If it’s a sell-out you want, get Sanitarium involved in whipping up a media fuss

English Bob can help you give it a go...

Alf has no immediate plans to get into the retail business.

But if he did he would make sure the Sanitarium people are involved with the publicity.

He would make a special effort to re-label his goods in a way that makes them look like Sanitarium products, because that company has become adept at whipping up media headlines that in turn result in the highlighted product becoming a sell-out.

A splendid example is Marmite, the yeast-extract product, which began disappearing from shelves about six weeks ago.

Today we learn at Stuff (here) that –

Since then, prices on Trade Me for 500-gram jars of black gold have been rising towards $50.

Loyalties have been sorely tested by the shortage, with supermarkets now reporting sales of Australian rival Vegemite have risen significantly in the past month.

We are getting no more Marmite largely because of delays with work on earthquake-damaged parts of Sanitarium’s Papanui factory.

But the company’s bosses have helped build demand by talking about the production problem.

Speaking from South Africa, Sanitarium New Zealand general manager Pierre van Heerden said delays to repair work make it unlikely Marmite will be back in production before the middle of July.

The first batches will probably hit the shops early in August.

Sanitarium has heard from many customers about the Marmite shortage.

“A lot of people are missing it. They are all keen to get it back on the shelves and in the pantry again,” van Heerden said.

“You must understand this is totally beyond our control. A number of people have said, `Is this the end of Marmite?’ Well no, it isn’t. Marmite will be back.”

The company made a fuss about their production problem and the resultant shortage a few weeks ago, of course.

Marmite fans responded as you would expect them to do by rushing to stock up.

So what has happened since then?

The Press asked supermarket giants Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprises how sales of Kraft’s Vegemite had gone in the past four weeks.

A Foodstuffs spokeswoman said Vegemite sales were up about 20 per cent in their New World, Pak ‘n Save and Four Square supermarkets across the country.

Progressive said sales of Vegemite, Promite and other yeast-extract spreads in Countdown stores had risen by between 20 and 30 per cent.

Sanitarium is portraying itself as a good corporate citizen, of course.

It has gone to great lengths to fill the Marmite gap, van Heerden said.

Staff at Pioneer Foods in Johannesburg, with which Sanitarium has links, worked over new year on producing a replacement Marmite using ingredients from around the world.

In early February, the sample was flown from South Africa to Sydney, where it was met by a Sanitarium staff member, who escorted it on a flight back to New Zealand, van Heerden said.

“I still have that in my [Auckland] office, the carton that we flew over, just enough to trial and make sure it was right,” he said.

“It wasn’t a happy experience. It didn’t come close.

“Anyone wanting to taste it is most welcome. Have some water ready too.”

But hey – Sanitarium has a gift for selling other people’s goods too.

Look what happened when it demanded a Nelson store stop stocking a British product, Weetabix, saying it is breaching trademarks held by the company, which manufactures Weet-Bix in New Zealand.

English Bob’s Emporium sold out of Weetabix yesterday after a surge in demand for the British cereal brand, driven in part by consumers “rebelling” against Sanitarium, its owner says.

English Bob’s owner Bob Wren is defiant.

And the dispute has received nationwide media coverage.

His store caters mainly to British expatriates, but Mr Wren said even Kiwis had been coming into his store to buy Weetabix this week.

“People are rebelling,” he said. “What it boils down to is that people don’t like these big corporates telling everybody what they can and can’t sell … [corporates] are starting to rule the bloody world, if they don’t rule it already.”

Mr Wren would not say exactly how much Weetabix he had sold this week.

Actually, Kiwis tend to bridle against heavy-handed action by bigger businesses against smaller one.

And Sanitarium has been heavy-handed.

In a letter sent last week, Sanitarium told Mr Wren that unless he stopped selling the product and handed over his stocks of the cereal by yesterday he could face court action.

But late yesterday afternoon he said he had not heard anything further from Sanitarium.

“I think what they’re going to do is just leave it. They don’t want more bad press, do they?”

Probably not.

And Wren has responded by applying to register the Weetabix brand name with the New Zealand Intellectual Property Office in the hope it will allow him to keep selling the British cereal at his store.

Alf wishes him well.

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