FMI'S MEALSOLUTIONS '98 CENTER EVENT WAS A GOOD IDEA

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Idea Center, the centerpiece of the Food Marketing Institute's MealSolutions '98 here, got good reviews but tweakings for next year are in order, retailer-attendees said.The organizers of FMI's third annual MealSolutions show and conference, held here October 4-6, aimed to make this year's Idea Center [see Menus and Methods, SN 10/19/98] a "hands-on event" that would illustrate

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Idea Center, the centerpiece of the Food Marketing Institute's MealSolutions '98 here, got good reviews but tweakings for next year are in order, retailer-attendees said.

The organizers of FMI's third annual MealSolutions show and conference, held here October 4-6, aimed to make this year's Idea Center [see Menus and Methods, SN 10/19/98] a "hands-on event" that would illustrate ideas retailers could implement quickly. Initial feedback indicates that they accomplished their goal, FMI officials said.

Supermarket executives who talked to SN said they got good merchandising ideas, were introduced to some innovative fixtures, and particularly were shown ways to grab the attention of meal-seeking consumers. Some, however, said they felt the "guided tour mode" that was added to this year's Idea Center was a limiting factor.

"They should have done both -- the guided tours and then also leave the Center open for walk-ins. I think there would have been more participation if they had a combination of the two," said Elton Reid, food service manager, for the Central Market concept at H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio.

He referred to the fact that the Idea Center could be seen only by guided tours for which attendees signed up. They were conducted through the various sections of the idea center by "captains." During the three days of the show, 687 attendees toured the Idea Center, but others were closed out because the tours were booked up. The center was closed when tours were not being conducted.

A supermarket executive from a Midwest chain who wished to remain anonymous said, "There were good pieces to the Idea Center. I got some workable ideas. I particularly liked the way they had wrap sandwiches displayed in checkered paper, and there was some good fixturing, but having guided tours created too much hype. It didn't deliver."

But another retailer told SN she thought the guided tours provided a forum that had its own educational value.

"Since we were in a group on the guided tour, it had some of the aspects of a share group. For instance, it was interesting to hear what concerns both the big chains and small independents had and to hear the answers to their questions," said Daisy King, home economist/food consultant, for the Nashville, Tenn., marketing area of Kroger Co., Cincinnati.

She liked the idea of "captains" explaining the different meals center concepts.

"We got really detailed answers. For instance, we really drilled Bill Reynolds from CIA [Culinary Institute of America chef who captained the scratch-assembly section] and he gave us practical information. I liked the way he showed how to garnish products sourced from outside and how to incorporate them with items made in the store."

Even those retailers who felt the Idea Center was oversold, said they got some useable ideas from it.

Marc Friedland, president and general manager of Talley's Green Grocery, a Charlotte, N.C., natural foods supermarket, who didn't like the guided tour aspect of the Idea Center, also said he would have liked to have seen more on how to create "restaurant-quality" food. But he added that "the cross merchandising showed interesting ways to sell the grocery store."

FMI's research department gathered their own feedback in intercept interviews just outside the Idea Center on the show floor and the vast majority of comments were very positive, said Carol Throssel, FMI's director of media relations.

"They said they liked seeing that meals solutions displays could be so compact. Many of them had the idea that you have to have a lot of space to implement a meals program. And they said they liked having someone actually talk to them about the concepts," she said. (In previous years, the Idea Center has been set up as a walk-through display with the action centering on chef-prepared items).

"In fact, retailers liked it so much this year that we're considering expanding the concept and incorporating it in some of our other events like our May show in Chicago," Throssel said.

The trade group has not yet analyzed all the feedback it received.

"We will be meeting very soon to go over all the input so we can address what questions and what concerns people had," said Shari Steinbach, who coordinated the Idea Center effort this year. Steinbach is meal solutions/ consumer affairs manager for Spartan Stores, a Grand Rapids, Mich., wholesaler that supplies more than 500 independent supermarkets in the Midwest.

"My gut feeling is that those retailers who are just getting into home-meal replacement got the most out of it. Some of our attendees already have pretty sophisticated meals programs," Steinbach said.

She said a lot of smaller, independent operators told her they appreciated being shown how signage and bundling meal components can call customers' attention to the fact that there's a solution to their meals dilemma at hand.

"Generally, people were looking for really hands-on information like how to merchandise it and sign it to attract customers to it [the meals display]. And this year, we had it divided into sections [scratch assembly, case-ready, total store/brand partnerships and center store]. In each section, the captains told them how effective they can expect a particular concept to be," she added.

Two former supermarket executives who spearheaded fresh meals programs for their chains were among the tour leaders. They were Scott Miller, formerly of Randall's Food Markets, Houston, who now has his own consulting firm -- Miller Consulting -- in The Woodlands, Texas, and Dennis Hedegard, formerly of Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass., who has since founded Solutions of North America, a consulting firm based in Saco, Maine. "The tour guides pointed out that it's educational selling that's necessary, that you have to unconfuse the customer," Steinbach said.