published eleven times a year by The Consumer Network, Inc. 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104. Phone 215/235-2400. Fax 215/235-6967. Email


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