Jan 4, 2008

Product Offerings: Values vs Customer Demand

Whenever I go back to Buffalo to visit family I take at least one trip to a Wegmans, a grocery store chain of 71 stores on the east coast. (Lets face it - you can't get real rye bread in Oregon.) Wegmans is kind of like Safeway, but with a strong and extensive pre-prepared food section and a focus on consumer health.

Wegmans is nothing close to a New Seasons or Whole Foods (although they were given an Ethics Award), so I was surprised when I read that they are no longer selling cigarettes or tobacco products. Wegmans does have a track record of enacting food safety policies (Belize farmed shrimp) but organic only gets a small mention.

This ban on tobacco is noteworthy because Wegmans is a large, established grocery chain and based on their consumer health values, bottom line be damned, they are eliminating an entire product category.

The potential impact of Wegmans' decision:
  • Wegmans reinforces their values surrounding consumer health, creating more trust from their consumer base.
  • Tobacco using consumers will have to change their purchasing habits to buy tobacco elsewhere, which might make Wegmans loose total sales volume.
  • Although convenience stores sell more tobacco products than grocery stores, the loss of the category will still effect Wegmans' bottom line.
To me, improving our customer's lives is an amazing goal; it is the reason every one of SeQuential's fuel products are cleaner-burning, and there is such a focus on fuel for every vehicle, not just for hard-core biodiesel users. Our focus is inclusive - we will meet consumers at the level they want to engage, from 2007 Dodge Caravan E10 gasoline users to '78 Mercedes B99 BIODIESEL users.

All this raises some questions about our own product selection:
  • Does our inclusive approach mean that we should continue to offer the "better choice" additive-free tobacco products, or should we eliminate tobacco altogether?
  • Would our customer's lives change for the better if we stopped carrying tobacco or would we be forcing our customers to buy potentially additives-laden products elsewhere?
  • If we know something is unhealthy, should we walk the high road and say, "we will not enable you to live an unhealthy lifestyle"? If so, where do we draw the line on what is "healthy"? (High fructose corn-syrup, GMO, trans-fat, processed foods, plastic packaging, etc.) Could we find adequate substitutes for the products our customers want, but still meet all our standards?

2 comments:

Beckfield said...

"Does our inclusive approach mean that we should continue to offer the "better choice" additive-free tobacco products, or should we eliminate tobacco altogether?"

It seems to me that tobacco itself is a health risk, regardless of whether or not there are additives, and tobacco products are an environmental detriment (second-hand smoke, cigarette butts all over the place). The tobacco companies have already shown their ethical dirty laundry in the last few years. I feel it is just as unethical for them to continue producing known harmful products, even if they are "honest" about the additives.

"Would our customer's lives change for the better if we stopped carrying tobacco or would we be forcing our customers to buy potentially additives-laden products elsewhere?"

I don't imagine anyone comes to SeQuential to buy cigarettes. I think they come for biofuels. If you stop carrying tobacco products, I doubt you will lose any customers. So I don't think your bottom line would be as affected as Wegman's. Perhaps, down the road, when SeQuential has more competition for biofuel sales, some people may choose their biofuel retailer based on other conveniences like cigarettes, but by then, your identity will be very well established. As for "forcing" your customers to buy tobacco elsewhere, well, you aren't "forcing" them to do anything. It's their choice.

"If we know something is unhealthy, should we walk the high road and say, 'we will not enable you to live an unhealthy lifestyle'?"

I think you should sell what you want to sell, and let your customers make their own choices about their lifestyles. If you really want to get technical, selling biofuels could be considered enabling unhealthy lifestyles, because you are making it more convenient to reduce foreign oil dependence without leaving the car parked and walking or bicycling.

My repeated thanks to SeQuential for their efforts in the biofuel industry, and for setting the example with your carbon-neutral station. I live in Portland, but try to time my fillups so I can stop at the station in Eugene whenever I drive through.

Sasha Friedman said...

You touch on some good points beckfield and based on emails and votes, people think that SeQuential should not carry tobacco products.

Traditionally, convenience stores have made their bread and butter on "cokes and smokes", but with fresh and local food, a blue sky soda fountain and all sorts of organic snacks, the SeQuential store could hardly be considered "traditional".


The results from the vote is as follows:

Should SeQuential carry tobacco?
No: (72%)
Yes - additive free only: (16%)
Yes - all types: (10%)


Your input has been great and I'll keep you all up to date as I talk to the SQ merchandising team about getting tobacco out of the store.

-Sasha