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The gulf between food and non-food quality management

Why are Quality Management Systems in non-food consumer products too often about the bare bones of compliance rather than delighting the customer – the heart of our business?

Comprehensive Quality Management Systems are standard practice for FMCG food retailers. Visibility of suppliers/manufacturing sites; audit programs, product history from technical brief to finished product specifications, surveillance test programs; understanding of customer complaints and returns: so called ‘big data gathering’ combine to provide valuable insight on performance as well as ‘Due diligence defence’ should the worst happen.

However, focus on quality in the world outside of food has not matched pace. While the BRC Audit standard for food production marches ahead on version 8, its counterpart for non-food products is still only at Version 4.

At suppliers and manufacturing sites, too often, the answer to the question ‘Do you use the principles of HACCP or FMEA?’ is answered: “No, this isn’t food production. It’s just a power tool, paint, furniture, toys…”

Surely an approach to safety and quality good enough to get a man on the moon (which the recent anniversary of the moon landings re-iterates this has been proven for 50 years), is good enough to ensure that the products with which we hope to delight and excite our customers are safe and fit for purpose. Its principles are easily transferable into a non-food environment. But too often I do not see this happening.

The benefits for revenue and profit protection, as well as managing reputational risk, should not be ignored. Yet as I ventured outside the world of major UK FMCG food retailers, I found ignorance of its principles or merits by boards and senior management.

Good quality management is essential for good business but for much of the non-food retailing community, this is just not a reality.

The UK Corporate Governance Code by which retailers and others must abide by states:

A successful company is led by an effective and entrepreneurial board, whose role is to promote long-term sustainable success… generating value for customers …. contributing to wider society.

The board should ensure that the necessary resources are in place for the company to meet its objectives and measure performance… prudent and effective controls which enable risk to be assessed and managed.

In other words: Put the customer experience at the heart of everything you do.

Comprehensive quality management, risk management and due diligence should be central to all companies.

A dissatisfied customer or worse, one that has been injured is not fulfilling the spirit of the code.

Ultimately it will not sustain a profitable business with a brand enhancing reputation.

However, the spotlight of regulation is beginning to focus more clearly on the production and distribution of non-food products, as are customers, NGOs and other major opinion formers.

The introduction of a raft of safety, sustainability and CSR legislation in recent years, (REACh, Biocides Directive, Poisons & Explosive Precursors, the Abolition of Modern Slavery Act) to name a few of the far-reaching pieces of regulation which are beginning to bite.

A customer base with access to social media such as blogger   reviews and the rise of e-commerce with it real time ‘ratings & reviews’ bring the perception of quality – value for money - under the spotlight like never before.

The need for comprehensive quality systems must be recognised.

Admittedly, this has come at a time of squeezed resources when in-house, permanent quality management teams are disappearing.

A lack of resource must not result in an abdication of responsibility but an opportunity to embrace the third-party systems routinely used by food retailing counterparts.

Understanding exactly what your products are composed of and how they are designed and manufactured, must become the new BAU.

Understanding why products are returned and having the information to tackle the manufacturer and make corrective actions is standard information in the food arena but is still out of the grasp of many non-food retailers.

Although not without the need for significant resource, the alternative could prove much more expensive in the long term.

Dealing with returns and refunds is time-consuming and profit eroding, not to mention reputational risk.

In retail markets with sluggish growth and increasing pressures on capping costs to maintain profit margins, effective quality management makes economic sense.

Exceed Expectation: Reap the rewards!

Clare Norman

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