Goodbye to all that?

To delist, or not to delist, that was the question being asked earlier this week at the Ex-Factor Seminar at Natural & Organic Products Europe.

The seminar, conceived and chaired by Simon Wright, set out to ask what an independent retailer should do when his or her favourite organic or natural food brand is snapped up by a major multinational.

Do you say to yourself — as one retailer put it — ‘I didn’t get into this business to sell Colgate, Kraft or Coke’ (Coca Cola last week upped its stake in Innocent to 58%) and remove the brand from your store? Do you take a measured case-by-case approach, considering the track record of the multinational in question? Or do you simply let your customers make up their own minds.

Given that the entry point for so many people in our industry is a shared desire to make the world a better place, it’s not surprising that people want to do the right thing. Agreeing on what is the right thing is another matter and there is a real risk for small retailers of imposing on themselves more ‘reasons-not-to-buy’ than their businesses can bear.

On the evidence of this week’s discussion very few natural food retailers in practice take a very hard-line, black and white view on this issue. Why? Well, mainly because that perennial barrier to radical action ‘living in the real world’ tends to get in the way.

Get rid of those big-name, multinational-owned brands and, chances are, you’ll be getting rid of some of your biggest-selling lines. Few independent retailers can afford to do that. You may also be chucking out the ‘bridge brands’, the familiar names that make mainstream consumers feel more comfortable in a health food store setting.

That’s said, some retailers gave examples of when they did decide to delist a brand because they didn’t want any association with a particular brand owner (Nestlé and Group 4 each getting a mention). But most retailers seemed to take the view that the best approach was to retain brands that are acquired by multinationals — assuming their organic, Fairtrade or health credentials are maintained— but to make sure that their customers were offered alternatives.

There was also a widely shared view in the room that independent retailers have a real responsibility to nurture the next generation of independent pioneer brands. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s good for business. As John Grayson of Earth Natural put it: “Being different is a business opportunity for us. In order to run good, attractive stores we need to sell different things. If we become sub-sets of supermarkets we’ll have failed.”

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.