It’s been a year since I set eyes on it but I’m still haunted by the memory. I was lunching with my parents on their shady patio last spring, and there it sat: a private label jar of pickles. Having been a marketer of branded products for almost twenty years, private label products naturally bug me. As I see it, they are bandits that steal
ideas and drive all of the profit margin out of product categories. In the end, it’s the consumer who loses because this profit shortage makes developing new and improved products more difficult to afford. But this time it wasn’t just the private label aspect that got under my skin; it was a particular collection of words written on the label. In bold
letters it read: PRODUCT OF INDIA.
Are you kidding me??? Do we really need to bring pickles all the way from India? Don’t we have perfectly suitable cucumbers growing right here in Ontario? In fact, my parents chuckled when I pointed it out. There happens to be a Strub’s pickle factory less than three kilometres down the road from them in Brantford, Ontario. And yet here we were, eating pickles shipped all the way from the other side of the planet. I shuddered at the
thought of the carbon footprint associated with bringing such a heavy product from overseas.
“They were only $1.99,” my Mother said. “And I think they taste pretty good.”
When I quit my job, our household finances dramatically changed and as a result I have become a penny pincher, considering things I might never have considered before. Like for example, the growing stockpile in our basement of canned goods, shelf stable foods and cleaning products purchased at hot prices in discount grocery outlets. But even I, draw the line at pickles from India.
I vowed right there and then to read labels more closely when grocery shopping but I began to wonder what far traveled products I may have already unknowingly brought into our home. So I set to work inspecting my inventories. In spite of my newfound frugality, I still have a hard time buying private label products so there weren’t many in my cupboard. However, I did find a private label can of chicken broth (made in Canada
… whew!), and a private label can of peaches (product of China… gasp!) I also found tins of tuna from a couple of different branded manufacturers, all stating Product of Thailand. OK, maybe that’s were tuna comes from… lord knows I’m no fisheries expert.
Sadly, most of the branded products carried mysterious source information. Often the label simply stated: “Prepared for:” and then a Canadian address. What does that mean exactly???
Thankfully, there was good old E.D. Smith jam, proudly proclaiming “Canadian Made since 1882” along with Allen’s vinegar and Allen’s apple juice, both made in Canada.
My next target was fresh produce, and I decided that I would no longer buy anything off the continent. We’ve had to wait for the clementine oranges to come in from Mexico, and have had to find a replacement for our favourite Fuji apples. But I can’t seem to find snow peas from anywhere but China! Don’t we have snow? Can’t we grow peas? Putting two and two together I just can’t explain it, but the Williams household has somehow been able to go on living without snow peas in our stir fry.
Yet still, I’m haunted by those pickles. So the other day I called the grocery chain to
ask why their private label pickles have to travel so far. I was on hold for eleven minutes, during which it struck me just how much time Michael Moore and his team must spend waiting and on hold, to get the snippets of golden footage so expertly woven together in his documentaries.
“Good morning, thank you for calling Company X, how can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m calling to inquire about a jar of private label pickles that I saw at my Mother’s house. We noticed on the label that it was a product of India and we were wondering why it’s necessary to bring pickles from India when we have perfectly good cucumbers growing right here in Ontario. I’m really bothered by the carbon footprint of a heavy jar of pickles being transported so far.”
“Do you have the UPC code from the product?”
“No, I’m sorry I don’t.”
“Where was the product purchased?”
“In Brantford, Ontario.”
“Can you spell that?”
OK, I get it. She has a form she needs to fill out to capture my ‘complaint.’ But I really wasn’t calling to register a complaint, I was seeking understanding and it quickly became clear that this company was not interested in enlightening me.
“Unfortunately I have no information about why our vendors choose the manufacturing sites that they do.”
“No, I can’t release the names of our vendors.”
“I will forward your question to someone who may be better equipped to answer it, but I can’t guarantee that you will get a call back.”
Well, I can guarantee that I won’t get a call back. She didn’t take my number.
The lesson here for the Mom in me, is to read labels closely. Just like my kids know to pick the foil wrapped chocolate gold coins out of their Halloween bags and throw
them in the garbage, I need to do my part to become more educated and be selective about the products I bring into our house.
The lesson for the marketer in me, is to be explicit about sourcing information on product labels. There’s no shame in stating that your product is manufactured in the
U.S. given that someone like me might otherwise wonder if it came all the way from Timbuktu.
I used to think that Moms were too busy to pay attention to this kind of thing but direct experience on this new side of the fence has led me to new insight. Trust me when I tell you, even busy Moms make time for stuff that matters to them.
For more information about Strub’s pickles, including interesting facts like how many ‘warts’ per square inch are preferred by North American pickle consumers, check out their delightful website: http://www.strubpickles.com/