Hampton Creek Sent Out Undercover Shoppers To Buy Up Its Mayo, Ask Stores About It

Corporate drama and intrigue are not things that one normally associates with the condiment aisle at the grocery store, but that’s what has been happening since Hampton Creek’s eggless product Just Mayo hit the market back in 2014. Now there’s a new accusation against the company: that it dispatched undercover agents to retail stores to buy up mayonnaise and ask stores to carry it, increasing sales and buzz.

The problems began with a lawsuit from leading brand Hellmann’s, then a dispute with the Food and Drug Administration, and finally the exposure of a plot against the brand that went all the way to the head of the National Egg Board. This new problem doesn’t involve Big Egg or the government trying to stop the company, though.

Bloomberg obtained documents exposing the practice and spoke to some former contractors who worked across the country, who the company called “Creekers.” Expense reports show that the company had sent Creekers out to different stores as they picked up Hampton Creek products. Shoppers were sent out to Safeway, Kroger, Costco, Walmart, Target, and Whole Foods stores all over the country and reimbursed for their Just Mayo purchases.

The company’s CEO explained to Bloomberg that this is not as scammy as it sounds, really. The jars customers were buying were quality-control samples, and the company wanted to ensure that the product survived its trip from the factory to the stores successfully.

Most food producers would point out that’s what checking products before they leave the factory is for, but CEO Josh Tetrick says that checking products as they reach the store shelves gives a better picture of what customers are really getting.

“Assessing the product from the customer perspective, more than anything, gets us out of the bubble of typical manufacturing,” he explained to Bloomberg in an e-mail. “This was and always will be the primary purpose of it, which is why we’ll continue doing it.”

Sending shoppers out to buy things and check displays is a time-honored business practice. Our own sibling publication, Consumer Reports, does exactly this, hiring mystery shoppers across the country to buy products from ordinary stores, shipping them to the magazine’s offices to be tested.

What doesn’t seem quite right about the Hampton Creek efforts, though, is the amount of product that the shoppers bought, and the language in memos that they received.

“The most important next step with Safeway is huge sales out of the gate,” the company’s director of corporate partnerships wrote to contractors across the country in the spring of 2014. “This will ensure we stay on the shelf to put an end to Hellmann’s factory-farmed egg mayo, and spread the word to customers that Just Mayo is their new preferred brand. :)”

Executives insist that the purchases were all for quality control projects, but former contractors and employees told Bloomberg Businessweek that the projects were separate. The unconventional quality control checks and just buying up jars of mayo weren’t the same thing. Shoppers were told that they could use or get rid of the mayo they received as they saw fit.

“There’s no legitimate explanation for a manufacturer buying significant quantities of their own product from the shelf,” a business analytics expert told Bloomberg.

Creekers began as in-store brand representatives who would hand out samples and talk up the brand, but their jobs changed in 2014, to the “undercover project” of buying up mayo. Some former contractors have evidence of buying hundreds of jars every week.

(Also, Bloomberg created a profoundly disturbing illustration for this story that we can’t stop watching. Check it out.)

Hampton Creek Ran Undercover Project to Buy Up Its Own Vegan Mayo [Bloomberg Technology]

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