Modern life is increasingly hectic. Between work or studies, family responsibilities and everything in between, consumers can feel increasingly time-strapped. The majority do not spend any more time than they have to at the supermarket.
At the same time, consumers are increasingly eager to know more about the products they purchase. That’s why from full ingredient listings for cosmetics to nutritional information and composition of foodstuffs, busy shoppers should be able to glean useful information in the blink of an eye, so they can make choices armed with facts.
Conversely, companies are increasingly pushing for crucial information to be shifted from the label to online platforms instead. That is precisely what the alcohol industry operating in Europe recently proposed to the EU Commission. Let me be clear: this is totally unacceptable from the consumer perspective. There are many reasons why such valuable information belongs on labels, not on screens.
We make thousands of decisions each day. No surprise that busy shoppers make purchasing decisions in a matter of seconds (research varies from a third of a second to thirteen seconds). Forcing consumers to scan either QR or bar codes or search for web links whilst in the supermarket clashes with their lightning-quick decisions.
Although smartphone ownership has grown over the past decade, it is by no means universal. In most EU countries more than 3 out of 10 consumers do not own a smartphone. And anyway, regardless of the IT considerations, let’s be honest, checking your smartphone is utterly impractical when you have your hands full trying to keep both your trolley and your kids under control.
It should not be a full-time job to be a consumer.
Let’s make their lives easier and stick the message on the bottle.
Multiple other – often basic – factors must be considered when checking labels online: the ease with which a consumer can use their phone (digital literacy levels can vary considerably), the memory and battery capacity of the phone and not to mention the access to Wi-Fi or phone network indoor. None of these considerations matter when the information is provided on the label.
A clear benefit for displaying key information upfront is that consumers can compare products side-by-side at a glance. On a smartphone, once you have accessed the page you wanted, you would then have to memorise the ingredients or nutritional information such as calories (in the case of alcohol labelling) or write it down, to be able to compare. Who would find the time to do that?
E-labelling only for the ‘extras’
The whole point is about distinguishing primary from secondary information. E-labelling can serve a purpose in providing extra information to consumers which they do not necessarily need to access in the supermarket. Recipe suggestions or brand history for example could be provided online for shoppers to read when they have more time at home and if they are interested. This would free up some space on the label for nutrition and ingredients information, which is essential for allowing consumers to make potentially healthier choices.
Alcohol’s labelling privileges
In Europe, legislation from 2011 made it obligatory for food and drink products to provide nutrition and ingredients information. However, for no valid reason, the alcohol sector was given an exemption. As a result, such helpful information will only appear on a bottle of wine, beer or whisky if the manufacturer decides to do so. There is no justification why alcohol should be exempted from the same labelling rules as soft drinks.
Last year, we were glad that the European Commission saw ‘no objective grounds’ to justify this exemption for the alcohol sector. They gave the industry one year to propose solutions to address this loophole. Unfortunately, in its proposal published last month the alcohol industry is still trying to dodge mandatory rules: it allows beer, wine and spirits manufacturers to choose between on-label and online information.
Let’s be honest, checking your smartphone is utterly impractical when you have your hands full trying to keep both your trolley and your kids under control.
The European Commission must reject the plans from the alcohol industry and come forward with a proposal which makes sure consumers can get the facts when and where they need them: in the supermarket and on the label.
Opening a can of worms?
If industry plans are accepted, the question is where do we draw the line? If information which consumers care about is shifted from alcohol labels to online, will other foodstuffs or shampoo bottles and nail polish meet the same fate? For instance, if allergen information on perfumes is moved online consumers could end up buying products that cause skin rashes.
Moving labels online will only hamper consumers’ legitimate easy access to information they care about, whether it is about wine or face creams. Essential information should be provided in the easiest way for consumers to see it and understand it. It should not be a full-time job to be a consumer. Let’s make their lives easier and stick the message on the bottle.
 Label Insight Food Revolution Study, 2016.
 Europe’s Digital Progress Report 2017, European Commission.