Really Knowing Where It Comes From

Oct 09, 2009

By Bernice
, Contributing Editor, RetailWire

In a move to
increase its transparency to consumers, Asda, Wal-Mart’s U.K. subsidiary,
has persuaded some of its suppliers and head office staff to perform
their day-to-day activities in front of webcams. The first ones to go
live are in a carrot washing and sorting warehouse, a dairy and their
own headquarters’ reception area.

The webcam
streams are available to the public at

The Daily
that chief executive Andy Bond believes loyalty needs to be earned
in “a democratic world” and this is best done through using transparency
to build trust even if “it involves risk.” He also compared the move
to “the way restaurants have changed. The kitchens used to be closed
but now they are open. Think how much more confident you feel about
the quality and health standards of a restaurant when you can see the

The Guardian reported
Mr. Bond’s determination to have a business run “by the consumer for
the consumer” with no “behind the scenes.” Battery chicken sheds, clothing
factories in Bangladesh or an abattoir are future possibilities, leading
to “a point where customers can trace the journey of every Asda product
from farm to fork or warehouse to wardrobe.” Mr. Bond did, however, give
a nod to potential privacy concerns, admitting that staff objections
and commercially sensitive areas might be grounds for limitation.

A spokesman
from Mintel reckoned that every other supermarket will follow suit with
their own webcams while Philip Gould, renowned for polling the people,
said “65% of people trust their local grocer more than any political
party.” Neither paper included comments from employees or customers in
their stories.

The webcams are part of an
overall program to have consumers more engaged and influencing decision
making at Asda. Opinions from thousands of shoppers online and offline
will be gauged before new products hit the shelves. Cash incentives are
also being offered to shoppers who come up with money-saving ideas.

In another
related project, Asda will open a supermarket next year in Gorseinon,
West Glamorgan which will have glass walls, giving shoppers a view into
the stockroom and staff rest areas.

Discussion Questions: Are
webcams in factories and offices a way to build consumers’ confidence
in a retailer and its products? Do you see a need for “greater
transparency” across retail? Do you expect similar projects in the

commentary] Although refreshed every few seconds, the minute or so
that I spent watching Asda’s webcams before dozing off showed precious
little live action. I can hear all of the arguments for and against
this scheme, from loyalists and cynics alike, but having seen it, am
left wondering whether it will be adding any kind of value to anyone
at all.

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10 Comments on "Really Knowing Where It Comes From"

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Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
11 years 7 months ago

Every time I turn on my TV I see Congress in action–or at least the action they want me to see–and I get bored, frustrated and disappointed. In today’s busy puzzlements, one wonders who has the time or interest in webcaming the Bowels of Asda.

Len Lewis
Len Lewis
11 years 7 months ago

Open kitchens in restaurants are as much a design choice as anything else. It doesn’t garner loyalty among customers. It’s an extension of the open floor plan which is very popular in everything from residences to offices. I really don’t think it’s going to do anything to win over Asda consumers except as a temporary novelty.

Transparency means providing the best food and service that you possibly can. It doesn’t mean putting yourself on trial every second of the day. As for factories, one innocent little slip up might be used as evidence of widespread wrongdoing on the part of the company. I don’t know how it is in the UK but I certainly wouldn’t want U.S. lawyers having access to all this, especially if the video is archived.

And I have to tell you that even if you have the best, cleanest, most efficient meat plant or vegetable sorting facility in the world–someone will find something wrong.

Paula Rosenblum
11 years 7 months ago

Well, I just think this is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard. If you’re going to have complete transparency, I suppose you’ll have to show the slaughter of the “meat”…and that’s probably a real de-motivator for shoppers.

I think it also makes for unnatural behavior (as in scripted, rather than bizarre) behavior on the part of personnel.

What I’d rather see is 1) the name/company of the person who audited a batch of product and 2) its country of origin. Our problems are with quality now…so rather than become experts in process, let’s just create accountability of who made it and who checked it for quality control.

Joel Warady
Joel Warady
11 years 7 months ago

If I were a supplier, and I was asked to have a live streaming webcam of my company, and the work that we do on behalf of that supplier, I would first think it is ridiculous. Most consumers do not look for that type of transparency. There is a limit as to what consumers really want to know.

But if the retailer demanded that this was required, I would ask if they plan on having their buyers do the same thing. With my 30 years of experience with retail buyers, I would love to have a live streaming webcam of them at their desks, and see (and hear) what they are up to when they find it difficult to return a call or respond to an email.

Transparency has to work in both directions.

Cathy Hotka
11 years 7 months ago

Well, that’s pretty creep-tastic. Imagine being in the meeting where this project was announced.

I can’t imagine that anyone’s going to want to watch this, except for the Walmart haters who will seize upon every inopportune scratch or burp. This is easily the weirdest story of the month….

James Tenser
11 years 7 months ago

There may be a particle of symbolic value here, but I’m having trouble seeing even that. These Web cams are dull dull dull. They reveal nothing about the operation that is meaningful to me as a shopper.

As a philosophy, I can get behind “transparency,” but give me information I can use. Don’t snow me with empty gigabytes.

Now if Asda wants to make a statement, how about a search-able database of its product assortment, with each item’s origins fully described? Its field-to-table carbon footprint? The producer’s workplace and environmental reputation?

Pictures of the headquarters lobby seem silly and creepy at the same time.

Ryan Mathews
11 years 7 months ago

I’m with Jamie and Paula here. Too much information is worse than not enough information.

And, yes, if we are going to have transparency, let’s show the slaughterhouse, the poultry packaging center, etc. [Memo to management: Roll out that vegan supermarket format ahead of schedule if possible!]

I also wonder about worker privacy issues here. Wouldn’t it be a bit creepy to have your whole workday broadcast to whoever wanted to watch it?

Chuck Palmer
11 years 7 months ago

I think I like the spirit of this, but I’m doubtful the consumers they want to engage will be motivated to participate in this way. Carrot washing?

When they turn on the cams at the meat processing facility, their produce business should go through the roof.

Carol Spieckerman
11 years 7 months ago

Perhaps this is being taken too literally and Asda doesn’t really expect folks to be glued to the webcam (though the earlier point about Walmart haters grabbing on is a real threat). Walmart’s Sustainability Index promises to deliver all that James T. described and more in terms of product transparency, so perhaps this move by Asda is an interim step intended to demonstrate how serious all Walmart entities are about it (Walmart has clearly linked sustainability and transparency).

I’ve heard Mr. Bond speak on several occasions and he is nothing if not passionate about all of this. Walmart appears to be giving him a lot of room to make his mark and to try new things. Regardless of the outcome, Walmart will do as it always does: learn from the lab then parlay.

As for the vegan store rollouts that Ryan mentioned: one can dream!

Doug Stephens
Doug Stephens
11 years 7 months ago

The ultimate question is around relevance. Does this really matter to anyone? From what I’m hearing from the BrainTrust panel, the answer is clearly “no.” I’d like to know if this is being done to address an articulated consumer want or need or if this is simply a gratuitous waste of time.

If anyone wondered if dealing with and working for Walmart/Asda could get any worse, it appears the answer is yes–and now we get to catch it on video!


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