Five percent of your customers have a foodborne allergy, and that number will double every 10 years within the general population for the foreseeable future, according to the Centers for Disease Control. For Phil Lempert, the acclaimed Supermarket Guru, understanding the implications of this phenomenon is critical, and if you start making the necessary changes to your operations now, you’ll be prepared for the wave of what’s to come, and not only maintain that precious 5 percent, but bring in new, extremely loyal customers.
What wave to come? Well, that report from the CDC found another disturbing fact: in the 16 years between 1997 and 2013, the number of children with food allergies increased by 50 percent, and while in the past the CDC has found that most food allergies resolve during childhood, that’s happening more slowly every year, with many still bearing their allergies after 5 years of age.
Those children have fickle, suspicious, and passionate parents who feed them. According to the study Lempert conducted with the IDDBA this year, Focus on Allergens: A Matter of Trust, if someone with food allergies sees something unsafe happening to food they’re about to buy — be it a worker not using gloves or a slicer not being wiped down before use on their own purchase — 30 percent will no longer buy the product, and 20 percent will actually leave the store altogether. “Half of your customers,” Lempert says. “Half of your customers will go away.”
So what can you do about it? As it turns out, the report had a number of useful suggestions to stay ahead of the curve, impress your customers, and increase their longterm loyalty. These same fickle parents and wary consumers are also highly vocal on social media, and the study implied that pleasing them could in turn sway more customers to defect to your business over your competitors’.
The report’s suggestions may require investment of both time and money, but the inevitable results of those investments certainly seem hard to argue with. Here’s what the Guru and IDDBA had to say:
- First, create educational programs to improve allergy awareness for your staff, and do so across the board: everyone from the president and CEO to the teenager working part-time after school should be taught and tested on their allergen awareness.
- Stress to your staff that for your customers, this is literally a matter of life and death, and should never be taken lightly, joked about, or casually referred to.
- Emphasize that cross-contamination can happen anywhere at any time, and your staff’s mindfulness not only affects the health of your customers, but the survival of your business (and their jobs).
- Be prepared for growing pains. You may find that some of your people have been behind the deli counter for 20 or more years, and changing entrenched habits can be difficult, so making these changes should be approached fairly but firmly.
- Keep ingredient lists of all of your prepared foods behind the counter so that when asked, your staff can immediately tell a customer if a particular food contains their allergen. Make sure the list itself is printed in large, bold type.
- In that list, include each specific spice used in any given dish as opposed to simply listing “spices” as an ingredient. Some people are allergic to individual seasonings like cinnamon, and become very frustrated when an employee can’t answer this particular question.
- Create separate, allergy-free preparation areas (with separate utensils and equipment) within each of your departments to prevent cross-contamination. And most importantly…
- Do whatever it takes to make sure that your customers can see the pains you are taking to ensure their safety. Prominently display certifications for allergy-awareness programs, and include news of the changes in as much merchandising and advertising as you can. This communication, Lempert said, cannot be stressed enough, and will pay off in the long-run for decades to come.
♣ Be sure to look for our full feature story on Focus on Allergens: A Matter of Trust in the coming August 2016 issue of instore magazine.