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PUBLIC OPINION MATTERS

By Michael Strelcheck

Recently, there has been a not so quiet “revolution” going on within our country. The revolt has been fueled by strengthening consumer opinions that have begun to affect the powers that be in our marketplaces – the modern corporations.

-In the past, consumer’s attempts to alter the direction of the products and services offered by businesses often fell on deaf ears, forcing unhappy customers to accept whatever businesses brought to market or go without. Consumer activism then, although passionately expressed, was scattered, unorganized and lacked the punch of large numbers. But now, due to various pressures, such as growing health concerns and corporations’ increasing focus on profit as opposed to quality of service, consumers have begun to band together to increase their collective voice and actively express their outrage. Others, who are just plain fed up, are no longer supporting businesses that are not listening. And, surprisingly, companies are reacting, making changes in line with public opinion. So what has changed?

Today consumers are armed with a powerful new tool, one that reaches efficiently and strikes directly into the hearts of business concerns – the internet. Consumer groups can now quickly inform and effectively organize public opinion – in large numbers – like never before, and bring substantial force to the marketplace.

Take for example the case of one of America’s most iconic companies, McDonald’s. February sales for the corporation fell 4% continuing a significant loss in sales recently in its troubled U.S. stores, and 1.7% globally. The CEO was replaced on March 1st and the company reported, “Consumer needs and preferences have changed and McDonald’s current performance reflects the urgent need to evolve with today’s consumers, reset strategic priorities and restore business momentum.” This news follows on the heels of a strategic “Turnaround Summit” held in late February where McDonald’s made (what it thought was a grand gesture) the decision to begin curtailing the use of human antibiotics in its chicken over the next two years! Consumers, although applauding this “no-brainer” decision, wondered why it has taken McDonald’s so long to act and followed the announcement with e-mailed messages asking, “How about the beef?”

Another major food franchise, Burger King, feeling the pressure from advocacy groups, has dropped fountain drinks from its kids menu and they are no longer merchandised as part of Burger King Kids Meals. The unannounced move late last month follows similar moves in recent months by McDonald’s and Wendy’s.  Instead of soft drinks the Burger King Kids Menu will offer fat-free milk, apple juice or low-fat chocolate milk. One of the groups pushing Burger King was the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, which says it has lobbied Burger King for almost two years to change the menu.

Another example of healthy change in the food industry is Dunkin’ Donuts phasing out of a controversial whitening agent used in the powdered sugar atop some of its doughnuts. This may seem a small consolation but the change will cost Dunkin’ Donut’s bottom line. Will Dunkin’ raise their prices to cover this new expense? If they do, it will hurt their loyal customer base and risk their sales.

In other areas of consumer activism we find Walmart finally yielding to public pressure by recently announcing pay raises for their employees. Notorious for low wages, Walmart recently has also been experiencing shrinking sales. Microsoft’s new CEO recently proclaimed that he wanted “people to want us” and in following that thinking decided to resurrect some of the popular older “Windows” operating system in their new product after radically changing it in the recent Windows 8 (which hasn’t warmed the hearts of consumers). Consequently, Microsoft is going to name the new system Windows 10 (skipping number 9 altogether) so as to distance themselves from the past and Windows 8. Nice to know that a corporation needs us rather than us needing them!

Perhaps the most recent and heartwarming evidence of the new power of the consumers’ voice is the announcement by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to phase outs its elephant acts by 2018 after evidence of its mistreatment of these noble creatures surfaced. Although this is a positive step, one has to wonder why it’s going to take three years for Ringling Bros. to retire them – and what about the big cats that are also forced to perform? Hopefully consumers will continue the pressure by not buying tickets to the circus performances. For that’s where consumers’ ultimate power lies, in their purchases. As we find with McDonalds, when sales begin to fall the corporate leadership starts making constructive changes.

Gone are the days when the public’s opinion doesn’t matter. As more individuals come online through the use of modern technology, they’ll come to realize that their input increases the speed of constructive change, and power will increasingly come to the people.

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