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Crystal Clear

By Bruce Horovitz

Transparency is the new cultural cool.

It’s not too cool for convenience stores, that’s for sure. Perhaps no one deserves—and demands— more transparency than the convenience store shopper.

Think about it. Customers are in and out in a flash. They may have the inclination, but they certainly don’t have the time to read every product label. Convenience store shoppers simply want to know that whatever they’re buying is what they think it is. Nothing less.

Transparency in a digital age doesn’t have to be fancy. But it has to be real. Transparency matters— just ask politicians like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. And it sure mattered when several major cheese makers recently got a very public media lashing for quietly stuffing wood pulp filler into their product.

“Bottom line: People want to know how they’re spending their money,” says Erika Napoletano, a brand strategist and author of The Power of Unpopular. “They don’t want surprises at the register— digital or physical—or after purchase.”

Transparency means trust. Nearly five in 10 millennials say they return to brands they trust, according to a Concentric Marketing survey. Then, if they trust the product they bought and like it—more than eight in 10 say they’ll tell their friends about it, typically via social media.

So who can actually teach convenience store owners, workers and suppliers a thing or two about transparency? Well, how about one of the world’s most successful fast-casual food companies, Panera Bread? And odd as it sounds, how about one of the priciest and most exclusive sellers of anti-aging beauty products, Tata Harper?

Both brands walk the transparent walk, something every convenience store owner and employee will ultimately have to learn how to do in order to appeal to the new demands of millennials and Gen Z.

Let’s start with Panera.

Roughly one year ago, Panera did something few national chains had ever done: It published a list of all the funky ingredients it had removed—or planned to remove—from its food. Panera dubbed this the “No-No List.” Specifically, it’s a comprehensive list of 150 ingredients, from BHT to maltodextrin to sulfur dioxide, that Panera either already had or was removing from its foods by the end of 2016.

“We are saying: This is who we are, and this is what we believe in,” says Sara Burnett, director of wellness and food policy at Panera.

But it was years in the making. Way back in 2005, Panera put together an executive nutritional working group that included founder Ron Shaich. Over the years, the group has worked on everything from menu labeling to food policy.

Central to Panera’s success, however, is that it was making the moves to a more transparent menu long before data even showed that consumers wanted it. Back in 2004, Panera first introduced chicken raised without the use of antibiotics. At the time, the antibiotic-free chicken cost the chain about twice as much per pound. Now, all of its chicken is antibiotic-free and much of the fast-casual industry is only starting to catch up.

But Panera is open about what it hasn’t yet achieved, too. It still preserves some of its deli turkey with nitrites—though it plans to eliminate them by the end of this year.

Of the 150 menu items it vowed to reformulate one year ago, it still has 30 left to fix, says Burnett. “By the end of this year, we’ll be done,” she says.

Beyond Panera, there are powerful industry lessons to be learned about transparency—not the least of which is from Tata Harper, the skin care specialist whose high-end products might seem to be the very antithesis of convenience store merchandise. Its special skin cleansers, sold at places like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, start at $48, and its super natural skin serums can fetch $365 a bottle.

It’s all about knowing the customer. Tata Harper knew that many consumers would pay a premium for make-up if they knew everything in it was 100% natural. “The things you use on your body every day—twice a day—are the things with which you want to be most careful,” says Tata Harper, who co-founded the company along with her husband, Henry.

“Customers don’t like feeling like they’re being tricked,” says Henry Harper. “Authentic and transparent brands are the future.” How does he know? Well, how about the fact that his company’s average skin care order reaches upwards of $200.

But transparency can be simple, says Napoletano, the brand strategist. Perhaps a retailer’s best reflection of its transparency is how it treats customers every day, she says. “Think about the best customer service experience you’ve ever had. Try to deliver that with every transaction.”

Nothing is more transparent than kindness.

Bruce Horovitz is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist. He can be reached at brucehorovitz@gmail.com. Bruce’s monthly “Endcap” column calls out trends and ideas that should be on your radar as you look to the future.