Podcast - Trends Affecting the Grocer and Retail Space
In the inaugural episode of the "Legal Bites Podcast" series, Food and Beverage Litigation Team leader Nathan Adams and Practice Development Manager Kristina Merritt speak with Ashley Petefish, Senior Litigation Counsel and Southwest Division Counsel at Albertsons Companies.
Our hosts explore Ashley's background and legal career, asking about her work-life balance and career advice she may have for aspiring attorneys. They also delve into her experience with the Albertsons Companies, the legal challenges that her role demands and trends in the legal field that may impact grocers and the overall retail space.
More Episodes in this Series
Episode 1: Trends Affecting the Grocer and Retail Space (You are currently listening to Episode 1)
Nathan Adams: Welcome to our Legal Bites podcast series. Today we have an opportunity to sit down with Albertsons Companies. Our guest is Ashley Petefish. My name is Nathan Adams, my co-host is my partner, Kristina Merritt. We are so pleased that you have joined us today to consider another important sector of the food and beverage industry, Kristina.
Kristina Merritt: Hello Ashley, we are so excited to have you here. Can you share a little bit about your career path to being one of Albertsons' in-house attorneys?
Ashley Petefish: Sure. So before I got to Albertsons, I was previously at another grocer. And prior to that, I did have a stint at two different law firms. One of them was in the Tampa Bay area, and one of them was located in Phoenix, Arizona. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to go in-house. In fact, I think I knew when I was in law school. So I was very excited when I got the opportunity to go in-house a few years ago. And as soon as I saw Albertsons was expanding that legal team back in 2021, I made the move over here. Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here, and I just wanted to make the caveat that I'm speaking on my personal behalf and of my personal experiences and not on behalf of Albertsons Companies.
Practicing Coast to Coast
Kristina Merritt: Great! Thanks so much. And I understand you are in the Phoenix area now. How has it been to practice from coast to coast?
Ashley Petefish: It's definitely been a good opportunity for my legal career. One of the amazing things about being in-house, for instance, at my prior company especially, we had stores coast to coast, we had stores in Florida and we had stores in California. And so having a bar license in two different states has really been able to expand my marketability, to be able to come to large companies such as Albertsons and all the litigation that I handle for us as part of the corporate litigation really is nationwide. I have a case in the Seattle area. I have a case in New Jersey. I have cases in California, of course, because that's where all the food labeling cases tend to be. I have cases in Texas. They're just all over the place. So it's really helpful to have two different bar licenses and have that experience, because that way I've already had that set time knowing different ways that are practiced, knowing how different bar associations work and kind of knowing areas where you might get hometown too and knowing when and where to get outside counsel that may be local to the area.
So it's really helpful to have two different bar licenses and have that experience, because that way I've already had that set time knowing different ways that are practiced, knowing how different bar associations work and kind of knowing areas where you might get hometown too and knowing when and where to get outside counsel that may be local to the area.
Nathan Adams: Ashley, I noticed that you're a very avid photographer and have some other outdoor adventure kinds of interests. You know, I think a lot of folks think that once you become a lawyer, all you do is sit behind a desk all day. It's apparent that's not the case for you. Can you tell us a little bit about that, that background?
Ashley Petefish: Yeah. So I grew up in central Arizona, about 20 minutes from Sedona, where I live now, and I grew up hiking, spending time outside. And that was kind of a hobby that I kept through law school when I was an undergrad and as an attorney. And one of the great things about being in-house and also just being able to put sort of boundaries on your work-life balance is making sure I have time to go outside. That's been one of the biggest pieces of advice I think I received early on in my career that I really held true to is to take that time off, to disconnect, to unplug, and I think it fits so well going outside and being in nature with being an attorney because 99.9 percent of the places that I hike or backpack when I go take photos don't have service. So it's a forced unplugging and it's a forced disconnection from our phones, which I'm sure I'm like, I have my phone glued to my hands and typically if I have service, I will be responding to emails. So it's a really great way to unplug and force yourself to get away from your work. And then also, it just, it's a great way for a mental health break. I know that there's a lot of talk within the legal community and we get it etched into our brains in law school to be careful about substance abuse or mental health issues. And for me, being outside and being in nature and being able to photograph beautiful places, beautiful wildlife, that's really been my way to stay sane as a lawyer with how stressful our jobs are.
