Grocery lady is checking out

Odonna Mathews is ending her nearly 3 decades as the friendly face and customer advocate for Giant Food.

September 08, 2005|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

You've probably seen Odonna Mathews' beaming face in Giant Food circulars admonishing you to eat your fruits and vegetables, or heard her on the radio warning of the dangers of undercooked meat and other food hazards.

"Five to nine and feeling fine, fruit and vegetables anytime," she'd say, a jingle reminding people of the number of servings they should strive for daily. "Don't put it on the bun until it's done," was another frequent refrain.

But now, the woman who became the face of the largest grocery chain in the Baltimore-Washington area is retiring. The Landover-based grocer plans to announce today that Mathews, 55, is leaving after nearly three decades as consumer adviser at the only company for which she's ever worked.

Mathews said she wants to trade in her career to spend more time with her husband and two children, who are 11 and 15 years old.

"The wonder years are here and they'll be gone fast," Mathews said. "What I really want is to take time to smell the roses and enjoy my family. I've been a career woman all my life."

She presented the human face for Giant even as it changed hands over the years, from local ownership to its acquisition for $2.7 billion in 1998 by Dutch conglomerate Royal Ahold NV. Last year, Giant was placed under the administration of Ahold's New England grocery chain Stop & Shop. Sales have declined 4.7 percent in the second quarter of this year, Ahold reported yesterday. And some longtime shoppers have complained about a decline in quality and service.

But Mathews, who plans to serve as a consultant to Giant, said none of that figured in her decision to leave. Consumer affairs functions are even more vital in today's competitive grocery market, she said. Her successor, Andrea Astrachan, most recently worked in consumer affairs for Stop & Shop.

"Right now my main goal is to really listen to customers and shoppers about what they like about Giant and what they're experiencing and how we can improve their shopping experience," Astrachan said. She said will expand areas such as the promotion of health and fitness.

Mathews told her 40-person department about her departure yesterday. Giant will run newspaper advertisements this weekend, giving Mathews a chance to bid goodbye to consumers.

"I think without a doubt that for the future of successful retail you need to have a real close handle on the consumer and the expectations," Mathews said. "Consumers have so many choices these days."

Giant helped pioneer the creation of consumer affairs divisions in the grocery industry. The company hired Esther Peterson in 1970 as consumer adviser after customers complained about rising prices and food selection and presentation.

"Giant Food invented the modern consumer affairs function in this industry," said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute, a trade association. "It personalized the face of the company to their shoppers, but more importantly, it personalized consumers in the boardroom where the key decisions were made."

Giant's competitors initially were put off by its hiring of Peterson, who had been special assistant for consumer affairs under President Lyndon B. Johnson. After leaving the grocer in 1977, she went to work for then-President Jimmy Carter.

"Many people in the industry thought we weren't doing the right thing having somebody from the outside telling us what to do on the inside," said Barry Scher, a Giant spokesman. "It ended up being the right thing."

Many grocery chains now have consumer advocates, but Odonna Mathews has been one of the most visible, industry experts said.

"There has been a lot of copying of that concept, but I don't think anyone has used it the way that Giant has," said Chuck Donofrio, chief executive officer of Carton Donofrio Inc., a Baltimore advertising and marketing firm that has done work for Giant. "They invested in her exposure and she really became a force."

Mathews, who began at Giant as an intern while attending the University of Maryland, said it still takes her longer to shop for her own groceries because people always want to stop and talk. Even when she tries to wear inconspicuous clothing, some recognize her voice from radio and TV.

Some ask about her unusual first name. She was named after her father, Oden, she tells them. Others brazenly check out the contents of her shopping cart to see if she practices what she preaches.

"I do follow my advice because I learn a lot about health and nutrition through my job," she said yesterday in a phone interview. "I push myself to get more exercise. I wear my pedometer. I need reminders, too."

While celebrities are often the most noticeable spokespeople for companies, Mathews was among a legion of others - from car dealers to infomercial hawkers - who through ad campaigns became household names and faces.

"Companies use individuals to try and personalize the brand," said David Warschawski, chief executive officer and founder of Warschawski public relations in Baltimore. "We know from all kinds of market research that consumers can better understand or relate to a person than they can to the corporate behemoth."

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