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Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe, and this is MNB Radio, available on iTunes and brought to you this week by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.

I’m filing this commentary from Northern California, where I’ve been attending the California Olive Ranch Harvest Festival. Let’s get the formal and requisite full disclosure out of the way - California Olive Ranch is an MNB sponsor. What I want to talk about this morning is not designed to be a commercial for the company...though, to be honest, if it makes you check out their website and check into their products, I’m okay with that. But that’s not my goal here.

In spending time learning about how the company’s Extra Virgin Olive Oils are made, and enjoying a couple of spectacular meals making use of their products, I could not help but recall one of the earliest lessons I got in food retailing when I started out writing about this business a quarter century ago. (Could it really be a quarter century? Yikes!)

I was told that if I wanted to quickly determine what kind of demographic a store was targeting, one of the best places to go was the olive oil section. If there were dozens, it meant that the store was aiming to attract foodies with some money. If there were just a few, not so much.

The thing is, this may be true in marketing terms. But it also may be completely wrong-headed.

While I was going through the tasting process here, I thought about some of the most expansive olive oil sections that I’ve seen in supermarkets. And it occurred to me that when I go into those stores, and look at all that product, rarely if ever do I have any idea which ones are good and which ones are bad. I might know a couple of brands and some price points, but quality? Not really. I know enough that I want Extra Virgin Olive Oil, but there have been studies done indicating that a lot of the product labeled as Extra Virgin Olive Oil just ain’t living up to the billing. Yes, I know that the studies have been challenged by some and that they are a little controversial, but I think they are entirely credible.

So we have a section in which choice seems plentiful but information seems minimal at best. (Actually, there are plenty of sections of the typical supermarket that could fit this description. But for the moment, for a number of reasons that will shortly become apparent, let’s stick with the olive oil department...)

If a store really wanted to target foodies, or potential foodies, wouldn’t it make sense to a) provide specific descriptive information about the products on display, b) offer tastings whenever possible, and c) stock fewer products that offer a greater breadth of options and advantages, as opposed to just dumping a bunch of SKUs on the shelves and hope that consumers will make sense of the jumble?

From a marketing perspective, I think this makes sense. Choice often is an illusion, hiding behind quantity when quality options really would be a lot more helpful, and maybe even better for the bottom line, as consumers would perceive that the retailer was acting on their behalf, defining specific differential advantages.

Sure, it would take a lot more work on the part of retailers, who would in turn demand greater amounts of information and accountability from manufacturers.

And now there could be good legal reasons to be smarter about what is sold in the olive oil department. From everything I am hearing, it is only a matter of time before some customer hires a lawyer to sue a retailer that sold a product labeled as Extra Virgin Olive Oil, but that does not measure up. That suit could turn into a class action. All sort of hungry lawyers will get involved, and the resultant litigation and press coverage will end up messy at best, and destructive to reputations at worst.

It is all about developing an approach to marketing that does not rely on the cliched thinking of the past, like quantity adds up to quality. It is all about embracing transparency at every turn, because to do otherwise does not do your customers any favors, and could end up being a way to encourage lawsuits. It means harvesting fresh relationships with new and old suppliers, making clear that at least some of the old rules must be discarded so that a new reality can be created. And it means rethinking much of the center store, where there probably are more of these kinds of over-stocked but under-thought departments than we want to consider.

I learned a lot about olive oil this week. I know a lot more about how to make choices than I used to. But in sampling oils and foods and trudging around an olive ranch - where, it should be noted, systems are being put in place that will make this kind of transparency possible, and foster a new kind of relationship with both retailers and consumers - I really got to thinking more about where food marketing may go in the future.

The other revelation I had this week? That ice cream made with Extra Virgin Olive Oil is one of the best things I’ve tasted in my entire life.

For MNB Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.
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