Nathan Adams: Well, I love the West myself and every opportunity our family gets, we go to a national park. Give us any highlights of some of your hiking trips. What do you like to do the best? What's your best hike?
Ashley Petefish: Oh, that's a good question. I also love national parks. I actually went to 20 different national parks last year, and I've been to 29 so far. But I have to say my top favorite national park, which is surprising for someone that is from the West, like Southwest, is Mt. Rainier. Actually, I think it's a beautiful mountain and there's so many beautiful trails and you can get right up in there close to the mountain by going to the Paradise area. You drive right up, and there's the skyline loop trail. There's all these trails through beautiful alpine meadows. So I would say that one's definitely a not to miss, but also Glacier National Park is right up there as well. There's two sides to the park, East and West Glacier. I highly recommend visiting East Glacier. You'll see moose, you'll see grizzly bear, you'll see beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and you can kayak out on those lakes over there. So I'd recommend doing probably a hike to Grinnell Glacier if you can. It's a little bit of a challenging hike, but you get right to a glacial lake in this icebergs in the lake. So it's honestly, it's an awesome experience. And I think, you know with respect to the glaciers in Glacier National Park, have been changing over time. So it's one that I would definitely say, if there's one place on your list that I would, I would add, it's Glacier and Grinnell Glacier.
And for me, being outside and being in nature and being able to photograph beautiful places, beautiful wildlife. That's really been my way to stay sane as a lawyer with how stressful our jobs are.
Balancing Photography While Being a Full-Time Attorney
Kristina Merritt: That's wonderful. Definitely have to make that trip out there. So you hiked 20 national parks last year. How did you balance that as well? So working full time.
Ashley Petefish: Yeah. So one of the greatest things obviously about being out west is a lot of these parks are within driving distance or within reasonable distance to one another. So I do a lot of weekend trips. For instance, Canyonlands Arches, those are right next to each other. I can get to Moab in about seven hours from Sedona. So if I leave on a Friday night after working and just drive and know I'm going to get that much sleep that night, I can spend the whole next day, Saturday, and mark most of the day Sunday at the park and then drive home. And then for the California parks and like the ones up in the near Glacier Teton, etc., what my fiancé and I like to do is twice a year we go on a big road trip, and we usually do it over the 4th of July and then we do another one over Labor Day. And that's really where I take the bulk of my vacation time, is I take a week and a half, two weeks, and then you can also bookend a free day off with the Labor Day or 4th of July as a vacation day. And that way I'm able to see a ton of stuff in a short amount of time. So I always recommend to people to, try to take a lot of weekend trips, but also to take a big trip, plan a big road trip, plan a trip where you're going multiple places. We were able to do Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, Joshua Tree in the Eastern Sierras, Channel Islands, all in one fell swoop last year over the 4th of July. So it's possible, you just got to plan it out in advance. But that, that's really the way that I manage to do all of that, is plan it out in advance and then try to find a ton of places that are close to each other.
So I always recommend to people to, try to take a lot of weekend trips, but also to take a big trip, plan a big road trip, plan a trip where you're going multiple places.
Advice for Achieving a Healthy Work-Life Balance
Kristina Merritt: Wow. That's incredible. Do you have additional pieces of advice in addition, going outside and keeping up with your hobbies for work-life balance?
Ashley Petefish: Yeah, I always tell people that when they start a job to set that expectation early because I have had jobs where I didn't set that expectation. And the more that you give, the more people will take. If you make it your reputation for being the person that will respond any time, whether it's two in the morning or 2 p.m. on a Saturday when people are hanging with their kids and you set that expectation that you will be available 24/7, then that's what people will expect. They will [know] that they can contact you any time of the day, any time of night, and you won't have that work-life balance. So I think it's always important when you're starting a job or you're starting somewhere new to set that expectation. Like if something is really important to you, say Saturday is always the day that you go hang out with your kids, telling people that "I'm always going to be unavailable on Saturdays." Say your kid has soccer, and if every Thursday at four, they have a soccer game, OK, well, every Thursday I'm going to come in early, but leave early so that I can go to that. It doesn't have to be kids either. It could just be other members of your family, for instance. Something that I've said early on was I am very close with my grandmother. I've helped take care of my grandparents my whole life. And so that was one of my things, was I'm going to go out and help my grandparents. And sometimes when they need help, I might need to make my day more flexible. And that's just something that's important to me. So I really think setting expectations early on, but then also when you are on vacation or when you do take time off, don't check in all the time because I've seen so many people where I see they have a PTO day, but then they're emailing all day. Especially my legal admins or paralegals, I'll actually reach out to them and I'll say, "What are you doing? Get off line," because I want people to take that time. That time off is really necessary, and it's really important to make sure people don't get burnt out.
