The Food Allergy Trap: The Dangers Of Easy Customization

Written by Evan Schuman
March 23rd, 2011

Self-checkout customization can be a wonderful thing, up to the point where a retailer too easily promises something that can’t be delivered. For example, NCR has been pushing its customizable self-checkout systems that can, among other things, ask consumers for any family food allergies—presumably so the system can flag anything being purchased with a forbidden ingredient.

Today’s food retailers have no way of knowing the ingredients in all of the products they sell, given the lack of manufacturer consistency. But by merely asking the food allergy question, consumers will expect, as long as they shop at a particular retail chain, to not need to bother reading labels anymore. That’s a huge value-add: for the lawyers in the area when one of those customers finds an allergy-inducing ingredient among the day’s groceries.

The food allergy example is probably the most extreme, because it literally can threaten the life of the consumer. It also is the most difficult retail customization to deliver, because it requires full cooperation from every supplier—something that is virtually impossible. Also, the whole idea of customization puts the burden of delivering on the retailer.

Rick Chavie, NCR’s VP of retail marketing and the person who mentioned the food allergy customization possibility, properly argues that the API-enabled capability for a self-checkout to be customized has tons of attractive possibilities—especially with more innocuous attributes, such as the customer’s language preference.

NCR’s pitch is that retailers today have consumers in their stores accessing recipe programs—either in kiosks or on mobile devices—but that data is entirely controlled by their suppliers, not them, Chavie said. By layering packages on top of existing retail CRM systems, he said, retailers could have far more of that data.

That’s fair. But retailers should be cautious about expectation setting. If consumers are asked if they’d like to be contacted when the stock of certain products drops below a pre-set threshold, retailers had better be darned sure that their inventory integration and E-mail/SMS systems are able to deliver and that they will deliver every time.

This could go sour even if all of the capabilities are in the system. What if, two months later, management chooses to halt or change those customer outreaches?

Want to definitely alienate customers? Ask them to list a large number of items they want the store to add—and then choose to not stock any of those products. The reality is that the choice to not stock certain items could easily be the correct choice, but setting up bad expectations by asking such a subjective question could be the wrong choice.

There’s an old lawyers’ adage that attorneys should never ask a question in court that they don’t already know the answer to. Customization can make it really easy to ask a ton of questions. Just make sure you know what the answers will be.


4 Comments | Read The Food Allergy Trap: The Dangers Of Easy Customization

  1. Gregg London Says:

    Evan, as usual you’ve managed to “hit the nail on the head” so to speak re: Food Allergies. The LAST person I want telling me what I should or should not eat is NCR, followed closely by my Grocery Store.

    I would also add that, in addition to the “lack of manufacturer consistency”, there is also a lack of full compliance with FALCPA Standards. Thus, even if you DO read an Item Label, there is no certainty that the Label correctly reflects the Allergens.

  2. Evan Schuman Says:

    NCR would actually not be telling you what to eat or not eat. They merely make the customization available. But, yes, your Grocery Store, if they choose to use it, would be telling you if they saw something that seemed to conflict with your preferences. In this instance, blaming NCR for the retailer’s recommendations would be akin to blaming Microsoft if I wrote something stupid using Microsoft Word. (P.S. I tried blaming them for that once, but it didn’t work. It was worth a shot.)

  3. Richard Nedwich Says:

    Totally agree that retailers could easily fall into the trap of ‘overpromising and under delivering’ BUT as the parent of a child with severe nut allergies, I see it both ways.

    When shopping for groceries, my wife and I read every label no matter what. It’s automatic for us. If the checkout system ‘double-checked’ for us, that would be great. But I would never leave it entirely up to the checkout system or grocery store, though, and I doubt other parents with severe food allergy kids would either.

  4. Evan Schuman Says:

    I agree. By the way, I too am a parent of a child with an allergy. It’s to latex. And that’s something that is almost never mentioned on labels of the wide range of products that include it. Does anyone even know of a good test for the presence of latex?


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