'We Made Big Mistakes' Grocery Discounter Lidl Seeks to Repair Image
Europe's biggest discount supermarket chain is trying to fix its image after last year's revelations that it spied on staff. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Lidl's purchasing chief Robin Goudsblom concedes his firm made mistakes and says it will treat employees better and do more for the environment.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Goudsblom, Lidl is cheap, Lidl is fast -- now you also want to make it sustainable. How do you intend to do that?
Goudsblom: Cheap doesn't have to mean that something isn't sustainable. You can be inexpensive and offer very good quality.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That alone, though, does not mean sustainable.
Goudsblom: No, but we have recognized in the past years that the issue of "social responsibility" is playing an increasing role. We are a lean company, and that's why we can react quickly to such demands. Because we are such a large company, we can also set the standard by doing so.
"It's natural that in a company with 50,000 employees that you will find some who are dissatisfied."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You don't always do so voluntarily. In 2005, Greenpeace criticized you for the high pesticide count in your fruit and vegetables
Goudsblom: and we immediately responded. We were measured in the same way everyone else is, but we also very quickly became the cutting-edge.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But what voluntary steps is Lidl taking?
Goudsblom: Take our fish selection, for example. Greenpeace also alerted us to the fact that redfish is one of the most severely threatened fish species in the world. Three years ago, we took it out of our product line-up, despite the fact that in terms of sales, it was our second strongest product in this area. In addition, we are the first commercial enterprise that began selling goods with the MSC seal on a wide scale. The MSC seal guarantees that the fishing has been conducted in an environmentally friendly way.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is your company doing in the area of social responsibility?
Goudsblom: That is a broad field. I don't want to hide the fact that the "Black Book" (Editor's note: a list by trade union Verdi documenting Lidl's alleged abuse of employee rights) - also opened our eyes to this. It's natural that in a company with 50,000 employees you will find some who are dissatisfied. But in the meantime, we have also established guidelines for the treatment of workers and suppliers. In addition, we pay our workers for all their overtime, and our wages are above the general pay scale.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If you are really doing so many good things, then way is Lidl's public image still so bad?
Goudsblom: Something like the "Black Book" and the spying scandal is not a problem that can be solved from one day to the next. Whenever there is anything bad to be reported about the retail sector, it always has a greater impact when Lidl is used as an example.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you suggesting that you found the reporting over the spying scandal to be unfair?
Goudsblom: Not at all. The guilt there was clearly ours. We made big mistakes, we have remedied them and that will not happen again. We have learned from that and we are trying to present ourselves in a better way in the future.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there even a demand among customers at discount grocers for sustainable products?
Goudsblom: Yes -- otherwise we would not have, for example, introduced our Fairglobe line of products. (Editor's note: Fairglobe is Lidl's line that adheres to the rules of the international Fairtrade scheme.) We are no longer the classic discounter that we were 20 years ago, when we had a very limited number of products. Our line of products was simply lacking a part -- and our customers asked us to fill it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will that also remain the case when customers have less money in their pockets because of the economic crisis?
Goudsblom: Yes, because people will be more inclined to forego a two-day vacation than give up the tastes they have acquired at home. That's why I'm not concerned: Organic products have produced stable growth in recent years and they have secured a permanent slot in product lines.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That was also one of the reasons that your company wanted to invest in the organic foods supermarket chain Basic in Germany last year. But customers rebelled and the deal collapsed. Where do you want to invest now?
Goudsblom: Nowhere. We now sell organic food in our line of products and we spend a disproportionately large amount of money advertising it. Organic foods have become a part of our range. It's not a niche, but rather part of our main business.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will that be sufficient for Lidl to actually be taken seriously in the future as a company that truly promotes sustainability?
Goudsblom: We are not a perfect company. We also have a lot of room for improvement -- especially when it comes to transparency and the way we treat employees. But that issue is at the top of our daily agenda. We have no problem being viewed critically -- but when that is done, we feel we should also be fairly compared with other competitors.
Interview conducted by Susanne Amann