I always tell people that when they start a job to set that expectation early because I have had jobs where I didn't set that expectation. And the more that you give, the more people will take.
What It Is Like Working at Albertsons Company
Nathan Adams: That's great advice. Well, we really appreciate the chance to talk with you generally about the industry that Albertsons is part of. And I wondered if you could just tell our listeners a little bit about the company. You know, you've already alluded to the fact that you're in multiple states, but kind of give us a company bio, if you would. Yeah.
Ashley Petefish: So our company is an interesting one because we have a ton of banners under the Albertsons Company overarching name, and so we have Safeway, Albertsons, Vons, Jewel-Osco, Acme Shaw's Tunstall, United Supermarkets, Randalls, Albertsons Market, Pavilions, Star Market, Kings, Market Street, Pagan Cars, Amigos and Lucky. So we have a ton of banners underneath the Albertsons Company, and it's really unique because each banner kind of had their own personality before coming under Albertsons. So our stores are a little bit different, but we do have a one best way where we sell our own branded products within all of our stores, and we do try to keep our stores consistent so that if you're walking into a Safeway in Southern California or an Albertsons in Idaho, you're going to get the same feel and experience and know what to expect. We have over 2,200 stores, and we have stores in 34 states. So we are pretty much all over the country, all over the West Coast, throughout the mid-Atlantic and east area. And we’ve got, you know, for instance, in California, five different banners. Texas, we also have five different banners. So even within the state that we’re operating in, we do have different banners and names that people see when they’re walking into our stores. So it’s really an interesting company, and it's a great place to work because you're always going to see something new and exciting and things are a little bit different because we have our stores separated within different divisions. For instance, I am within the Southwest Division, so within the Southwest there's historic stores in certain areas. We have different states, and you’re kind of always having to pivot to figure out how you operate in each state and how we should act within a certain market. Having stores in the Bay Area in Northern California, you have a very different customer base than you have in El Paso, Texas. So it'’ important to know your markets and know your customers and really keep a pulse on the customers as well. I think that's something we do so well. As I see customer feedback that comes in, I know my colleagues do as well, and we stay really close to what the customers are saying and thinking because we want to make sure that we are doing what we're supposed to be doing, which is getting food to people in their homes and on their tables.
Kristina Merritt: Awesome. Speaking about the pulse of the customer, I'm sure I'm not the only person who has noticed that there has been more premium offerings to consumers. Has the Albertsons Companies thought about putting in coffee bars or wine bars as part of their in-store experience?
Ashley Petefish: So we do have Starbucks within our stores, and that's kind of the focus of having those offerings. We have a great partnership with Starbucks. And I think right now with the Starbucks and kind of the seating areas we get with them, that's really where we have our focus within that. And the Starbucks employees are actually employees of our stores. So say, for instance, someone's a deli clerk, but they want to move over to Starbucks. They can do that because the Starbucks are within our stores and they're our employees. And so that's where really we have that focus, is making sure that we are working well with Starbucks to have that partnership and then have those options within our stores.
So it's really an interesting company, and it's a great place to work because you're always going to see something new and exciting and things are a little bit different because we have our stores separated within different divisions.
Legal and Economic Challenges Facing Food Labeling Litigation
Nathan Adams: So one of the questions we want to always ask our clients, our interviewees, is, you know, what are the legal and economic challenges that are affecting your particular segment of the industry? We want to be sure as lawyers that we're understanding what it is you are seeing. And I think it would be interesting for our listeners to hear, you know, your perspective on us on those issues.
