GMA EXECUTIVE CONFERENCE

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - Independent grocers are differentiating from competitors by staying close to their customers, but they need manufacturers' help, too, retailers said.CPGs need to give independents the same product information that they give big players, said Carole Bitter, president and chief executive of Friedman's Supermarkets, Butler, Pa. She spoke on a panel session at the Grocery

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - Independent grocers are differentiating from competitors by staying close to their customers, but they need manufacturers' help, too, retailers said.

CPGs need to give independents the same product information that they give big players, said Carole Bitter, president and chief executive of Friedman's Supermarkets, Butler, Pa. She spoke on a panel session at the Grocery Manufacturers Association's 2006 Executive Conference here.

When Gillette launched its highly promoted Fusion razor, she got no information from her wholesaler about it, Bitter said.

Scanning the audience for suppliers, she said, "It's a sad commentary on our total industry that there aren't more of you in the room."

Bitter was joined on the panel by Mike Needler and Rich Niemann Jr., president and CEO, respectively, of Fresh Encounter, Findlay, Ohio, and Niemann Foods, Quincy, Ill.

Needler also called for equitable treatment, a familiar gripe of independents. "We have to compete on a level field," he said.

The panelists also described their use of customer service and signature perishable items to set themselves apart.

Bitter said her company resumed carrying a powdered detergent product after she personally handled a complaint from a woman whose arthritis made it hard to use the liquid form.

"We're hearing larger companies are starting to do market research - as if it's something new," Bitter said. "I spend a lot of time at the store level, and I would bet at Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway, a CEO couldn't possibly get in their stores."

Recognizing she can't compete with big-box stores on Tide detergent, she often takes it off the weekly ad and in its place advertises a local brand, Austin's. "Tide offers very little value to us," she said. "Odds are I'll have customers come in my stores and buy Tide anyway if I'm priced competitively."

Niemann Foods recently overhauled its County Markets banner to convey a warm atmosphere and stress signature fresh and natural foods.

Fresh Encounter is emphasizing personalized service, 10 for $10 items, fresh-cut meat, charitable giving and private label.

Asked about the biggest consumer change affecting the business, Needler said his stores would address food safety concerns by focusing on natural meats.

Bitter said her stores are stressing their takeout food and building bigger frozens sections to meet demand for convenience.

Niemann said he sought to tap into the connection between food and family.

"Food and family go together," he said. "That's where we see things. We want to be right in the middle of that."