How to Become a Retail Superstar: Honor Radical Transparency

Is radical transparency the latest retail buzzword?

Consumers are demanding more information when deciding which products to buy or consume. Rightly so, thanks to E.Coli outbreaks on produce like broccoli and investigations that reveal some of the items they buy might be produced under sweatshop conditions, among other human rights violations.

How do retailers reconcile the need to provide much-needed transparency with developing their own brand?

Simple. It’s not a zero sum game because genuine value is always rewarded. Give the customer what they want – not what you want. They want transparency. They want to know what they’re buying.

Radical Transparency in Retail

According to ad guru Alex Bogusky, radical transparency is good for corporations. At the Turning the Tide conference where he spoke in 2010, he said that as consumers, we are just beginning now to get the understanding, tools, and data we really need to make a buying decision a vote. He continued by sharing examples of new technologies that can provide easy data accessibility to consumers.

It’s radical since transparency is not something retailers are known for, preferring to keep their sourcing closer to the vest for competitive advantages. Except that’s not how it’s panning out as more consumers are demanding transparency and if they don’t see it from their retailers, they’ll either do their own research using ever readily-available technology or they’ll choose to reward other, more transparent, retailers instead.

What exactly is radical transparency? The idea behind radical transparency is to radically increase the openness of organizational processes and data.

The NPD Group reports that freshness and transparency is all over the media. One of its examples is food activist and author Michael Pollan’s popular Netflix documentary series, Cooked, which he explores a human need to forge a deeper, more meaningful connection to the food we eat. According to The NPD Group, growing consumer adoption of the meal kit trend is proof of the consumer demand for transparency and authenticity of food. Part of the appeal is people feel closer to their food, fully understanding what they’re eating and learning cooking skills and recipes along the way.

The same logic applied whether you’re in the business of selling gifts or food. Consumers want to know, demand to know, the sources.

What Are You Hiding?

Some retailers feel it’s important to build their own brand so they snip off any tags that give away a manufacturer’s or wholesaler’s identity.

As a marketing professional with over two decades of experience, I understand this need. But it’s short-sighted in today’s world where the supply chain is now out in the open and consumer demand favors knowing the details. Your brand has to be trust-worthy. You need to show your cards in order to build trust.

In fact, when you remove tags, you’re telling your customers that you have something to hide rather than you’re trying to build your brand.

Bogusky notes technology is making it easier than ever to get data.

He’s not the only one.

“Every single time we buy a product, we are funding the actions of the company that made that product,” says Scott Kennedy, OpenLabel CEO. Kennedy, with his team at OpenLabel, developed a software program which allows consumers to use their smartphones to pull up a product’s UPC or barcode and see data that other customers, trusted non-profits, government agencies have shared about that particular product. He likens it to Yelp for a product.

By removing the tags, you’re removing the power a consumer has to make an educated decision. And that customer will walk away.

Other types of technology are being developed to give that power back to consumers. At a larger scale we have SourceMap, created by MIT Media Lab researchers who wanted to create a “social network for supply chains” that maps out where the ingredients for any given product come from. Two years ago, Fast Company followed Stonyfield through the SourceMap process to create a customer-friendly supply map of its ingredients. This is what customers want, not brands without a backbone.

GoodGuide is a popular source for items that fall under wellness, food and household categories.

Lack of Transparency: Antithesis of Fair Trade?

If you’re in the business of fair trade and opting to remove your labels to focus more on your brand, isn’t that the antithesis of fair trade?

Again, one might argue that building your brand is important so removing wholesaler tags reinforces your own brand since that’s the only one a customer (or someone receiving a gift) will see but that’s not the what customer data is showing. Instead, it’s showing that you’re going to lose customers who feel you’re making a decision for them by not letting them know what they’re buying.

Additionally, plenty of retailers are using wholesale brands successfully. Ethica is an online retailer that not only puts its product brands front and center, but it does a beautiful job sharing the details about each artisan group that makes its products in the product’s description. Ethica’s About page makes it clear that it’s trying to connect customers to the stories behind the products:

Our goal is to connect consumers and companies that share a commitment to social and environmental responsibility. Through this website, we hope to contextualize shopping within a larger global narrative, highlighting the very real impacts of our collective consumption choices.”

More customers than ever realize they can have real impact through their purchasing power. As a retailer, you can either help them make better choices or lead them to make those choices elsewhere. The choice is yours. Will it be radical transparency or smoke and mirrors? 

Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based freelance writer and marketing consultant. Learn more about her and her work at

7 thoughts on “How to Become a Retail Superstar: Honor Radical Transparency

  • It is worth saying that Megy writes from her own views and is independent to Global Crafts. However I could not agree more with this piece. From my perspective I have always wondered why FTF requires supply chain transparency from wholesalers but not retailers. In reality the transparency is for the consumers benefit yet it is often lost before the consumer engages with a product. I would advocate for the FTF to require the same transparency in the retailer standards as in the wholesale standards.
    Further as a movement I believe just as we are transparent with our producer partners, which helps them secure other wholesale partners, transparency in the retail store is important to help wholesalers grow fair trade with new retail stores. I fully understand when tags look ugly or overwhelming and I am not advocating that every tag must be intact, but I do believe we should all be proud and transparent of the entire supply chain.

