Dear well-known mass chain store

September 9, 2015By Behind the Shelf Blog, Future of Retail

by Jen Johnston

I have a bone to pick with you. I can’t find what I need on your website, but I know you carry it.

As a little background for you, my 3-year-old son was diagnosed with celiac disease in the last six months. That is an autoimmune condition where he cannot consume any gluten because it destroys his intestines, causes malabsorption issues, messes with his iron levels, etc. Obviously our way of eating has been thrown for a loop.

Since he is 3 years old, he eats with his hands a lot or puts them in his mouth “just because.” (I know, I know. I am trying to break him of this habit.) Because of this, I also need to find gluten-free personal care and cleaning products. It probably sounds ridiculous because people don’t eat lotions and counter sprays, but even small amounts of ingested gluten can cause problems. This is the same reason I had to switch from wheat-based modeling dough to soy-based. When it comes to my child, I take no chances. Even the cat’s food is now free from gluten. (Yes, my little boy touches that, too.)

Anyway, I picked up some gluten-free cleaning supplies at one of your brick-and-mortar locations over the weekend…thank you for carrying these products!

Now for the issue… I am looking for gluten-free sunscreen. This morning our daycare provider showed me a sunscreen product she got at one of your brick and mortar stores that prominently displayed “gluten-free” on the front. Great! Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the name already, so I typed “gluten-free sunscreen” into your website so I could research it further. 1,061 products and 18 pages.

The results of the search brought up the following product types:The results of the search

  • Gluten-free foods
  • Gluten-free cookbooks
  • Gluten-free lotion
  • Sunscreens that are NOT gluten free

There were even listings for wine. But not a single gluten-free sunscreen. BUT I KNOW YOU CARRY IT!

I remember from my encounter with the daycare provider this morning that the sunscreen is also prominently listed as being a vegan product. I am personally not vegan, but I know this is fanatically important to some people (in the same way keeping gluten out of my son’s body is fanatically important to me), so I thought I’d search for the product a different way. I typed in “vegan sunscreen” into the website. No results. None. But again, I KNOW YOU CARRY THIS SUNSCREEN.

Just to see what would happen, I attempted to look up that gluten-free cleaning product I mentioned earlier (that I know you carry in store) by typing in “gluten-free cleaning products.” Again, nothing. (By the way, typing in “natural cleaning products” did list the item I had purchased, but there was no indication in the description that it was free from gluten.)

This post is not intended to simply vent about my experience. It is to point out that e-commerce retailers may not be optimally keywording their products so that they may be found by customers with certain needs or wants.

I believe “free from” products are the future. People want to search not only for what they want, but rule out what they don’t want – be it for allergies, lifestyle choice, or, in my case, managing a loved one’s autoimmune condition. The “free from” movement is gaining steam in grocery,  but some e-commerce sites are taking the lead by applying this to personal care and cleaning products as well.

On, members can search for personal care and cleaning products based on many factors including but definitely not limited to:

  • Gluten-free
  • Vegan
  • Soy-free
  • Phthalate-free
  • Fragrance-free
  • Dye-free
  • SLS-free
  • GMO-free

I implore innovative mass market retailers such as yourself to take the lead by allowing your customers to weed through what they don’t want both online through better search capabilities and in store with proper “free from” indicators at shelf. If you don’t, you may slowly lose them to retailers who are already capitalizing on the movement. Environmental and food-related allergies are continuing to grow.  (For example, a 2013 study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that food and skin allergies among children increased significantly between 1997 and 2011.)  And unless people suddenly stop reacting to their allergens or their autoimmune conditions miraculously cease to exist, it looks like the free from “trend” is here to stay.

Yours in Health,

Jen Johnston



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