For as long as I can remember I’ve had a Safeway Club Card. Being in marketing, I always thought that was a clever (albeit slightly creepy) way for them to track my purchases with discounted “club” pricing and spit out related coupons at my shopping sojourn’s end. So what if Safeway was privy to how many bottles of Chardonnay and Ben and Jerry’s I have purchased over the years (can this be used against me later?)
That’s why I was surprised and intrigued by the class-action lawsuit this month by two women joining forces with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit health advocacy group, after they were NOT notified by Safeway of a recall involving eggs they purchased. The basis of the lawsuit: “When Safeway learns that recalled products have been sold in its stores, it has a duty to disclose to customers that they face serious health risks or even death if they eat the recalled products.”
None of the plaintiffs became sick from the recalled products, but they are still seeking punitive damages. “The main thrust of this isn’t about damages. It’s about getting Safeway to do the right thing,” said Daniel LeBel, a San Francisco consumer attorney who is involved in the suit.
But this lawsuit makes me wonder: when did marketing practices and corporate responsibility become one in the same? What Safeway didn’t do was unenlightened and perhaps even stupid, but is it lawsuit-worthy? According to current law, there is no legal obligation to notify customers of recalls via loyalty cards, even though Safeway has been criticized before for not turning over Club Card data to the Center for Disease Control in prior cases.
So then what does Safeway do for a recall? They post notification of recalls on their website, send out press releases, and comply with all legal and regulatory requirements. In some cases they have emailed or phoned customers when it’s considered warranted (I’m not sure what could be more warranted than salmonella but apparently there is something). Safeway also argues that Club Card information on its shoppers is often out of date and it is difficult to contact people so communication would be scatter shod. (I personally agree with this – my phone number associated with my club card is 12-years old and they don’t have any other data on me)
Somehow though, other loyalty-card stores, such as Costco, Ralphs, Sam’s Club and Walmart, do contact their members to notify them of recalls. To this, Safeway says other loyalty-card stores gather more data on their customers such as email addresses and credit card numbers, so it is much easier. Take Costo — which actually charges their customers to be members — it makes sense they have a better tracking systems for purchases since every member must flash their Costco card/ID every time they buy there. The argument, however, does not hold up a for a store like Ralph’s-another grocery store chain like Safeway. It’s true communication is spotty and to only shoppers with loyalty cards but as the saying goes “it’s better than nothing”. I imagine though that could lead to another type of lawsuit from someone without a loyalty card that purchased a recalled item but wasn’t informed.
I guess it’s a matter of priority: If there was a direct link to revenue for Safeway notifying shoppers that the meat purchased yesterday might kill them, they would probably do it automatically. I guess it takes a lawsuit for their marketing folks to see the long-term benefit and overall value it would bring to both the company and its customers — It’s not their fault the are not aren’t clever enough to realize that on their own.
Most large corporations either copy or innovate-in this case Safeway did neither of those. The irony is that Safeway is one of the first grocers and stores in general to have a loyalty card and market around it. They could have been a trailblazer by providing important information to their Club Card members and be considered the helpful grocer, but instead they have reinforced their position as a reviled corporate greedhouse.
So, I expect Safeway to respond to this lawsuit by complying with this request in the future. From a PR perspective, it may help them and maybe even align corporate responsibility with good marketing practices. And if they don’t, the smell of rotten eggs will permeate Safeway for a long time.