FMI MIDWINTER EXECUTIVE CONFERENCE

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Exhibiting a little more passion about food can take distributors a long way toward energizing sales.That's the message delivered last week by Jeff Noddle, president and chief operating officer of Supervalu, Minneapolis, at the Food Marketing Institute's Midwinter Executive Conference here.Noddle urged industry colleagues to rethink priorities and redirect energies to building

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Exhibiting a little more passion about food can take distributors a long way toward energizing sales.

That's the message delivered last week by Jeff Noddle, president and chief operating officer of Supervalu, Minneapolis, at the Food Marketing Institute's Midwinter Executive Conference here.

Noddle urged industry colleagues to rethink priorities and redirect energies to building retail excitement.

"Are we really selling the excitement of cooking and eating, the sociability of food?" he asked. "Or do we sell sustenance? Do we think customers get excited about great logistics?

"Restaurants are selling style and the family experience," Noddle said, pointing by example to ads by Olive Garden, which has mounted a campaign stressing its family-friendly atmosphere.

"We have items in our frozen foods cases that are better than what Olive Garden sells. But Olive Garden is selling the passion of food."

Noddle said the supermarket industry also needs to improve its focus, sense of urgency and standards of excellence, and develop a "healthy paranoia" about competitive threats.

Following are some of his points:

FOCUS: Companies need to bring the same focus to selling food that some bring to developing technology, Noddle said.

"Think of the Ciscos and Oracles and the focus they needed to introduce to bring their technologies into American life," he said.

"Logistics and efficiency are critical, but customers don't choose stores for that. They make choices for products, service and value."

Noddle stressed that customers who consistently build sales are likely to impress investors, and he added that pleasing customers is the best route to building sales.

"One casualty of industry consolidation is that it leaves us further from the true entrepreneurship of selling food with a passion," he said. * URGENCY: "Sometimes we don't respond fast enough and we miss an opportunity," Noddle said of the industry. "Urgency should be part of the industry."

One example Noddle cited is that retailers and wholesalers continue to lose business to away-from-home eating formats.

Another example is the industry's response rate to the development of the major B-to-B exchanges, including those for retailers and wholesalers, he said.

"We could have responded more quickly as an industry," he said. "We didn't need three or more major exchanges. We could have had one exchange that had all the streets and avenues. Ultimately they will come together. There's $500 million to $1 billion being invested in these exchanges."

STANDARDS: It's important for food industry players to understand the importance of maintaining high standards of performance, particularly as it relates to dealing with employees and customers, Noddle said.

"Does everyone understand acceptable standards?" he asked. "What kind of reputation do we have? Are we a preferred place to have a job? We're not the image of an exciting place to work. People don't see the wonderful careers we have."

On the customer side, Noddle asked, "Are we a preferred place to shop? Do we have a theater of food atmosphere?"

Noddle said it is the responsibility of industry leaders to ensure that company standards are extremely high.

HEALTHY PARANOIA: Noddle suggested that executives might benefit by becoming more concerned about competitive threats, particularly from other store formats.

"I wonder if we are as paranoid as we should be?" he asked. "Do we worry every day that someone will take away our business?

"We should realize that nontraditional operators will try to take our business. Many categories have already gone to others because we are not healthy paranoid."

Noddle used Intel as a model of healthy paranoia, saying that Intel's Andy Grove was always concerned some other new system or technology would emerge and disintermediate the company.

"This kind of thing could be healthy for us and could help grow our business," he said. "Excellence comes from discontentment and the worry that someone else will come along.

Noddle said Supervalu executives are mulling the best approaches to all of the points he mentioned and that the rest of the industry should as well. He noted that it's not hard to discover which retailers are concerned about issues such as becoming more passionate about their business.

"Just walk into a store and within 10 seconds you can tell if there's a passionate atmosphere or if they are indifferent and don't care. Passion attracts customers and employees."