The Customer Is NOT Always Right
Update – Woolies DM’d me on Twitter with the following response to this post:
interesting read, the decision wasn’t purely made because of our SM channels. And it wasn’t leaked to News24. thanks
Yesterday Twitter and Facebook were pumping with debate around a News24 story which reported that Woolworths “(had) taken a business decision to no longer stock any religious magazines, with immediate effect”. Christian shoppers were up in arms, threatening a boycott until the decision was reversed, and the furore soon descended into a rather scathing (as is often the case with religion) argument on Woolies’ various social media platforms (see their Facebook fan page as an example).
Woolworths, who have historically been lauded for their conduct and responses on social media platforms (including by myself), were distinctly absent from the conversation, and to be frank I don’t blame them. It got ugly, fast.
At 16h00, Woolworths announced the following on Facebook:
We have been overwhelmed by the response. Thanks to everyone who has supported us – we really appreciate it. It was not our intention to offend any religious group. Woolies has a deep regard for all faiths and will continue to respect all our customers’ beliefs. We’ve always prided ourselves on listening to our customers and we really do want our social media pages to be a 2-way conversation. As a retailer, we continually review all our products including magazines and stock products that our customers want and buy. You posted – we listened and have now decided to put all magazines back on our shelves. We will continue to take a retailer’s view on our catalogue going forward to ensure we stock the magazines that most of our customers want.
I don’t agree with this move. That said, I’m not sure Woolworths had too many options left after the explosion of negative PR around the issue online. There were clearly a series of mistakes made that hopefully you and I and other brands like Woolworths can learn from:
- Why was the decision made in the first place, and how was it communicated?
- A lack of engagement
- Woolies’ skewed perception of the role of their social media audience
To be leaked to News24 (who must have fallen over themselves in excitement at finding out about the rather controversial move), someone internally had to have communicated this as a decision to”remove religious titles from shelves”, or something similar. I’m a Christian, I love God, and yet I still see the sense in a retailer removing titles from stores if those titles aren’t making enough money, or turning fast enough. That’s just good business sense. But somehow this was communicated internally in such a way as it sounded religiously motivated, not commercially motivated. This was a disaster long before News24 broke the story, simply because of how it was communicated.
Woolies, historically very vocal in their social media channels, were suddenly conspicuously quiet – like a kid caught with their hand in the cookie jar. That silence irked consumers who have traditionally been spoiled with the openness and transparency Woolies usually leverages when the going is good, and let’s be frank, for Woolies the going is often good. Everyone loves Woolies. That’s another point – this wasn’t so much a backlash against Woolies as that age-old religious debate rearing it’s head. Another example – all those boycott-happy people who loathed BP so much for the gulf oil spill, I guarantee you, are back at BP stations filling up already. Two weeks from now nobody will remember these shenanigans and if they do, they won’t care.
Woolworths have done an amazing job of building up a strong brand presence and community on Facebook and Twitter. Having achieved this their next strategic focus must be on how to include these smitten fans in such a way as to entrench a perception of transparency among them. No brand can afford to be completely transparent. They can be authentic, don’t get the two confused, but transparency is risky. So if Woolworths were thinking of removing certain titles from their shelves, and they sniffed even a whisker of controversy at that decision (which I have to believe they did), my suggestion would have been the following…
Communicate via social media, and in store, the instatement of a ‘customer referendum’ – a bit of a political play that echoes the likes of Nandos and Kulula. Announce that the business needs to make a decision about keeping certain titles on the shelf, and removing others. Ask customers in store to vote for their 3 favourite titles (and stand a chance to win subscriptions to all 3), and ask social media fans to vote on polls on the Facebook fan page to show which titles they love best. Ascertain via this process which titles people really have an affinity for and then gently, quietly, remove those that people don’t over a period of time.
The brand could then use the same ‘referendum’ mechanism to ask fans to vote for products they’d like to see, or products the brand used to stock which have been removed from shelves in the past, etc.
The major issue I see here is that Woolies have a skewed perception of the role and influence of their social media audience. The audience is a minority. A small, loud bunch of fans who should not drive business decisions. Changing a business decision because 34,000 fans are arguing about it is like refusing to drive to work because you have a blister on your foot. Sure it’ll sting, but at least you’ll be earning money.
The social media audience should have been included in the decision making process, thereby enforcing their advocacy and fanaticism for the brand. You could still remove religious titles rather surreptitiously, but I guarantee much less noise would have been made because all customers and fans would have felt like they were part of the process. Remember – the customer is king, but they sure as hell are not always right.
You might argue that it’s over and Woolies have won over their audience again by this retraction, but I argue that they’ve set a very dangerous precedent they will have to honour in future by being swayed by a blister on their foot. It’s going to be interesting to see how that pans out for them.