Quality beyond the point of purchase is the heart of any quality assurance system. How does one know if products perform as expected at purchase and at consumption? Measurements obtained at the “performance moment” of a food product are based on consumers providing sensory responses. At this critical step, feedback is necessary to ensure quality requirements are met and customer expectations exceeded. What is the difference between controlling and assuring quality? Quality control happens during manufacturing. Quality assurance happens before, during, and after product manufacturing.

Do you know what happens to your products after they leave the plant? Do your products meet standards at purchase? Does your product perform as expected at consumption? What does the competition look like? What will regulating authorities find? The solution is retail quality audits.

RETAIL QUALITY AUDITS. Retail quality audits will provide valuable information. They are typically conducted on products retrieved at the point of purchase, but they also may be done at locations throughout distribution, through a three-step process:

    Develop a plan for a thorough product examination. Elements to consider are product display; presentation, rotation (FIFO), age, availability, and package condition; damage, seal integrity, legibility of code dates, weight, and product analysis; label claims, physical characteristics (e.g., crumbs), microbial analysis, nutritional analysis, taste testing, palatability, and shelf life; and many other performance indicators. A retail quality audit can gather as much information as desired.
  1. Consider statistical and competitive sampling. The audit should be statistically reliable with competitive benchmarking, scientific testing, and objective reporting. Which competitors’ products should be part of the study? What part of the world is to be sampled? Determine the extent of your product retrieval (e.g., global, national, regional, etc.). Select a market-share leader’s product for benchmarking. A retail quality audit can be as extensive as you want it to be and is determined by the amount of information you want to collect.
  2. Establish testing criteria for all elements with blind sampling and consistent analysis. Is the retailer presenting products in an acceptable manner? Are there signs of product abuse? Should photos be part of the evaluation? What testing-procedure reference is to be used? Which laboratory? Consider outsourcing by selecting an experienced third party with resources for retrieval, conducting such an audit, and providing experienced submission and/or presentation of the final report. Conducting a successful retail quality audit is the result of good planning and execution. All criteria should be agreed upon before the product retrieval begins.

RESULT ANALYSIS. What does one do with this information? There are usually a few items that “jump out at you.” In addition to studying the audit information, compare the information with customer/consumer complaints. This step should verify any weaknesses in the product or specification conformance. Does the product conform to requirements? If not, is the specification/standard realistic? Is something inherent in ingredients or lacking in processing? Is something impacting the product during distribution? Plan an initial audit follow-up to modify ingredients, standards, process criteria, product specifications, packaging expectations, and distribution requirements.

A CASE STUDY. In one case I reviewed, the company’s first retail quality audit revealed a number of issues. Product shelf life was less than desired; insect contamination was present; fat/oil oxidation was a concern. An examination of consumer complaints revealed insect infestation complaints were a leading category. Non-quality costs were significant. What was done to improve product quality?

It was determined that the package sealing technology of stitch-sewing was leaving unacceptable openings. These openings were not protecting the product adequately during distribution. So the package seal was changed to a heat-seal design. This change improved product quality and productivity. Although it took a year to implement the change, the second retail quality audit validated a significant increase in product quality. However, the second audit had additional issues that “jumped out.” So, following a plan/do/check/act cycle, these issues were corrected.

The first two retail quality audits were eye openers. Following the third retail quality audit, the analysis became more a confirmation of quality rather than areas for improvement. Although it takes time for improvements to reach retail, biannual retail quality audits are not unreasonable.

The data and information from these audits will assist with quality improvements in ingredients, processing, finished products, packaging, distribution, all the way to consumption. In addition, these audits will assist in liability challenges and regulatory concerns providing documentation for necessary defense. The information from these audits should be presented as part of top management’s strategic planning process and continuous improvement protocol.

Managing by fact is fundamental to an effective quality assurance system. Conducting a successful retail quality audit is the result of good planning and execution. “Plan, do, check and act” will assure product quality with customers and consumers. Retail quality audits are a means to improve product quality at the point of purchase and the moment of consumption. Quality must be built into the product as it is produced; it cannot be inserted later. The retail quality audit process is an excellent means to improve product quality and provide documentation for product liability and/or regulatory defense. Improving quality at retail and at consumption will sustain quality for the long term.

Ole Dosland is QA & Food Safety Consultant and Trainer, DOZ Enterprises.