Ashley Petefish: Yeah, so I, as part of my role, have our food labeling the portfolio, food labeling litigation. So for instance, those Prop 65 notices that we get in California that I'm sure anyone with stores or operates with in California may know about. We get a ton of those. And we also get CLRA notices for false and misleading advertising for claims made on our packaging. So that is something that I think hits every single food retailer and anyone in the food and beverage space. And there's some, been some great organizations like Cal Grocers Association that try to sort of get these retailers or grocers together to sort of help us brainstorm ways to combat some of the labeling claims we see or share advice, but really, it's very cyclical. So I would say a couple of years ago it was chocolate. It was dark chocolate. I think we got so many Prop 65 notices for dark chocolate products. Recently it's been oils like avocado oils, olive oils, any sort of oils we've been getting notices for. And it kind of comes in these waves where, especially being such a large grocer, we might be at the forefront of it. We might not be able to see kind of, oh, OK, well, these large companies are getting claims on this and maybe we should look at the packaging for these sorts of products. We're one of the first ones getting it. So it's hard to combat. It's kind of a cost of doing business, especially in somewhere like California that has a lot of consumer protection friendly laws and allows people to bring these types of claims. But that's one of the things I think that is really hard to combat. And just from a risk management perspective, we just have to expect that we're going to get these types of claims and have to deal with them. But it's also important, I think, for these, for any product that we don't manufacture, we have really strong agreements to make sure that the national brands suppliers that we work with or the manufacturers that we work with indemnify us and are able to step in and really help us defend any sort of claim or notice that we get, because they're the ones manufacturing the product. They're on our shelves, but we don't have control over the manufacture of those products. So I think it's really important to make sure that you have strong contractual language before putting a product in your store.
So I think it's really important to make sure that you have strong contractual language before putting a product in your store.
Legal Trends Affecting Grocers
Kristina Merritt: Are there any additional trends you see in the legal field right now affecting grocers?
Ashley Petefish: I mean, that's a good question. We, I think, as grocers have moved into technology space. So I think the post-pandemic landscape of wanting to offer digital offerings such as pickup and delivery and really having that e-commerce perspective really I think is new to some grocers, and a lot of us have had to step up and expand e-commerce very quickly. But we're seeing a lot more patent trolls. We're seeing a lot more sort of digital-type litigation or demands come in. And so I think that's something as grocers and retailers in the food and beverage space continue to want to be able to offer food and beverages and wine and anything to the consumer via the mobile app or the web. That's I think the trend that we're seeing, is just those e-commerce types of claims or mobile app type of claims, because this is something in a newer space that grocers typically weren't dealing with. We were solely focused on brick and mortar. So I think that's something to keep in mind and also that I think will continue to grow.
That's I think the trend that we're seeing, is just those e-commerce types of claims or mobile app type of claims, because this is something in a newer space that grocers typically weren't dealing with.
Handling Labeling Claims
Nathan Adams: You mentioned the labeling claims. What do you do when you get that kind of a claim? When you look at the labels? Do you have any kind of process that you go through?
Ashley Petefish: Yeah. So when we get a labeling claim, the first thing I do is try to find out who manufactures it, where we get the product, so that I can notify them and tender that claim to them. And after that tender, you know, typically they hire outside counsel or sometimes if it's pre-litigation and we get a demand, there are in-house counsel. If it's a large corporation, we'll take the lead on it temporarily and then we'll have a discussion. Are we going to send a… letter, are we — do we think this claim has any merit? Spoiler alert: Typically we don't think they do. And then decide, you know, how we're going to handle it. Typically, we don't pull things off the shelf unless there's a recall or health concern. If someone thinks that we should put not chocolate on our baking chips or say that something is not what it is because it may be misleading allegedly to a consumer, we're probably not going to do that until we get to the phase of settlement or some sort of court order. Because as I'm sure you can imagine, otherwise, every single product would have a "not" on it. Like this is cheddar cheese, not pepper jack, this is this not that. And those are some of the types of the claims that we get that they want us, I think, to include disclaimers and exclusions of everything that something is not. So a lot of the times we'll say, "Listen, we're not going to change the label, we're not going to do anything until we get further on in this," and I think that's something that I really like about what we do, is we're very careful with not wanting to put a ton of stuff on the label that's unnecessary and making sure that the labels are very clear for the consumers. Because sometimes when we get these demands or we get these notices from plaintiffs firms, especially in California, is I sometimes think that they don't realize the space of the package. Like, there's only so much you can put on a can. And so I think that's very important, is that we are very mindful about what we put on there. And if we do want to change the name of something that we're very conscientious about what we're putting on the labels and what we're putting on the packaging. So I think that's something that's really important to know, is just when you get a claim. I know a lot of people think, oh, we should just pull the product and change the whole label. You would just be doing it over and over again because something that one plaintiff may say is false or misleading, you could change it exactly to what they want to say. But then someone five days later can think that what they wanted to say is false and misleading, and you would just be putting yourself in a forever loop of, well, this person doesn't understand this, so I changed it to this, but then this person two weeks later didn't understand this, so we changed it to this. So it's really important to not be reactionary when you get these types of claims and be very methodical and mindful about when and where you would like to change things, if anything, on your labels.