    • I agree that transparency is good and necessary. HOWEVER, I have a tiny little store in a fiercely competitive rural area. My only Unique Selling Proposition is the fact that my store stocks stuff from exotic faraway places. I have never refused to disclose information, however I have already had to discontinue items like African soaps since I have seen the local Rite Aid stock the very same product!! The other problem is the tags attached to things. Sometimes they’re just TOO MUCH. on earrings, for instance. I remove them and replace them with my own label and then keep one or two to display near the earrings. Thanks for listening and thanks for your input.

      • Hi Jan,
        Totally understand if tags are ugly or just overwhelming. Fully get that. On the competitive side, I think I would make the case that Rite Aid probably source via trade shows etc but more importantly I doubt your customer is going to compare your store or products with what is in Rite Aid. Shopping in a small local retail store is all about experiences, I am sure your store stands out on the experience the customer has.

  • Most often I leave the retailers tags and information on the pieces coming into the shop. I believe in sharing whatever I possibly can. However, I do think that wholesalers would greatly benefit their retailers – especially those of us that are committed Fair Trade stores – to make sure that their reps actually KNOW where our stores are so that they are not approaching other stores, museums, coops, etc. that are across the street or a block away. We are limited in our access to product – YOUR products – by choice and it is very disheartening to hear from our customers that they just saw these pieces around the corner. We are doing our job in sharing your stories, explaining your pieces and encouraging people towards awareness. I have been told by some wholesalers that we are a ‘special’ niche – separate from their other clients – that aren’t shared with their reps, etc. I know that a lot of us begin to prepare for the holidays very early in the year – so when we commit out $’s to your products and plan our offerings it is crushing to find that someone a block away was approached, brought in your product, have come into my store to find pricing and undercut us. And we don’t realize it until our money is spent for our product. In a former location this happened with a health food store – they WAY undercut retail …. until I relocated and then their prices went higher than I would ever have thought to charge. It is not that we don’t want to support every wholesaler but we need to feel that we are being supported, as well. Many of us have been supporting your groups since your beginnings. We don’t have the options to just bring in whatever looks cute or is popular at the moment … because that is not our mission. We are also facing ‘fair washing’ and it is not uncommon to have other mainstream retailers walk in – take pictures of your tags – and then go looking for you at the shows. Yes, it IS the reality. I was in a shop locally that likes to advertise as Fair Trade …. they carried some of the Kisii animals that I stopped to look at. I carry them in my shop. The lady working there saw me and commented – ‘aren’t those cute, I think they said they are rocks.’ So I asked her what kind …. and she just stood there bewildered. I knew which group they came from because I support that group – so, tell me, how is that helping you as a wholesaler that wants your brand recognized? There were NO info cards or explanation of any kind. And this is a Fair Trade shop? Right next to them was a large, bright display of painted wood pieces that looked like they would have been from Bali – but were made in China. You won’t find that in our stores. I guess what I am saying is that when you have your pieces in museums, etc. – those are OUR customers, as well, and those institutions aren’t normally going to tell you that we are here. Especially in smaller cities. We understand your needs – do you understand ours in needing you to support us?

    • Hi Becke,
      Thanks for the comments. I know you know, but we do truly appreciate the work Fair Trade retailers do. we don’t always get it right but we do try.

      • Becky – I know your comment is far more general and not necessarily about Global Crafts but I did a little research and I don’t see any other customers in your town from us. We of course don’t have reps or do trade shows. The reason wholesalers who do have reps don’t share your info is that the rep would expect to take over the account and expect commission on your orders. Not sure what the solution that one is.

  • I fully agree with Megy that transparency is what we are and should be all about I also agree with Kevin that the standards expected of wholesalers should apply equally to retailers. But, I do think there is some nuance to the whole tag issue- I often recommend to clients and when I teach workshops the importance of branding. It can be very confusing when customers walk into a shop and sees 40 different types, sizes, colors, etc of tags all with different names and varying degrees of useful information. My motto has always been, “if it is not too unsightly, cumbersome and tells a great story about the product itself or the artisan who made it, then keep it and add your tag to it. If it is telling the story of the wholesaler, then cut it off and just use your own.” Now, your own tags should not just be your name and logo, but should provide some good honest info about Fair Trade. You should also make your best effort to have available information about the coop, artisan, etc if a customer requests that info (also great training materials for your staff so they can tell product stories). It would be impossible to have all info on every tag and honestly, customers don’t care too much about who is importing it into the country but want to know who made it. That info should always be public and available.

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