So it's really important to not be reactionary when you get these types of claims and be very methodical and mindful about when and where you would like to change things, if anything, on your labels.
Advice for Defense Counsel
Nathan Adams: Ashley that's really helpful. I'm just curious if you could ask a plaintiff's lawyer or your own defense counsel to do one thing that, you know, just, boy, they would just do this, you know, that would be great. Is anything come to mind? Response to that question.
Ashley Petefish: I'll answer it for our defense counsel. If they could just go into our stores and shop the stores or, you know, if they're handling a labeling claim for us, go to the store, pick up the product, look at it, look at the back of it, see how it feels, see what it looks like on the shelf. If you're handling a technology claim for us and it's about our app or our website, go to our website, go to our app, download the app, mess around on it. I think that's what's most important, is a lot of the times we'll get advice and counsel or recommendations or our plaintiff's counsel will say, "Well, we want you guys to do this." You know, I distinctly remember a time where we got a demand around Christmas time, and this was at my prior grocer that I was working at, and it was the week of Christmas, and it was a plaintiff that didn't want us to have a certain label on our packaging and was demanding that we either sticker over it, pull everything off the shelves or that we instruct every single cashier nationwide when a consumer purchased it to say, by the way, this designation on the package actually means this. And one, Christmas is a very busy time in the grocery industry and you've got people taking off work and we want to respect our associates' time off. We want to also respect that the grocery stores are very busy. People are buying things for baking cookies and baking Christmas dinner. And so even in a normal time of year, asking the associates to sticker over something that isn't inaccurate, it was completely accurate on the package, or asking our cashiers to memorize a paragraph of what to say about the product, it's just unrealistic. And I sometimes wonder if these people have been inside of a grocery store recently because there are so many things that our employees have to do that our cashiers need to know and do and be able to understand. And so it's just being able to say, hey, have you gone into one of our stores? You see kind of how it works. And I think part of that too, is whenever I am interviewing outside counsel or even, you know, interns for us at my various roles or times that I've worked with interviewing at my various companies, I always like to ask if someone's ever worked in retail or service industry, maybe they worked at a McDonald's, maybe a subway, maybe they worked at a clothing store. But I like to ask that question because I found that the people who have worked in those jobs and who worked in those industries prior to becoming a lawyer, they really understand the difficulties that we face in the retail space and why something may be a good idea. Best practices like, oh yes, every time someone purchases this product, have them pull up this laminated sheet of paper so that they can tell them this information — that's never going to work in a retail grocery environment. And so I think that's something that's very important, is if even if someone doesn't have that background work experience prior to becoming a lawyer, to get out in the stores, wherever your client is, go visit their locations, try to get out in one of their stores, look at their products, touch and feel their products, talk to their employees, engage with them, and then you'll have a better understanding of how their business operates and what's possible and what's not possible.
To get out in the stores, wherever your client is, go visit their locations, try to get out in one of their stores, look at their products, touch and feel their products, talk to their employees, engage with them, and then you'll have a better understanding of how their business operates and what's possible and what's not possible.
Nathan Adams: Wow, that's awesome. I never realized how important my high school jobs might be, provided what you just said, Ashley. So that's really great. Well, thanks to Ashley Petefish for this informative and interesting insight into the grocery retail sector of the food and beverage industry. And to my co-host, Kristina Merritt. Most of all, thanks to you for joining us today. Please plan to join us for our next Legal Bites podcast. Have a great day.